Niels Diffrient is one of a kind. For the last 30 years, his ground breaking work has blended ergonomics, engineering, and visual aesthetics without compromising a single aspect of this balanced triad.
TFM Editor Heidi Schwartz recently had the pleasure of absorbing a bit of his insight while hearing his wonderful stories.
TFM: How did you get involved in the field of product design?
ND: I was born in a farmhouse in Mississippi where we only had two books: one was the Bible, and the other was the Sears & Roebuck catalog. I was really crazy about what I saw in the catalog, so I started drawing what I saw in order to relate to it!
Since I especially liked to draw airplanes, I decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. Naturally, I thought this meant drawing airplanes. Later I found out it didn’t; it meant calculus, engineering, laboratories, and other things. So I switched to the art department, and then I decided to become a painter. These choices were possible at the technical high school I attended.
After high school, someone suggested I try a school located outside of Detroit, so I applied to Cranbrook [Academy of Art] and was accepted. I had never even seen it. I just knew I had to go somewhere. When I arrived there, I thought I had died and gone to heaven! I’m still involved with Cranbrook on its board.
TFM: Did the hands on aspect of your educational experience influence your work?
ND: At Cranbrook (which is not your typical school), you’re given your studio space and told to go to it. I could consult with anybody I wanted, whether that person was in design, architecture, or sculpture.
Carl Milles, the sculptor, was still there, so I worked a little bit under him. The elder Saarinen, Eliel, was there at the same time, too. I did some studies in architecture under him. You could do anything you wanted there, as long as you produced something.
I had to work part time at the [Eero] Saarinen office to support myself, but even so, that didn’t stop me from working all night. Studio space was open 24 hours; it worked out fine for me.
TFM: Can you explain your approach to the design process?
ND: I design more like an engineer. I start out with all the functional characteristics of something, and then I work out mechanisms. I’ve argued with enough engineers to know what it’s all about—at least in things as simple as chairs.
That’s the main reason I work on my own and feel I can do the whole product. If I were in automobiles or electronics, I’d have to consult with somebody more knowledgeable in engineering. The minute you do that, you don’t have the freedom to mix and match.
Consider this example: take ergonomics (which I know quite well), engineering (which I’m getting better at), and visual aesthetics. Put the three together and balance them out. You give a little in one place, and you add a little in another. You don’t want to sacrifice one for the other. To me, that’s the most important part of design.
TFM: What professional accomplishment makes you the most proud?
ND: My latest! Seriously, I’m getting better with each project. You learn over time from each one, and they all build on each other. I never vary my approach, which is always based on performance for the user.
I didn’t do a chair from 1984 until the Freedom chair  for Humanscale. While I was off working on office systems and tables, I was also building my own chair prototypes. As a result, I was becoming much more advanced in the subtleties of the operational characteristics of the chair.
When Bob King (president and founder of Humanscale) came to ask me to do a chair, I already had a prototype ready to show him. It happened to be what he wanted. Talk about serendipity!
I’m very proud of the Freedom chair, because I was able to bring many things together that I hadn’t fully accomplished before. All the principles are new.
TFM: What changes have you observed in the design field?
ND: There is an increased emphasis on ergonomics, which has a good and a bad side. While the increased knowledge of the concept has been good, the term has unfortunately become a catch phrase. Of course, everything I’ve designed has followed the principles of human factors engineering (which is really what it should be called).
The earliest ergonomic chairs were “in your face”; they seemed to be purposefully ugly. This gave the impression, “oh, this must be ergonomic, because it’s so ugly!”
That doesn’t have to be the case if you put enough emphasis on balancing out the various requirements, as I previously mentioned. Then it all works equally well.
TFM: Your finished products always reflect your respect for the vital relationship of a product to its user. How did you arrive at this philosophy?
ND: The first time I ever encountered it and expressed it in a cogent way was with Henry Dreyfuss. Henry had gotten involved in human factors during World War II and decided that was an important outlook to carry into professional design.
Dreyfuss set up a process in his office with a gentleman named Alvin Tilley. Al had accumulated data over many years of applying human factors to all the products Henry did. As a result of this inspiration, I just felt as though it was a fundamental part of design and absorbed it all.
TFM: What role does the end user play in your design process?
ND: If you focus on the people who are going to use the design, you get all you need to know.
Human problems are all over the place. You don’t solve problems by becoming a specialist in anything. Becoming an active, informed generalist will solve more problems than being a specialist any day—at least, human problems.
TFM: What news event has had the biggest impact on product design?
ND: Although I do read the New York Times, I don’t think current events have a strong impact on product design. Clearly, when it comes to manufacturing, the economic climate has a lot to do with it, but it shouldn’t be dominant.
As far as ergonomic legislation is concerned, it’s a good thing the OSHA regulation didn’t pass—as long as companies comply because they feel it is the right thing to do. I believe enough in free enterprise to think it’s always better if you don’t force people to do something.
To a degree, ergonomic consciousness is happening already. This isn’t so much because everybody is altruistic; it’s because they listen to the news and hear about how many injuries there are in the workplace. They begin to see there’s some economic sense to it. It’s easier to buy a good chair than it is to repair somebody’s lower back.
TFM: What will drive organizations to recognize the relationship between ergonomics, productivity, and the bottom line?
ND: The best indicator is the product itself. If you get a good product that works well, it says much more than any sales pitch. But if top managers don’t know what the product is capable of, how can they make a decision?
I do everything I can to make my product self-evident, and it sells itself to many people. But it’s foolish for any company to make a decision that affects its workers on that scale without getting some greater depth of information about what the product does.
TFM: How have facility managers influenced product design?
ND: From what I’ve seen, they’re better to deal with because they do have to get informed about what their users need.
In the old days, the interior designer was not particularly focused on efficiency and human factors. The facility manager was usually the only one in the mix I could talk ergonomics with.