Using Data in Drawings: Inside Niels Diffrient’s Creative Process

By drawing complex diagrams of our bodies, the designer transforms constraints into sources of creativity.

Niels Diffrient has been collecting data on the human body for more than 40 years. “At some point in my career, I decided that if you want to design for people, you ought to know a little bit about them,” says the creator of the Freedom and Liberty chairs for Humanscale. As a young designer in the 1950s, Diffrient worked at the office of Henry Dreyfuss, one of the early pioneers in human factors, and the lessons he learned there have guided his work ever since.

Diffrient’s quest for the perfect human fit is ongoing. One of his tools is a kind of research diagram, where he gathers complex ergonomic data from various sources and makes it accessible. “I don’t do it by lists and detailed references,” he says. “I draw it and add all the data, because once I put that together, it has twice the possibility of being remembered.”

Some designers might look at a Diffrient drawing and see a bewildering maze of limitations. The designer has no patience for that: “A collection of information about human behavior is a source of invention,” he says. “It shows where you can design something of use. If designers think that this gets in their way, I’d say they better go back to school and grow up.”

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