Niels Diffrient, who passed away last Saturday at 84, is unanimously called the godfather of ergonomics. He championed function and comfort as the most important principles of design–made evident in his love for the umbrella, the pencil, and the Post-it note. Born in rural Mississippi, he studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, worked for the likes of Eero Saarinen, and later lived in California and Connecticut.
In a 2002 TED talk, Diffrient waxes nostalgic about his early adoration for airplanes: “It built a romance. Even the parts of the airplane had French names–the fuselage. It was something that got into your spirit.” So he drew them. When that wasn’t enough to satiate his love, he built model airplanes. But he found that the drawings didn’t actually provide enough material to create them in 3-D–you had to learn the physicality of it. Diffrient never did become a pilot (although he would eventually work on the graphic identity for American Airlines), but you can see how an early infatuation with aeronautics later became part of the DNA of his work.
Henry Dreyfuss, a prolific American industrial designer who worked for clients like John Deere, Polaroid, and Singer Sewing Machine, recruited Diffrient in the 1960s. This was a defining moment for the young designer, and not just for the opportunity to work with a high-profile roster of clients. In a 2003 interview published in the New York Times, he says: “Dreyfuss introduced me to ‘human-factors engineering’ in 1955–it’s now called ergonomics. We worked on making the machines fit people. I had worked in Eero Saarinen’s office on furniture. I learned a lot from Eero. We didn’t know a lot about ergonomics then. We learned it, pardon the pun, by the seat of our pants.”
Diffrient studied X-rays of human posture in sitting positions to better understand how bone structure and musculature respond to the chair in question. He realized that people will generally sit wherever, without bothering to adjust the seat to their comfort needs. He applied all of this in a three-volume reference book called Humanscale, which examines how job-specific seating could be designed based off the ultimate set of data: the human body. True ergonomic design would adapt to you, instead of asking you to read a manual.
Diffrient’s studies on spine-to-chair relationships became fully realized in 1998. Bob King, the founder and CEO of the office products company Humanscale, tapped Diffrient’s talents in an effort to compete with the iconic Herman Miller Aeron chair. Diffrient had just the thing: a prototype that could adjust without dials or levers. After a meeting with Diffrient, King reportedly said, “I have to have that chair.” They launched the Freedom and Liberty, and later the lower-priced World chair, and made Humanscale a player in a market previously dominated by the likes of Herman Miller and Knoll.
Diffrient’s insights were ahead of his time: His late career success dovetailed neatly with the dot-com boom and the early beginnings of entire days logged in front of a computer screen. It’s fitting, and even somewhat poetic, that his emphasis on data-driven design would come of age now, in a numbers-hungry world. “I’m looking to find out how the data may be used to improve a situation,” he said. “Why would you design something if it didn’t improve the human condition?”