Door handles (how to design universally)

Design Pet Peeve #3: Door handles. Simple things, door handles, until that time when they are difficult to operate or visually unfathomable.

Take, for example, the long horizontal “crash-bar” doors set at approximate hip-height on millions of public doors worldwide.  Most have some sort of visual cue on the non-hinge side of the bar informing the user on which end of the bar to push.  One design that is used more often than it should be, however, has no such cue, forcing the user to guess which end to push. These have sometimes been referred to as “Norman doors,” because of Donald A. Norman’s discussion of their inappropriate design in his book The Design of Everyday Things (1988. New York, Basic Books).

When confronted with such an offending door, I always push as close to the middle of the bar as possible, in hopes that the sheer force will open the door. This is not a solution, however, if the user has his or her hands full, is young or has a mobility issue, the mechanism is stiff, the door is heavy, or the door is being used in an emergency.  The solution is to make sure the look of the handle telegraphs to the user how it works. This holds true for the design of any object: the physical attributes should be transparent (obvious) enough to dictate its function. This transparency of design speaks directly to the “adaptive unconscious” part of our brains that allows us to make rapid decisions without thinking about them, as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005, New York, Little Brown and Co., Time Warner Book Group).

While we are on the subject of doors, I would like to mention exterior car door handles.  Too many handles are designed so that they can be opened only in one way, by turning the hand 90° to the body with the fingers pointing upward, inserting the fingers under the handle, and pulling up or straight out.  This design may aid aerodynamic efficiency while the car is moving, but limits a user’s options when that person is in a hurry, operating an unfamiliar door, or trying to open the door in the dark, with full hands, or with dexterity issues.  The fix would be for car door handles to be openable from either above with the fingers pointing down or below with the fingers pointing up.

What’s my point? To design and place human-scale objects taking into account the largest number of potential users with the widest range of physical abilities; in other words, to design universally.

Design Considerations. The following are questions to ask while developing designs for any two- or three-dimensional purpose.  Not all necessarily apply to all designs. The most important consideration from the beginning of the design process is the ultimate outcome of the design, the end-user, and their interaction with one-another.

A.  Aesthetics: Is it appropriate, arresting, beautiful, well composed, critically evaluated, well defined, stylistically evolved, in a genre, historically, culturally, and temporally relevant, effective, well laid out, useful, visually appealing?

B.  Accessibility:  Is the outcome approachable and usable by the greatest number of people?

C.  Availability:  Is it handy, easily obtainable, and fully functioning?

D.  Cost:  What is the true price for manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, upkeep, upgrades, and disposal  or reuse?

E.  Disposal:  How would the designed outcome end its functional life?

F.  Durability:  Will the outcome hold up as it’s designed to?

G.  Function:  Is its operation obvious, and does it work well?

H.   Influence: Will the outcome further the course of design thinking?

I.  Materials:  Are they optimal for the outcome’s purpose in terms of cost, durability, look, feel, and reuse or  disposal?

J.  Maintenance:  Can it be easily cleaned, repaired, stored, and upgraded?

K.  Practicality:  Is it sensible, utilitarian, and beneficial?

L.  Reliability:  Can the outcome’s function, longevity, and safety be counted on?

M.  Reuse:  Are the components and materials upcyclable?

N.  Sustainability:  Are the outcome’s manufacture, materials, use, and reuse as “green” and non-invasive as possible?

O.  Transparency:  Are the form and function of the design outcome and its parts logical, obvious, and easy to understand?

P.  Universality:  Will the outcome be usable by individuals with the widest range of mental and physical abilities?

Q.  Usefulness:  Do we need it?

The Design Process. There is no standard timeline, system, or staged operation that holds true for every design process.  However, the following is a generic guide that can be adapted for use through any design development. It has been condensed from several sources. These steps are listed in more-or-less chronological order, but need not necessarily be followed that way, or in a linear fashion.  Steps may be intertwined or overlapped for any given project. Communication, sketches, prototypes, and tests, for example, are tools to be used throughout, especially in the spirit of collaboration.

A.  Start.

  1. Identify & define the project
  2. Create a team
  3. Communicate intentions and parameters

B.  Ask questions.

  1. Gather information
  2. Research and analyze
  3. Visit, experiment, or test (wherever applicable)
  4. Use empathy and anthropology

C.  Plan.

  1. Trust instincts
  2. Investigate
  3. Imagine
  4. Dream
  5. Experiment
  6. Sketch
  7. Design
  8. Develop concepts

D.  Implement the plan.

  1. Schematics
  2. Final development
  3. Permits
  4. Working drawings
  5. Prototype/test
  6. Construction/manufacture
  7. Marketing/distribution/opening (unveiling)/PR

E.  Curate.

  1. Evaluations
  2. Alterations/adjustments
  3. Material & information storage
  4. Reports and/or documentation of the process, samples, and parameters

For next time: Design Elements and Principals

Comments, anyone? To find out about my background and experience or send comments, go to


Dennis O’Brien