Lessons from Jack Hockenberry

Confessions from the son of an industrial designer.

On the University of Cincinnati diploma that hung in my parents’ bedroom it said that Jack Kenneth Hockenberry was an industrial designer. This handsome document (with his name written out in impressive calligraphy) solved the mystery of the K in my father’s initials and created the mystery of what he did for a living: it said nothing about what an industrial designer actually did. It sounded very important, and when asked, my dad would tell me his job was to “figure out how to make things.” For a mid-twentieth-century child in Dayton, Ohio, this conceded much to the imagination; and in the hometown of Orville and Wilbur Wright, there was much to imagine.

I was born in Dayton. My father’s first job was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, named for the inventors of the airplane. Dayton was where Wilbur and Orville solved the problem of heavier-than-air flight in their neighborhood bike shop. I could perhaps be excused for thinking that figuring out how to make things was close to what the flight brothers had done. My dad the designer was solving the industrial riddles of his time, part of a fraternity that included the likes of Thomas Edison and Archimedes. The way I figured it, Jack Kenneth Hockenberry made things, so he must be an inventor. When queried, Dad would use Leonardo da Vinci as his own example of a designer, referring to his sketches of helicopters, lifting jacks, spring-driven cars, and parachutes. He called da Vinci the first and greatest industrial designer of all time. This wasn’t helpful to a child trying to figure out how the Mona Lisa and all the strange tools in my dad’s office were related.

While other kids in the neighborhood had their dad’s muscle cars, motorcycles, speedboats, or fancy lawn mowers in the garage, my dad had a large drafting table, ten different kinds of compasses, and a basketful of straight edges in the basement. Our garage housed a green Volkswagen van, which was insanely exotic for 1962. My dad believed that rotary-powered lawn mowers were horribly designed death machines that made ugly noises and smelled bad. We always had manual push mowers, a design decision that bore directly on the time it took to complete my weekly chores. This safety zealotry was the first inkling that being a product designer was different from being an inventor. It became clear that my dad was unlikely to have joined Orville in the cockpit of an untested flying machine. Rather he would have suggested that the prone position of the pilot and the awkward placement of his control levers were far from ergonomic and quite unsuited for flights longer than 12 seconds.

A lifetime of memories offers a portfolio in time of my father’s various projects. There were the first ergonomic cockpit designs for military aircraft that he helped develop at Wright-Patterson in the late 1950s and the designs for Kodak in the 1960s that became part of the Instamatic camera program. For most of my childhood, Dad was a designer at IBM, working on consoles and control mechanisms for the 360 and 370 series mainframes and their many accessories. The projects manifested themselves in colorful brochures, mock-ups, and especially the models that became dreamy spaceships and alien landscapes. I visited most of the planets in the solar system seated in front of a wood and foam-core model of what became an IBM microfiche reader. If the presence of these IBM prototypes in my toy box violated any intellectual property safeguards, I was unaware of them. All I could tell was that Dad’s spectacular office artifacts put my silly conventional toys to shame.

Around the dinner table I absorbed the challenges facing a designer at IBM in the 1960s. From kid-decoded conversations between Mom and Dad it was clear that the company, indeed the world, was infested with people who were ignorant of design. As my father’s loyal son, I grew up hating these people my parents called engineers. These characters were somehow distinct from the jolly fellows who drove locomotives in my storybooks. They were soulless people devoid of creativity who were on a mission to make all things look like metal boxes. As I attempted to learn more details of what designers did and what design was all about, I discovered another group of evil non­designers. I stumbled on them while looking at a glossy magazine ad for a 1965 Pontiac Bonneville 421. The word design would occasionally pop up in car ads, and I asked Dad if an industrial designer was responsible for the chrome lines and futuristic dashboard appointments on the Pontiac. He looked at the ad with unconcealed disgust and declared that no real product designer would care to have anything to do with such wasteful trivialities. “That’s what stylists do. They get people to buy new cars for no reason.”

Beyond the engineer’s mere ignorance of design, these “stylists” seemed part of some far more decadent conspiracy to undermine the native intelligence of American consumers. I would only find out later that it was John Z. DeLorean, chief stylist at Pontiac during its most successful period, who was the leader of this conspiracy to get people to buy cars. “Buying cars is fine,” my father would say to his confused son, “but it has to be for the right reasons.” Later, as the energy crisis of the 1970s took hold and fuel-efficient Japanese and German cars began their encroachment on the U.S. market, my father claimed that the supremacy of the stylists and engineers was about to end.

In the mid-1960s while I listened to Hendrix, Dad’s hero was Ralph Nader. Jack Hockenberry reveled particularly in the final downfall of DeLorean many years later. He failed, my father insisted, not because of his unique reliance on the cocaine trade for generating cash for his car company: the whole preposterous idea of a designer creating a car as a monument to riches, power, and youth—and then naming it after himself—was the problem. “Americans need to separate from their cars, not hide in them,” Dad would say. “Designers should lead the way.”

Dad left IBM and joined Steelcase in 1970, as its first director of design. The battles with IBM’s sales and engineering juggernauts were over. IBM has never had much of a reputation for design, and Steelcase had never had one at the time my father joined the company. It was the beginning of a giant shift that would transform Steelcase from the moribund maker of heavy steel desks, evoking the horizonless offices full of clerks and typing pools of the 1930s and ’40s, to the innovator of the modern electronic office of today. Dad’s previous battles with the evil engineers and stylists became the basis for a personal mission to enshrine industrial designers as technological advocates for the consumer. Engineers could make things work, marketers and stylists could get people excited to open their wallets, but it would be designers who would make sure products were safe and pleasing to use.

In the era before PowerPoint, Dad would practice his presentation on a small test audience that included me, my brothers, and my mother. He had carousels of slides showing bad designs and good designs, and charts of Venn diagrams laying out the future as he saw it. In the future, Dad believed, all products would be evaluated for “user bias,” a distinct element of the product-development process that would be balanced against “marketing bias” and “engineering bias.” The presentation was slightly opaque for my taste. My mother would always say, “Get rid of half of those slides and make it one-third as long.” My father would struggle to make edits, but never seemed to be able to lose more than a few minutes. In a process that I have come to understand from more than a decade of moderating design conferences and speaking with designers, he could only look at his presentation as a series of interlocking arguments and logical links that could not be interrupted. My father wasn’t really interested in the overall flow and entertainment value of his slide show. He was constructing something more akin to a mathematical proof of the essential role design must play in human society. He was arguing to some imagined supreme court of aesthetics, not some random jury of his peers.

During his time at Steelcase, Jack Hockenberry smoothed out the hard edges of the office desk with the Series 9000 curves and cornerless surfaces. Steelcase chairs began to compete ergonomically with the flashier designs of Knoll and Herman Miller. I worked in the Steelcase desk plant one summer and earned the wrath of my supervisor, who realized that my father’s design group was responsible for the difficult-to-fabricate Series 9000 curved edges. “My stamping presses are always breaking down because of that stupid curve,” Dorrie the foreman would yell. For me it was a quiet victory of the designers over the engineers, and I was lucky enough to be on the battlefield to see it.

When I was in the car accident that fractured my spine in 1976, Dad took his cameras and graph paper to measure the “user bias” of the guardrail on Pennsylvania Route 80 that had given way and caused my car to plunge down an embankment. He found it wanting. He focused his opaque designer logic on investigating the design of automotive seating, claiming that poor ergonomic design led to poor circulation and possible drowsiness behind the wheel. My father wanted to go after the car companies, but our lawyer argued to keep it simple. In the end, while Dad was ready with his slide carousels as my expert witness, the defendants in the personal injury lawsuit filed against the guardrail contractor settled for a tidy sum, and a Pennsylvania jury was spared. “Thank God we didn’t have to go to court,” my mother would say. “Your father would have put that jury into a coma with his user-bias slides.”

User bias has always been a bit of a family joke. Moments of boredom around the Thanksgiving table get labeled “UB,” even though all Hockenberrys have a sophisticated eye for the poorly designed product. In the decades since my father left Steelcase, ergonomics has become a mainstream criterion for evaluating products and work spaces. Design has emerged from the shadows of “stylists” and “engineers” in America even though the era of design supremacy continues to elude us.

There was a brief moment in 2000 when it seemed like that supremacy was real. In the last days of the Clinton administration a series of regulations were signed mandating ergonomic designs in the workplace. They were to be a set of standards equating quality workplace design and ergonomic considerations with safety. My father, it seemed, was poised to benefit from decades of boring but prophetic slide shows and writings. It was not to be. One of the first acts of the Bush administration was to repeal all of these midnight Clinton regulations. The moment passed.

I have never lost my sense of mystery at what it is that designers actually do, even after growing up with Jack Hockenberry as my father. But more than a decade ago it hit me that I actually may know more about what it means to be an industrial designer than I realize. At a design conference back in the mid-1990s I made a casual joke about design that went something like, “The word designer is great because it saves any of you from having to actually explain what it is you do for a living.” I thought it was a dubious one-liner, but to my surprise the group of designers I was speaking to howled in gut-busting, milk-spraying-from-the-nostrils laughter. I was on to something: design was a mystery, even to designers. The trauma of realizing that my father was not Thomas Edison or one of the Wright brothers was over.

At a gathering of designers in New York at one of the last Chrysler Design Awards, I ran into the legendary Niels Diffrient, who cornered me and asked what my father was doing. “He and I had some fascinating discussions about chairs back in the seventies,” he told me. I was thrilled. In Diffrient’s soft, intense eyes I saw the same zealotry of my father. He remembered the phrase “user bias” as clearly as if it were some commercial brand. Before being swept away in a crowd at Mies and Johnson’s Four Seasons cathedral of the senses, Diffrient told me to say hi to my dad for him. “It would be my pleasure,” I said. My father actually attended the tenth and final Chrysler Awards. It was a joy to see him in this jury of his peers. When Chrysler canceled the awards the following year, Dad was a little worried that his presence might have had something to do with the award’s demise. But mostly he was unperturbed: “It must have been the marketing people. They always get their way.”

Today 76-year-old Jack Hockenberry designs teaching materials for early-childhood music teachers. He plays trombone in the Austin Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. He lives at the intersection of Interstates 35 and 90, where he watches for bad guardrails and still believes that Ralph Nader is right about nearly everything. His slides are put away. He doesn’t know how to make a PowerPoint presentation, although he considers Al Gore’s movie success a direct outgrowth of his own experiments in the genre back in the 1960s. He still believes the supremacy of design will someday arrive, though he has given up on the idea of Nader’s being president. “I like this Barack Obama,” my favorite collector of lost causes tentatively says. “I hope that doesn’t jinx his chances.”

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