Note — Aug 30, 2020

The Tyranny of Chairs: Why We Need Better Design

Seen in → No.139

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Article adapted from the new book by the brilliant Sara Hendren, What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World. Starts on chair design, how they are mostly not adapted to our bodies and how they move, and that sitting all day is really not good for us. Then stretches to industrial design at large, Victor Papanek, non-normative bodies, and universal design.

People like to think there’s a “normal” but really, humans are just a bunch of smaller groups with some differences between them. Thinking—as in universal design done well—about “edge” cases, minorities, and differently abled people is a more effective way to get to a design that reaches a majority of people, instead of starting from the perceived normality.

As with all material objects, Cranz reminds us, function tells only part of the story. The other part, always, is culture – the inherited and sometimes arbitrary ways that things have always been done, and therefore continue as common practice. “Biology, physiology and anatomy have less to do with our chairs than pharaohs, kings and executives.” […]

Good designers, the thinking goes, will take a close look at unusual circumstances, places where products (or environments, or services) are full of friction for people with particular needs. There, in the margins of human experience, are clues to suboptimal conditions that may also affect people in the normative middle, though perhaps to a lesser degree. […]

[T]he dominant model of universal design has disability at its centre, the very success of the innovations it generates tends to obscure their origin stories, as in the case of the Oxo peeler. That success makes many people overlook the barriers that still exist to an adaptive, flexible world for disabled people.