Norman Doors: Don’t Know Whether to Push or Pull? Blame Design.

Some doors require printed instructions to operate, while others are so poorly designed that they lead people to do the exact opposite of what they need to in order to open them. Their shapes or details may suggest that pushing should work, when in fact pulling is required (or the other way around). Roman Mars teamed up with Joe Posner of Vox to bring you this story of bad doors:

A so-called “Norman Door” has design elements that either give you the wrong usability signals to the point that special signage is needed to clarify how they work.

norman door pull

There is no reason for these backward designs to persist, since various working solutions to the problem already exist, and yet these horrible doors are still all around us.

design of everyday things

This peculiar design problem, which finds manifestations in other designed objects as well (think: light switches and sink handles), is part of what motivated Don Norman to write his now-classic book The Design of Everyday Things (hence: Norman Door). An advocate of user-centric (or: people-oriented) design, his insights bring together aspects of usability, engineering, and cognitive science. The book provides an enlightening look into the intersection of these disciplines and design.

Comments (15)


  1. Sandra

    It made me so happy that you did this topic! I love Norman’s book. One correction though – the original title was actually ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Things’ (Wikipedia has it wrong too). Norman says somewhere that designers prefer the new title but psychologists like the original play on Freud.

  2. Jimmy Stateside

    Thank you!
    With all the brilliant design out there, it’s frustrating to see such a common, simple object like a door designed wrong.
    My previous office (custom spec’d by the marketing agency that occupied the space) had those same glass doors that the Vox office has. Two years in that office and I still never got them right. Also one employee busted her nose walking into one thinking it was open. Amazing how one door can have so many design flaws.

  3. I spent four of the most frustrating/embarrassing minutes of my middle-aged life trying to get into the fan shop for FC Sparta in Prague in May 2015. My colleague and I arrived just as the shop was opening. We walked up to the front door with confidence, barely a sentence of Czech between us. The door was locked. The side doors were locked. The shop was empty, except for a cashier who seemed not to notice us. Knocking on the door won her attention, but she merely nodded and raised her eyebrows. The signal: permission to enter. We tugged again. Nothing. She seemed to lose interest in us and went back to folding Sparta kits on the counter.

    We conferred, trying to figure out this unexpected test of shopping etiquette. Our only adjustment was to tug harder, sure that we were somehow not pulling correctly. She looked at us again and made some indecipherable hand signal. We tugged. The pressure was mounting; a tour bus had pulled up and would soon unleash its throng. Oh, how we pulled on that door. We walked away to survey from a short distance. The bus was hissing.

    I don’t know how it happened—I’m sure it wasn’t intentional—but the slightest of nudges forward, and we were in the shop. The cashier rolled her eyes in the most spectacular display of tourist fatigue that I saw in those two weeks. Needless to say, our Ph.D.s didn’t help us at all in this fight with a door that had a pull handle but needed to be pushed. A small child could probably have used just his/her pinkies to push that door open.

    1. Léon Vaudoyer

      Rule of thumb: If you can’t see the hinges, it’s most likely “push” to open.

  4. Steve

    Great video. But why would Norman name the poorly designed doors after himself? Seems like he’s accepting blame for something he didn’t do.

    1. Caleb

      I’m taking the Norman Door name more as “the door Norman would have used”, because if it would have happened to anyone, it would have happened to Norman.

  5. Jane Oliver


    (sorry for shouting)

    As a designer, I walk through the world allowing things like Norman doors to bother me more than they probably should. More than once have I found myself in the middle of a “if you’re suppose to push, there should be a plate, if you’re suppose to pull, there should be a handle” tirade only to look up to see the perplexed faces of my companions who can’t figure out why it matters so much to me. Design should make your life easier, not more confusing. Function should always trump form. The sure sign of a hackneyed designer is someone who chose their elements because they “looked cool” (like the door handle in the video). It doesn’t matter if it looks cool if it makes the product a pain in the ass to use. AAAAGH! The sign of a truly great designer is one who can create function wrapped in a beautiful form.

    I also advise that you not dine out with me unless you want to get into a deep discussion about why the menu design sucks. Maybe you guys could do a podcast about that!

    1. Sounds ok to me. I always critique menu designs and sometimes even complain to the manager if it’s really bad. When I explain to them how impacts their bottom line they suddenly begin to pay attention.

  6. Dorian stedman

    So love the tirade, just so you know if you have a door that has a pull handle on it and a label that says “push” you will always pull as you brain process visual signals way faster than it can read language and convert, so any sign on the door using language is going to be an instant fail….

  7. Rhett

    I think the only way around the tyranny of bad doors is to look for the hinges. It could be a good lifehack :D

  8. Rhett

    I think the only way around the tyranny of bad doors (although not ideal) is to look for the hinges. It could be a good lifehack :D

  9. Observer

    There is a reason for everything. I am sure the reason for these doors is that they can all be manufactured one way and put on whatever entryway in whatever position needed. Sometimes cost and manufacturing trump usability.

  10. Jumper

    Now how about I point out how many lavatory sinks require you to stoop over and strain your back to wash your hands.

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