From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Design from an Ergonomist

“Ergonomically Designed” is something of a misnomer these days.  No, let me rephrase that, it is an oxymoron.  It has now become solely a marketing term, brainwashing both public and professionals as end users.  Too many times I’ve seen a product labeled “ergonomically designed” when it clearly isn’t — nor has it ever been — nor should it ever be.

Having had professional careers in the field of Industrial Design and in the field of Professional Ergonomics, I’m constantly amazed at the lack of one inside the discipline of the other. 

Design is a wonderful thing; it can change people’s lives.  Ergonomics is the same; it is also a wonderful thing, and it can also change people’s lives.  I know, I’ve done it in both disciplines.  Incidentally, it was design that brought me to the field of ergonomics.  But currently the two are as far apart as the Twilight characters and daylight. 

You need only visit the local Office Depot and walk down the aisle labeled (in big letters) ERGONOMICS and all you will find are mouse pads labeled ergonomically designed.  I have a box full of things labeled as ergonomic or ergonomically designed ergonomic pens, ergonomic pizza cutters, ergonomic coffee cups, I even have a toilet seat that was touted as “ergonomically designed”.  Some of these things are pathetic, most are laughable.

As a designer, I do not truly believe that these things had any kind of (classic) design principles applied to their final form.  As an ergonomist I also do not believe that any of these had any input from a qualified ergonomist using principles relating to biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, psychology or end users.  Some would even say that if it has a bent handle, then it is ergonomic.  Yeah Riiiight!!

In short there is no real way to measure whether a piece of hardware, job modification or workstation modification has indeed been compared to a real set of standards or criteria to be labeled ergonomic.  Truly there is a need, perhaps some sort of credible certification, to make this distinction to the end user population.

In the beginning of any design stage, designers should at least be cognizant of applying ergonomics principles in the parameter statements.  If designers do not at least have a working understanding (not necessarily a working skill) of ergonomics, then it’s prudent for them to at least get a professional ergonomist (having appropriate training and credentials) to participate in the design process. 

Similarly, when an ergonomist has a design project, it’s well conceived to have a learned designer on the team to fill the void in expertise. 

When I was teaching grad school I brought two classes together, one from the NYU ergonomics school combined with another from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute design school.  I paired up the students into project teams; each team had at least one from Pratt and one from NYU.  The goal was to introduce the disciplines to each other and to expose each of them to each others way of thinking.  And guess what?  The final projects evolved from the input of each team member and resulted in changing the way of thinking for each of the students.  Needless to say that I was pleased with their interaction and found that each student readily accepted another viewpoint and resulting in a final project reflective of appropriate solutions and creative thinking.  As I saw some of these students in following years, I was constantly reminded by them what a great class this was, mostly from the varying opinions, input and collaborations.  Truly this was successful in combining the two disciplines in a harmonious and creative way. 

Why wouldn’t that be the same in the professional world?  Currently it is very rare, although I’ve done it on a project or two, it should be a mainstream way of thinking.

So, what it really means is that ergonomics should be an integral part of design and design should be an integral part of ergonomics.  More designers and ergonomists would positively affect more lives if it were.  So, a call out to both professions to clearly make this a definitive way to practice their art  –  both must embrace each other’s discipline to ensure that both the design and ergonomics professions can advance their prospective science.

Notice I said must embrace – because if this doesn’t happen, I fear that both the professions of design and ergonomics will remain stagnant and that we will have less impact on the world as a whole.  Design is good – ergonomics is good, but the two together have the potential of an infectious synergistic effect to radically change our thinking….and our world.  Think about it…

Ian Chong, a Certified Professional Ergonomist with Seattle based multi-disciplinary Extreme Ergonomics Inc., designs and prototypes unique tools, equipment and workstations addressing occupational injuries in all occupational environments, industrial and office on a national level.  Ian holds advanced degrees in Ergonomics & Occupational Biomechanics, Industrial Design; and Architectural Engineering, and is also profiled in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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