Designer as Indian Chief and other visions of Design Legend Henry Dreyfuss

For Christmas, I received a copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s Designing for People. It is a fantastic glimpse into the beginnings of the profession of Industrial Design. Some of his points are outdated, but many more of his ideas are foundational to design and timeless. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that what I consider to be the most important aspect of design today was equally important to Dreyfuss at the foundation of the profession: Design should always be for people.

With the exception of my study of Robert Propst, current design theory was my reading domain, and I naively assumed that it was the only relevant belief in our ever evolving field. However, after reading Dreyfuss’s book, I realized that the ideas presented by Tim Brown in Change by Design or latest Fast Company article I read, are not novel but based upon their forefathers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is how history works. But for some odd reason, it did threw me off.

For so long, I have praising Tom Kelly and company at IDEO for their pioneering of Human Centered Design, but in reality they just synthesized, updated and rebranded the foundation design principles created by Dreyfuss, Propst and other early design thinkers. However, Dreyfuss pushes the credit back to the prehistoric man who first assumed the role of industrial designer and practiced the principles of utility to create the first bowl, then cup, then pitcher.

Dreyfuss visualizes the designer as an Indian Chief

The Role of the Industrial Designer

Dreyfuss’s definitions of an industrial designer is one of my favorite parts of the book. He sees the designer as a cross disciplinary person who must be part engineer, part, businessman, part salesman, part public relations man, and part artist.

If he were alive today, Dreyfuss would be a huge advocate for designers as entrepreneur. In the corporate and consulting context, he sees the designer as the dynamic link between the management, the engineers and the consumer.

Designing for People

Meet Joe and Josephine, Dreyfuss’s idealized people who we design for. Joe and Josephine have both physical anatomies and psychological landscapes. It is a designers job to “make Joe and Josephine compatible with their environments” a process which he calls “human engineering.” Dreyfuss and his studio helped to develop these human engineering diagrams to define those anatomies and standards which are still used in an updated form today.

Hello! My name is Joe!
Hello! My name is Josephine!

Beyond physical dimensions, what does it mean to design for people? Here’s Dreyfuss’s response in a 1950 Harvard Business Review article:

“If the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more desirous of purchase, more efficient — or just plain happier — by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

Traits of a Designer

Throughout the book Dreyfuss drops hints at traits he believes that any good designer should have:

  • A designer should be empathetic.
  • A designer “admits he doesn’t know everything, but knows where to turn for the answers.”
  • A designer qualifies his or her designs with “experience, observation and research.”
  • A designer should be able to visualize his or her ideas. (Dreyfuss even went as far as to learn to draw upside down so his clients could see the drawing the correct way.)
  • A designer approaches every project, no matter how daunting, with confidence.
  • A designer must be “a personable diplomat who is equally comfortable in a high level conversation with the President and in a technical discussion with a machine operator.”

Design Process

It seems as if it is not a new phenomena for every designer/design firm to have their own ‘unique’ design process. For Dreyfuss, his process is fitting to the time period and types of projects which he worked on:

  1. Utility & Safety 
    Utility can essentially can be likened today’s user experience design.
  2. Maintenance 
    Once a more important factor in design, I think this consideration is becoming increasingly relevant again with the rise of sustainable design practices. However we must bear in mind his advice: “Maintenance must be an obvious thing.”
  3. Cost
    Always a concern if you actually want a product to be implemented, but unfortunately not often a constraint in school projects.
  4. Sales Appeal
    This may seem to be one of the more outdated of the ideas but he frames it as “an elusive, psychological value.”
  5. Appearance
    Dreyfuss’s opinion of appearance fascinated me because he says that if the first 4 steps are followed then 90% of the appearance work is complete. Then the last 10% come from “form, proportion, line & color.” There is often a perception that in the role of the designer those proportions as reversed. It is fantastic to find historical validation that the more important goal of the industrial designer is everything before CMF.

Notable Opinions & Advice

On working collaboratively between designers and engineers…

“Our common denominator is the same: Joe and Josephine.”

On the difference between a Craftsman and a Designers…

“A craftsman making a single clock can afford to experiment. The designer working out a model for a manufacturer who will make 40,000 clocks everyday cannot. “

On his vision for an Industrial Design graduate…

“Such graduates would be prepared to measure public taste, understand production problems, comprehend a budget and balance sheet, talk business on an executive level with a client, be salesmen, diplomats, psychologist, and be able to work intelligently with engineers. They should also have a talking understanding of the history of art and architecture.”

It seems that many current design educations don’t follow this model. I would be curious to see what comments design educators have on this vision.

On the nature of automation and computer intelligence…

“No machine can be creative, original, imaginative — and certainly not an arbiter of taste.”

I would be curious what IBM Watson would have to say about this.

Dreyfuss’s Predictions for the Future

At the end of the book, Dreyfuss makes “An Appraisal” or prediction of the future of the world, for he sees this as part of the designers job: “to dream a little.” He then revises his original 1995 appraisal with a new appraisal in 1967, for he had, “been too conservative”

The Accurate

  • “Automatic driving” with “radar controlled brakes”
  • Automation liberates man from the 5 day work week (we are getting there..maybe)
  • Making the packaging edible and part of the food (see WikiCells)
  • “Perhaps the computer will store a host of our friends: including each person’s interests, background, and personality”…umm, Facebook
  • “We will sit in a room and the walls and ceiling will disappear — all becoming a single screen.” Sounds like VR to me.
  • Computers are used to teach students rather than teachers.

The Not so Accurate…Yet

  • The railroad will be faster than air travel
  • Colonies at the bottom of the ocean where we will cultivate the sea as we did the land!
  • Modular, factory built houses, delivered by “sky cranes”
  • Inflatable chairs for expanded seating when guests come over
  • Edible Toothpicks

Final Words

Dreyfuss’s most important point of the book comes in the final paragraph of his book. He highlights an issue that he identified in his era, but has only become more and more pertinent today’s technology filled world:

“Somehow, we must find again our sense of individual values, lost in this century of enormous technological advance…We must restore the warmth and spirit we had in the smaller community. I hope that, in our leisure time we will once again know our neighbor — and if everyone knows his neighbor and learns to live with him, the entire world will be at peace.”