Essays & Articles


Interior Design Versus Product Design

Originally published in InteriorMotives

To an outsider like me, someone versed in the field of product design, especially that of high-technology, the world of automotive interior design seems very different, very anachronistic. One theme of this issue is the influence of Product Design, so let me compare that world with automobile interior design.

From my outsider’s point of view, automobile interior design seems to be first and foremost about appearance, about style. Function matters, but it is not the primary focus, except for anomalies, such as when consumers force cupholders down the throats of reluctant designers or insist upon easy to fold rear seats for SUVs and the ilk. It feels as if dashboard designers see functions as irritants: so many controls and devices, so little room. How can we ever manage?

The world of product design is very different. In product design function matters: it often is the primary focus. When I look at automobile interior design from the point of view of product design, I see all the conflicting requirements of drivers and passengers as great opportunities and interesting challenges rather than as irritants.

Automobile design still seems designer-centered. This type of design wins prizes, gives great attention to the individual designers, and often gets displayed in museums. Great for egos, great for the art world, great for advertisements. But for the customers, the people who use the products: Bad, bad, bad.

My world of product design is called human-centered design, where the focus is upon the people who are to use the product. We start off with extensive observations, watching people go about their everyday lives. Ethnographic research. If I were to do this in the automobile industry, I would watch the target audience: middle-aged people driving sport cars. Families shopping at the local markets, loading up their cars with purchases, children, strollers, car seats. Young adults out for a good time, picking up friends and cruising. I would watch these people inside their cars, trying to see how existing designs accommodated their needs for interaction, comfort, entertainment, conversation, handling family squabbles. I would then use these observations to determine what functions need to be accommodated.

And then for the design itself, I would do really rapid prototypes (out of foam and cardboard, in days or hours), and try them out on my target population. Iterative design, with each prototype and its test leading to a more refined and structured prototype. After many rapid cycles we would reach a sensible result that took into account all the varied constraints of design. The design team, mind you, would include a wide variety of talents: social scientists who understood the real needs, talented designers and prototypers, people from sales and marketing who knew what the marketplace would pay for (and how much), engineers who would know how practical the design was from an assembly and maintenance point of view, and of course safety experts.

Unwieldy? Time consuming? Expensive? No, on the contrary. Early changes are cheap – late changes expensive. By getting these different opinions involved form the very beginning, less tinkering and adjustments are required later on. And the results are apt to be far more satisfying to the eventual users, customers, and purchasers. Today, the interior seems to be evaluated primarily by appearance. Appearance matters, but we are talking here about a living space: functionality matters even more.

Consider cupholders, folding seats that are actually easy to fold, flexible space arrangements, separately adjustable climate controls and entertainment centers? Why did it take so long to begin to address these aspects of interior design? I think because auto design, deep in its heart, still relies on the star system of design.

It is time for a change, time to take the influence of Product Design seriously.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including “Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things.” He lives in northern California at Write him at [email protected].