Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Things that make you go “aaaahh!”

Posted by on 06/24 at 11:26 AM Are you sitting comfortably? Chances are you’re not: why else would we notice very time we plop down into a chair and go “aaaah!”? Notably, these chairs usually look nothing like a squishy eyesore with extendable footrest and incorporated beer cooler (you know what I’m talking about!). Instead, they challenge our idea of what a chair is.

Remember those kneeling chairs which were so popular in the 1980s and 1990s? They distribute your weight differently, keep your spine straight and supple, and allow for movement. Aaah – genius. The minds behind the kneeling chair are those of Norwegian designers Peter Opsvik, Oddvin Rykken, and Svein Gusrud. Opsvik has published his ideas of what seating furniture should do for us, which is, in short, to allow us to move around and feel comfortable rather than strapping us down in unnatural, uncomfortable and harmful positions.

The principle behind kneeling chairs and many other products should really be called intelligent design, but ‘Universal Design’ is its official name. Universal Design has a long and interesting history (too long and too interesting to fit into a blog, but brilliantly explained on the website of the Center for Universal Design at NC State University). Suffice to say that a few decades ago, professionals including architects, product designers, engineers and their peers noticed that many objects we use daily feel iffy at best, but are often just plain painful. Furniture, tools, rooms, you name it. Their credo is to design “products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation of specialized design” – whether you are 6 feet tall or just reaching up to the waist of your dad, have dainty hands or fingers which will always press two buttons at once on your cell phone.

Oxo kitchen tools are one excellent example for Universal Design at its best. Ever had their whisk in your hand? If not: go into a kitchen store and try it. (“Good morning, sir, can I help you with anything?”-“Yes, I’d like to feel that whisk there, please.”) The handle will make you want to whisk all your egg whites and cream by hand – away with hand mixers that twist wrists!! Ergonomic-anything is another example. Think kitchens with counter space that is adaptable in height – no more stooping down to chop vegetables! Think offices which won’t give you carpal tunnel syndrome and varicose veins.

In many people’s heads, universal design is still associated with ‘special needs’ (a term I will not discuss here for fear of ranting). In my head, it is one of the great developments spurred on by the development of chemistry, especially new materials like the plastic used in abovementioned kitchen tool handles. And that is why some historians of science are finally looking into the history of ergonomics. Me, I’d rather take a relaxing vacation – but until then, I am grateful for the little cushion in front of my keyboard which gives my wrists, and my stories, just the right twist.

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Coda: the principles of Universal Design (abridged from

1. Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities (e.g. right- and left-handed users)

3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

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