Light Switch Designs: Common Design Problems

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are there many different light switch designs? What can light switch designs teach us about design thinking?

There are nearly endless varieties of light switch designs, which can be frustrating in daily life. Light switch designs also serve as great examples for both good and bad design.

Keep reading to find out more about light switch designs and how it helps explain ideas of good and bad design.

Light Switch Designs

Switches are another notorious offender when it comes to discoverability. The design and placement of switches need to provide two types of information: what type of object they control, and which specific object in the room corresponds to that specific switch. Traditionally, switches for all the lights in a room are grouped into one panel. This makes it easy to control everything from one spot but gets confusing quickly if the switches aren’t arranged logically. For public spaces with many different users, this may require adding homemade labels as signifiers. 

Is there a better way? The author recommends two solutions: a natural mapping approach (as discussed in Chapter 3) or an activity-centered approach. In the stovetop example, natural mapping is fairly straightforward, since all four controls and all four burners are in view simultaneously. For a lighting system where not all the lights are in view from any one spot, an overhead diagram of the room or entire floor makes mapping much easier. 

Another option to streamline multiple controls is an activity-centered approach, where controls are grouped by activity rather than by type. Lecture halls are a great candidate for this approach. Typical lecture halls have all the light controls grouped together on one panel, all the projector controls on another, and any other system controls randomly placed elsewhere. An activity-centered approach would instead group these controls based on activities, with options like “lecture mode” or “video mode.” For example, in “lecture mode,” the projector screen would lower into place, the projector itself would turn on and allow for presentation controls, and the lights would calibrate to illuminate both the screen and the speaker. 

  • One caveat with activity-centered approaches is that it is impossible to predict every activity that will happen in a space. There needs to be a way to override the system to allow each control to be adjusted independently for those cases. 
Light Switch Designs: Common Design Problems

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  • How psychology plays a part in the design of objects you encounter daily
  • Why pushing a door that was meant to be pulled isn't your fault
  • How bad design leads to more human errors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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