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Bad Design 101: Door Handles

10 July 2011 4 Comments

Here’s something I saw at the Damen Brown Line Station. What’s wrong with this door?

If you’ve read Donald Norman‘s classic book The Design of Everyday Things the answer is obvious: the affordance is all wrong. The design of the handle absolutely screams “pull this door open”, but the door is actually meant to be pushed, as emphasized by the signs above the handles.

Your response might be “Hey dummy, the signs clearly tell you to push the doors. What’s the problem?” Bad response. Why should doors need instructions? In Turn Signals Are The Facial Expressions Of Automobiles Norman explains:

I have a rule of thumb for spotting bad design: Look for posted instructions. Whenever you see signs explaining how to use something it is a badly designed piece of equipment.

If the doors were actually meant to be pulled, the signs wouldn’t be necessary. The “push” signs really say “bad design”. A better design? Replace the handles with flat metal plates that sit against the surface of the door: obvious to push, impossible to pull, and no signage required.

Using Norman’s rule of thumb, I spotted another troubled door just down the street:

Why does this door need a sign that says “THIS IS NOT AN ENTRANCE”? Maybe because doors are normally used as entrances, especially doors with handles on the outside that are designed to be pulled. Here’s an idea: remove the exterior handle from the door and the sign won’t be necessary.

Is genuinely good design so unintuitive that in 2011 we still haven’t nailed the user experience for doors yet? Apparently it is, which is why The Design of Everyday Things is worth reading. Norman’s books will make you think about design from the user’s perspective, and you’ll certainly never look at door handles and posted instructions the same way again.


  • Shawn Cornally said:


    Another killer post. I think you can extend this into our ever-present battle for more engaging educational experiences.

    Why do we need so much instruction, wrangling, and lab procedures? Because the user experience is unintuitive. If I put a few “pull” handles on “push” doors, the kids will start to become addicted to the my instruction for learning. Their initial reaction, to throw things down the air track and see what happens is totally squashed when someone says, “No, that’s actually not a door. Did you set up logger pro before you actually knew what data you wanted?”

  • Matt Van Iten said:

    This reminds me of a Gary Larson classic.
    Midvale School for the Gifted

  • Dr. Tae (author) said:

    I wanted to mention that cartoon in my post, but the door in it is actually self-consistent (which means it doesn’t need a sign) so it wasn’t a great example of a badly designed door.

    I think the cartoon would be a lot funnier to me if the door had a push bar or flat plate on it. Doors shouldn’t make us feel stupid.

  • hey said:

    Hey Dr. Tae I was thinking the same thing today when I saw one of those push doors disguised as a pull door. By the way, I thought your talk on learning was really interesting.