Things that Make Us Smart

Donald A. Norman, 1993
Read July 2010

Norman’s book speaks from both a human-centered design perspective and a cognitive science perspective. The first 5 chapters in particular are extremely relevant for my thesis, and will provide insight into people’s learning process, and how design can aid in that process.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on two modes of cognition: experiential cognition and reflective cognition (15-17). Experiential cognition is “a state in which we perceive and react to the events around us, efficiently and effortlessly” and reflective cognition is “that of comparison and contrast, of thought, of decision-making.” Both are necessary for life (16). Norman says reflection

“is a natural, human state. But effective reflection requires some structure and organization. Reflection is greatly aided by systematic procedures and methods, and these are learned primarily by being taught” (17).

Of experience, he says

“one can have new experiences in this manner, but not new ideas, new concepts, advances in human understanding” (17).

Because of this, I believe that I need to focus on fostering reflection through my thesis project. This doesn’t mean that experience will be completely left out—perhaps participants can reflect on an experience. It seems, however, that reflection will be the best way to promote thoughtful awareness of environmental issues. Norman also introduces the concept of restructuring, which is “the hard part of learning, where new conceptual skills are acquired” (30).

Chapters 3 and 4 contain many examples of information design, and chapter 3 provides guidelines for good representations. He urges designers to make representations clear and appropriate to the artifact being represented, and reminds us that “the mind is well-equipped to retain large amounts of meaningful material, as long as the material has pattern and structure” (77). This is a great quote to keep in mind as I begin to create artifacts. He brings up the idea of pattern again in later chapters, saying that we “remember the substance and meaning of events, not the details… we tend to remember novel and unexpected events better than regular, recurring ones… [and we] are pattern-recognition animals, matching things that appear similar to past events” (131). In addition, “people map problems back onto their own personal knowledge and experiences” (228).

Being able to present information about the environment in a way that it has substance and meaning, and so that viewers can map it to their own lives, is a challenging task, but one that I think will be crucial in gaining participants’ interest and attention, and in leading them to a state of reflection. As Norman says, “the trick in teaching is to entice and motivate the students into excitement and interest in the topic, and then to give them the proper tools to reflect” (30).


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