Niels Diffrient: A Tribute in Conversation

One of the last interviews given by the late and great industrial designer

Earlier this year I interviewed Niels Diffrient for our special issue on the creative process. It turned out to be the last time I would talk to Diffrient, who died last week at the age of 84. Back in February we discussed his new book; his own unique creative process; his dogged, thorough, relentless approach to research; and his formative years with Eero Saarinen and Henry Dreyfuss. Aside from his immense contributions to the field of industrial design, one of Niels’s chief virtues was a kind of rock-solid forthrightness. Utterly confortable in his own skin, he was the consummate midwestern straight shooter: There was not an ounce of bullshit in him. Henry Fonda could have played him in the movies. As a tribute, as a way of conjuring up once again Niels’s distinctive voice, here’s an edited version of our talk:


Martin C. Pedersen: Tell me about that amazing ergonomic drawing. When and why was it made?

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Niels Diffrient: At some point in my career I decided—not all at once, but gradually—that if I was designing for people, I ought to know a little bit about them. I began to study what became known as human factors, or ergonomics. As I went through textbooks, dense with a lot of data and figures, I noticed that the writers would depict human figures with the most inane, childish drawings that I’d ever seen. So I wondered: “How on earth can they be giving all this data a refined understanding of the human body, if they can’t even draw one?” So I began compiling my own kind of data. Of course, a long time ago you may have seen the result, my publication Human Scale. I always continued doing this. And I always kept the data, in some form or another.

MCP: Where do you get the data?

ND: It’s a compilation. This was started, in my mind, by one of my original bosses, Henry Dreyfuss. He had determined during the Second World War that the efforts on the part of the Army and other armed forces to collect data about the sizes of soldiers, principally for their uniforms and then later for their battle equipment, was information worth retaining as a designer. And so he started pulling data together through the aid of an engineer on staff named Al Tilley. Dreyfuss finally came out with an early publication of data sheets called The Measure of Man. I always admired him for that, because I thought instead of designers just drawing seductive pictures, they ought to be learning about who they’re designing for. Henry anchored that thought in my mind. Then later, after Henry was long gone, I thought: it’s time to update that effort.

MCP: So all of those numbers on the drawings were pulled from ergonomic tests and research?

ND: Yes. Absolutely. I don’t make up any of it. Everything I show in these, either in the publications or drawings, pulls from reference data. All I am doing is transferring it from an obscure condition to a more prominent, understandable condition.

MCP: You’re visualizing the data.

ND: It’s even more than that. It’s often acting somewhat as an editor. To pull together data in a way that I think designers and architects and others can find easier to access and use.

MCP: How do Human Factors drive your process?

ND: First of all, every designer is exercising human factors, whether they intend to—and do a good job—or not. If a designer creates a product or a place for human use, they are designing a human experience. And I just happen to believe that the human mind ought to be flexible enough to be decorative and visually satisfying, as well as functionally correct.

MCP: What’s your first step on a project?

ND: They all differ somewhat. In later years, I haven’t taken commissions. I’ve invented my own projects. Of course I worked for many years as a consultant. Fortunately, I had a string of really good clients, like Bell Telephone and John Deere and American Airlines, companies that were intelligent and had good engineering departments. With a client like American Airlines, they were organized with a good intent: to provide a service for people. So I simply tried to enlarge their scope. Now that means data collection. There is no way around it. To me that’s not hampering the design effort, it’s enhancing it. If I see a collection of data about human behavior, that’s a source of invention. It tells me things about people that open doors and shows where you can do something of use. The whole idea of design is something useful. You don’t want to design a destructive thing. If you’re going to design useful objects, you ought to be able to tell if they’ve achieved their goal.

MCP: Was the Liberty chair self-initiated or did Humanscale come to you? Was there a set of data that started that exploration?

ND: I’ve been working off of human data for more than 40 years. I don’t start with it. I’m immersed in it in all the projects I do. I think the Liberty chair I was already working with Humanscale. My first one was Freedom. The Freedom chair I had already designed when I hooked up with them.

MCP: You had the completed design?

ND: Not the production design, but I had a prototype. Liberty I did after I was with them. But it was on my own volition. Nearby are all of my projects I do out of my own understanding of a need. Then I show it, and if they’re interested, we’ll go with it. If they’re not, I’ll shelve it. (I haven’t had to do that so far.) I don’t ask clients for direction—other than sales or pricing. I think that the need exists and you have to turn it up to make it visible to yourself, first, and then you find a client that’s appropriate to satisfying it.

MCP: What was driving the Freedom chair for you?

ND: It occurred to me that the chairs on the market at the time called “ergonomic” were fakes, most of them. They were putting up a visual depiction of something that looked like it was technically adapted to human use. But when you looked into it, you found that it was a sham. It was a visual seduction. There were many of them, quite handsome. Nice chairs in many ways, but the claims of them being ergonomic fell short. So I thought: “Well, I know enough to design something that works. I’ll put together a product, at least in preliminary prototype form, that does something.” That was my initial inspiration. Then I had accidental encounter with Bob King at Humanscale, who showed me that he was serious about making such things.

MCP: At what point do you start working with the engineers? How far along in the process?

ND: With me, it’s not until the end. I engineer it all myself. I need them for production purposes—counting screws, costing, the best machine operation to produce it—but engineering is the design. I’ve never separated design from engineering. If I design something, it includes the engineering. It’s not the old approach of making a sketch that looks good, and then throwing it over the wall to the engineer. I’ve never done that.

MCP: It seems like you don’t separate out the research from the design.

ND: The research is the design. You’ve got something in your brain that’s driving you, it might as well be something worthwhile.

MCP: Your new book seems like a different thing. It’s part memoir, part philosophy of design.

ND: I can’t separate those things. I don’t go to work and become a different person. I live exactly what I preach. My own life is guided by the same principles. So I can’t separate them. I didn’t really think about it, but in a way it helps to make this sort of thing personal. I think it gives it life.

MCP: Did you keep a journal during your years with Saarinen and Dreyfuss?

ND: No. I’m not the type. If it isn’t in my head, it doesn’t exist. Bucky Fuller and I knew each other very well. And I once asked him, “You stand up in front of an educated audience and talk for four hours and not a single person walks out. How do you do it?” He said, “It’s easy. Never talk on anything you don’t know.” And I’ve taken that advice to heart. If I don’t know it, I don’t talk or write about it.

MCP: You worked for Saarinen, before Dreyfuss?

ND: I worked for Eero Saarinen while I was in school. His father was my architecture teacher. And when I needed to work to earn money, I was introduced to Eero, who was running the office, just off campus from Cranbrook. He hired me part time, as a student. I was with them in 1949.

MCP: You were a kid then. Did you have sense back then that you were in a special place? It was a seminal office.

ND: No question about it. And the spirit was defined by the Saarinens. Kevin Roche started within a week or two of when I started. There were only a handful of people working in the office at that time. I’d come out of Detroit as a poor kid. And my first real exposure to this kind thing was at Cranbrook. I didn’t go to college. They hired me directly from high school. So this was eye opening all the way. I had no notion what these standards were. I was just lucky to land in a place where they were extremely high.

MCP: What kind of boss was Dreyfuss?

ND: He was of the old mold. He, Raymond Loewy, Walter Teague, they were of a different ilk. They came out of different fields. Dreyfuss was theater, Teague from engineering, Lowey also engineering. And they essentially invented the field of industrial design. I saw the more developed stages of it. They were pioneers. A lot of them were from theater, and their theatricality was a part of it. The presentations were an amazing part of their design. When you think about it, if you work for a year on a design and have one shot to sell it, it gets very theatrical.

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