What is a Norman Door?

What is a Norman Door?

Have you ever walked up to a door and gave it a good yank, instead of the gentle push it needs to open? All surrounding eyes seem to shine a spotlight on you as you struggle to do something as simple as open a door. You are not alone, and it is not entirely your fault. 

You’ve just run into a “Norman” Door. The Norman Door, named after design extraordinaire Don Norman, is any door that is confusing to use. Their design elements visually show wrong usability signals so that special signage is needed to clarify how they work. Without a sign, a user has to wonder whether to push or pull, creating embarrassing moments like the clip below:

mascot walking into glass door

To determine if a door is a Norman Door, ask yourself whether the door makes sense as you approach it. I challenge you to look for these doors as you progress through your day. I guarantee you’ll see them everywhere, from the door you use to enter your apartment building or to your office. These backward designs seem built into our society. 

Don Norman spent a year in England and became so frustrated using the doors and light switches that he wrote an entire book about it. In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman tackles the troubles with the way we interact with the everyday objects around us. An advocate of people-oriented design, Norman offers insights that bring together aspects of usability, engineering, and cognitive science. 

Don Norman Headshot

Don “Let me open the door for you” Norman

It should be immediately obvious how to interact with a door. It can either be opened or closed by pushing, pulling, or sliding. Handles, knobs, divots, plates, latches, etc. all hint at how to use a particular door. This property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used is called affordance. A horizontal bar across a door, to most, indicates I should push it, and if you find that it is the opposite, it is a sign of poor design. Never blame yourself for not being able to figure out a simple action!

There are safety repercussions as well. If you have to quickly escape a burning building, you do not want to run into any obstacles as you exit. Although, comically, a door that constantly changes its affordance, could be used to deter or trap criminals while stealing, but I guess that’s why we have locks and security systems. 

The perfect door is one where you do not have to think twice about how to use it. You walk up to a passage-way and are effortlessly on the other side. So pay attention the next time you interact with a door or any object for that matter. Does it spark joy or does it need some help from not only Marie Kondo but the ideas of Don Norman?