Phil Patton | Essays

Niels Diffrient: The Human Factor

Niels Diffrient
Niels Diffrient, photograph by Dorothy Kresz, 1999

Niels Diffrient spent the last decades of his life working, largely on his own, in a restored barn in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In 1999, photographer Dorothy Kresz visited him there to take pictures for a brochure that would introduce the Freedom Chair, a revolutionary piece of office furniture that Diffrient designed when he was just past 70. The photographs in this slideshow form a double portrait of a man and the environment he had created in which do the work that he loved. Below, journalist Phil Patton remembers what made Diffrient so unique.

Niels Diffrient died June 8, age 84. This pioneer of human factors and ergonomics brought optimal dimensions not just to products he designed, but to many others that relied on his templates of the body.

I had communicated with him just a few weeks before, trying to set up an appearance for him this fall. We discussed the design of infotainment systems in automobiles, a problematic area of design, to say the least. Interface, interaction, user experience, ergonomics, human factors: we can’t even neatly name it but it was all in his terrain.

Diffrient will be seen as a pioneer of design’s shift from thinking about shaping objects to shaping the experience of the person who uses them. He may have worked with numbers and templates, but his overriding desire was to make the world better for living human beings.

He wore an air of cosmopolitan wisdom. It was a surprise, then, to hear he had been born in rural Star, Mississippi. The family migrated north to seek jobs in the factories of Detroit. His father worked on the line at General Motors; Niels ended up at Cranbrook and entered the circle of Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames and Harry Bertoia. Then, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, he arrived in Italy in time for the high period of Italian modern design. He worked with Marco Zanuso.

Back in the States, he found a job with Henry Dreyfuss, where he continued the firm’s pioneering efforts in ergonomics in the Humanscale standards. Later, for the company also called Humanscale, he put these principles into practice in office chairs. Most notable among these was the Freedom Chair, introduced in 1999.

His autobiography, Confessions of a Generalist, published last year, reveals a life with adventures far beyond lab research. While designing aircraft interiors for TWA he met Howard Hughes, the mad billionaire.

He watched technology change. He had defined the proper angle of the keyboard and the relationship of chair-to-desk. But now computers were laptops and used on laps, wherever bodies bent or lounged. Keyboards were flat — even the finger-friendly scoops of keyboard keys have been abandoned in the desire for abstract beauty.

I remember attending a party a few years ago with Diffrient. The music was loud and the crowd jammed tight. Twentysomethings held drinks in one hand and texted with the other — communicating in a mode that was eons from the proper ergonomic angle of chair or back. But Diffrient simply shook his head in bemusement. His interest was not in devices but in people and their constantly unfolding nature. That is the real human factor.

Posted in: Obituaries, Product Design

Comments [3]

The persistent image I have of Niels is of him driving across the US in the 1950’s in a new VW Beetle. At that time few people in the US were so adventurous and willing to take that journey in a small quirky looking piece of German design manufactured powered by an air-cooled engine. His calm demeanor and exceptional manners were underscored by extreme curiosity, humor, and a graceful rebellious nature.
Rob Forbes

Niels was one of the finest people I've ever known. Integrity, ethics, humor, understanding, not grandstanding. He was able to explain the most complex concepts in simple language. When IDSA had different criteria for those who could be members they would not accept my application. Niels, a board member at the time, threatened to quit if I was not given membership because he told them I had done more for design than many others who were members. One gift I especially remember was a tomato grown in a farm in the area in Mississippi where he was raised. He was right; it was the best tasting tomato I have ever known.
RitaSue Siegel

In a catalog from around 1980, for a Cranbrook exhibition of his work, Niels Diffrient made a statement that has remained stuck in my head: "The essential trait of a designer is the ability to see the world clearly and to imagine how it can be improved." Well said. Well done.
George Vaitkunas

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