Ergonomic Design and Principles | Humanscale's Inspiration


Selecting an Ergonomic Office Chair


Ergonomic design takes the principles of ergonomics and applies them to a variety of human situations in order to better optimize a human’s interaction with their environment. These interactions can take place almost anywhere, including environments such as the home or workplace. The International Ergonomics Association explains that ergonomists analyze these interactions to improve a person’s health while at the same time increasing their overall performance. Through ergonomic design, designers focus on human usability, aligning a person’s environment, equipment and tasks.

The science of ergonomics focuses on the human body and how it interacts with its environment. Ergonomic design takes that knowledge and uses it to create a situation where the human benefits. Benefits can take the form of better usability, health or productivity. Ergonomic design has been transformed since its origins, which some historians say date back to the early Egyptians. While this article may focus more on the design of modern-day ergonomic furniture, it’s important to note that ergonomic design has been applied to a whole host of situations over the years. For example, ergonomic designers have reengineered remote controls, operating rooms, chairs, cockpits, and sewing machines to better fit the user. The principles of ergonomics remain the same, but the situations and environments that ergonomic designers have tackled continue to change and improve. Through ergonomic design, designers have created products that better fit the user or consumer. The benefits of these design methods can be seen in everyday life, extending into one’s productivity, health, and safety.

It is worth noting that while advances in our understanding of the human anatomy have led to advances in ergonomics, the advances in the latter have not always equaled the advances of the former. That is - most things we interact with on a daily basis are not designed in a very ergonomic manner. Exceptions do exist, however. As far as organizations go, Humanscale has done more than anyone else to make practical ergonomic applications to furniture and consumer goods that we use every day. The following is an analysis of how Humanscale and its employees go about designing furniture that exemplify quality ergonomics.

Design as a Science

The science of ergonomics extends directly into the ergonomic design world. Ergonomists have a detailed understanding of the human body as it relates to specific tasks and its environment. The primary goal of ergonomic design is to ensure that technology and the user fit beautifully and work together to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency. According to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, ergonomic designers and human factors specialists use scientific data detailing a human’s capabilities to better design equipment and work stations. The Industrial and Operations Engineering department explains that design can eliminate unnecessary strain or restrictions on a human or "user." Ergonomics examines the interaction of technology in the workplace with the human body, says the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. This science draws on principles from the fields of anatomy, anthropometry, engineering, industrial design, physiology, and psychology to design with greater usability in mind.

Ergonomic Design for the Office

Ergonomists around the world have been using ergonomic principles to design furniture and workstations that improve efficiency and health in the workplace. As is evident by so many ergonomic furniture designers today, furniture can be both aesthetically pleasing and ergonomically designed, serving a dual purpose.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society notes that in today’s modern office, ergonomics is applied in the workplace to relieve stress placed on muscles, joints, bones, and eyesight. Without the use of ergonomics or ergonomic furniture, these stresses could otherwise lead to discomfort and long-term health issues. Ergonomic furniture and related products can help relieve repetitive strain in the workplace. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration agrees and recommends applying ergonomics to your workstation to reduce the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder.

Human Factors in Engineering—Niels Diffrient

Niels Diffrient

To ensure their products best fit the user and their tasks, designers around the world are creating ergonomic furniture and applying ergonomic principles to their designs. One such designer is Niels Diffrient, an American designer who is leading the way in human factors engineering. With a background in engineering, architecture and design, Diffrient set out to change the way furniture is designed with an intense focus on the user, and he has certainly accomplished that goal.

In 1974, Diffrient co-authored a three-volume publication, Humanscale, which quickly became a go-to reference for designers around the world. A 2007 Forbes article claimed Diffrient’s first volume of Humanscale altered the way industrial designers began new projects, and urged them to give as much consideration to usability as they would to aesthetics. Diffrient has been called a “pioneer of ergonomic design” for his ability to truly understand the human body and how it moves. According to his bio at Humanscale, Diffrient believes that function drives design, and he works to completely understand how function affects a human’s experience. He explains, “A design should look good and be appealing, but without compromising human factors.” Aesthestics should only improve the technical design, not take away from it.

While Diffrient encourages designers to use human factors engineering on all product design, he has focused his career on ergonomic seating, maintaining that human characteristics should drive design. Among Diffrient’s accomplishments are the Diffrient Chair (1979), Freedom Chair (1999), Diffrient Light (2002), and Liberty Chair (2004). He has won 24 awards in the field of ergonomic furniture and seating and has over 20 patents for his furniture designs. His awards include the 1996 Chrysler Award for Innovation, the 2002 National Design Award for Product Design from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the 2005 Legend Award from Contract magazine. Diffrient continues to design ergonomic furniture that brings healthier and more comfortable seating into the workplace. His designs and human scale research have enhanced the ergonomic design world, and his work with human factors engineering has inspired designers around the globe.


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