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TED2002

Niels Diffrient: Rethinking the way we sit down

February 2, 2002

Design legend Niels Diffrient talks about his life in industrial design (and the reason he became a designer instead of a jet pilot). He details his quest to completely rethink the office chair starting from one fundamental data set: the human body.

Niels Diffrient - Designer
Design legend Niels Diffrient is the creator of the Freedom Chair, a radical rethink of the way we sit today. Throughout his career, he's been a pioneer of ergonomic design -- studying the human body (in all its shapes and sizes) and how to make it comfortable. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was five years old
00:12
I fell in love with airplanes.
00:16
Now I'm talking about the '30s.
00:19
In the '30s an airplane had two wings
00:22
and a round motor,
00:26
and was always flown
00:29
by a guy who looked like Cary Grant.
00:31
He had high leather boots,
00:35
jodhpurs, an old leather jacket,
00:38
a wonderful helmet
00:41
and those marvelous goggles --
00:44
and, inevitably, a white scarf,
00:46
to flow in the wind.
00:50
He'd always walk up to his airplane
00:54
in a kind of saunter,
00:57
devil-may-care saunter,
01:00
flick the cigarette away,
01:03
grab the girl waiting here, give her a kiss.
01:06
(Laughter)
01:09
And then mount his airplane,
01:10
maybe for the last time.
01:12
Of course I always wondered what would happen
01:14
if he'd kissed the airplane first.
01:16
(Laughter)
01:19
But this was real romance to me.
01:27
Everything about flying in those years,
01:30
which was -- you have to stop and think for a moment --
01:34
was probably the most advanced
01:37
technological thing going on at the time.
01:40
So as a youngster,
01:43
I tried to get close to this
01:46
by drawing airplanes,
01:48
constantly drawing airplanes.
01:50
It's the way I got
01:53
a part of this romance.
01:55
And of course, in a way, when I say romance,
01:57
I mean in part
02:00
the aesthetics of that whole situation.
02:02
I think the word is the holistic experience
02:06
revolving around a product.
02:10
The product was that airplane.
02:13
But it built a romance.
02:16
Even the parts of the airplane
02:19
had French names.
02:22
Ze fuselage, ze empanage, ze nessal.
02:24
You know, from a romance language.
02:29
So that it was something that just got into your spirit.
02:33
It did mine.
02:36
And I decided I had to get closer than
02:38
just drawing fantasy airplanes.
02:40
I wanted to build airplanes.
02:43
So I built model airplanes.
02:46
And I found that in doing the model airplanes
02:49
the appearance drawings were not enough.
02:55
You couldn't transfer those
02:58
to the model itself.
03:00
If you wanted it to fly
03:03
you had to learn the discipline
03:05
of flying.
03:08
You had to learn about aeronautics.
03:10
You had to learn what made an airplane
03:12
stay in the air.
03:15
And of course, as a model in those years, you couldn't control it.
03:17
So it had to be self-righting,
03:20
and stay up without crashing.
03:23
So I had to give up
03:28
the approach of drawing
03:30
the fantasy shapes
03:32
and convert it to technical drawings --
03:35
the shape of the wing, the shape of the fuselage and so on --
03:38
and build an airplane over these drawings
03:41
that I knew followed some of the principles
03:45
of flying.
03:47
And in so doing, I could produce
03:49
a model that would fly, stay in the air.
03:52
And it had, once it was in the air,
03:55
some of this romance that I was in love with.
03:58
Well the act of drawing airplanes
04:02
led me to,
04:05
when I had the opportunity to choose
04:07
a course in school,
04:09
led me to sign up for aeronautical engineering.
04:11
And when I was sitting in classes --
04:15
in which no one asked me to draw an airplane --
04:19
to my surprise.
04:22
I had to learn mathematics and mechanics
04:25
and all this sort of thing.
04:27
I'd wile away my time drawing airplanes
04:29
in the class.
04:31
One day a young man looked over my shoulder,
04:33
he said, "You draw very well.
04:36
You should be in the art department."
04:38
And I said, "Why?"
04:41
And he said, "Well for one thing, there are more girls there."
04:43
(Laughter)
04:46
So my romance was temporarily shifted.
04:50
(Laughter)
04:53
And I went into art
04:54
because they appreciated drawing.
04:56
Studied painting; didn't do very well at that.
04:58
Went through design,
05:01
some architecture.
05:04
Eventually hired myself out as a designer.
05:06
And for the following 25 years,
05:09
living in Italy,
05:12
living in America,
05:14
I doled out a piece of this romance
05:16
to anybody who'd pay for it --
05:20
this sense, this aesthetic feeling,
05:23
for the experience revolving around
05:27
a designed object.
05:30
And it exists.
05:33
Any of you who rode the automobiles --
05:35
was it yesterday? --
05:38
at the track, you know the romance
05:40
revolving around those high performance cars.
05:43
Well in 25 years
05:49
I was mostly putting out
05:52
pieces of this romance
05:54
and not getting a lot back in
05:56
because design on call
05:58
doesn't always connect you with a circumstance
06:00
in which you can produce things of this nature.
06:04
So after 25 years I began to feel
06:07
as though I was running dry.
06:09
And I quit.
06:12
And I started up a very small operation --
06:14
went from 40 people
06:17
to one,
06:19
in an effort to rediscover my innocence.
06:21
I wanted to get back
06:25
where the romance was.
06:27
And I couldn't choose airplanes
06:30
because they had gotten sort of unromantic
06:32
at that point,
06:35
even though I'd done a lot of airplane work,
06:37
on the interiors.
06:39
So I chose furniture.
06:41
And I chose chairs specifically
06:44
because I knew something about them.
06:47
I'd designed a lot of chairs, over the years
06:49
for tractors and trucks
06:52
and submarines --
06:55
all kinds of things.
06:58
But not office chairs.
07:00
So I started doing that.
07:02
And I found that there were ways
07:04
to duplicate the same approach
07:07
that I used to use on the airplane.
07:10
Only this time,
07:13
instead of the product being shaped by the wind,
07:15
it was shaped by the human body.
07:18
So the discipline was --
07:22
as in the airplane you learn a lot about
07:24
how to deal with the air,
07:26
for a chair
07:29
you have to learn a lot about how to deal
07:31
with the body,
07:33
and what the body needs, wants,
07:35
indicates it needs.
07:37
And that's the way, ultimately
07:40
after some ups and downs,
07:42
I ended up designing the chair I'm going to show you.
07:46
I should say one more thing. When I was doing those
07:49
model airplanes,
07:53
I did everything.
07:55
I conceived the kind of airplane.
07:57
I basically engineered it.
08:00
I built it.
08:03
And I flew it.
08:05
And that's the way I work now.
08:07
When I started this chair
08:14
it was not a preconceived notion.
08:16
Design nowadays, if you mean it,
08:19
you don't start with styling sketches.
08:22
I started with a lot of loose ideas,
08:26
roughly eight or nine years ago.
08:29
And the loose ideas had something
08:32
to do with what I knew happened with
08:35
people in the office,
08:37
at the work place -- people who worked,
08:39
and used task seating,
08:41
a great many of them sitting in front of a computer
08:44
all day long.
08:47
And I felt,
08:49
the one thing they don't need,
08:51
is a chair that interferes
08:53
with their main reason for sitting there.
08:55
So I took the approach
08:58
that the chair should do as much for them
09:01
as humanly possible
09:04
or as mechanistically possible
09:06
so that they didn't have to fuss with it.
09:10
So my idea was that,
09:12
instead of sitting down and reaching
09:14
for a lot of controls,
09:16
that you would sit on the chair,
09:18
and it would automatically balance your weight
09:20
against the force required
09:23
to recline.
09:26
Now that may not mean a lot to some of you.
09:28
But you know most good chairs do recline
09:31
because it's beneficial to open up this joint
09:34
between your legs and your upper body
09:37
for better breathing
09:39
and better flow.
09:41
So that if you sit down
09:43
on my chair,
09:46
whether you're five feet tall
09:48
or six foot six,
09:50
it always deals with your weight
09:52
and transfers the amount of force required
09:56
to recline
10:00
in a way that you don't have to look
10:02
for something to adjust.
10:05
I'll tell you right up front,
10:07
this is a trade off.
10:09
There are drawbacks to this.
10:11
One is: you can't
10:14
accommodate everybody.
10:16
There are some very light people,
10:18
some extremely heavy people,
10:21
maybe people with a lot of bulk up top.
10:23
They begin to fall off the end of your chart.
10:26
But the compromise, I felt,
10:29
was in my favor
10:31
because most people don't adjust their chairs.
10:33
They will sit in them forever.
10:36
I had somebody on the bus out to the racetrack
10:38
tell me about his sister calling him.
10:41
He said she had one of the new, better chairs.
10:43
She said, "Oh I love it."
10:46
She said, "But it's too high."
10:48
(Laughter)
10:50
So he said, "Well I'll come over and look at it."
10:53
He came over and looked at it.
10:56
He reached down. He pulled a lever. And the chair sank down.
10:58
She said, "Oh it's wonderful. How did you do that?"
11:02
And he showed her the lever.
11:04
Well, that's typical
11:06
of a lot of us working in chairs.
11:08
And why should you
11:10
get a 20-page manual
11:12
about how to run a chair?
11:14
(Laughter)
11:16
I had one for a wristwatch once. 20 pages.
11:18
Anyway, I felt that it was important
11:22
that you didn't have to make an adjustment
11:24
in order to get this kind of action.
11:27
The other thing I felt was that armrests
11:30
had never really been properly approached
11:32
from the standpoint of how much
11:37
of an aid they could be
11:40
to your work life.
11:42
But I felt it was too much to ask
11:44
to have to adjust each individual armrest
11:47
in order to get it where you wanted.
11:49
So I spent a long time.
11:52
I said I worked eight or nine years on it.
11:54
And each of these things went along
11:57
sort of in parallel
11:59
but incrementally were a problem of their own.
12:01
I worked a long time on figuring out
12:04
how to move the arms over a much greater arc --
12:06
that is up and down --
12:11
and make them a lot easier,
12:13
so that you didn't have to use a button.
12:16
And so after many trials, many failures,
12:19
we came up with a very simple arrangement
12:21
in which we could just move
12:24
one arm or the other.
12:26
And they go up easily.
12:28
And stop where you want.
12:30
You can put them down, essentially out of the way.
12:33
No arms at all.
12:36
Or you can pull them up where you want them.
12:38
And this was another thing that I felt,
12:41
while not nearly as romantic
12:43
as Cary Grant,
12:46
nevertheless begins to
12:48
grab a little bit of aesthetic
12:51
operation, aesthetic performance
12:54
into a product.
12:57
The next area that was of interest to me
12:59
was the fact that reclining
13:02
was a very important factor.
13:05
And the more you can recline,
13:07
in a way, the better it is.
13:09
The more the angle between here and here opens up --
13:12
and nowadays, with a screen in front of you,
13:15
you don't want to have your eye drop too far in the recline,
13:18
so we keep it at more or less the same level --
13:21
but you transfer weight
13:25
off your tailbones.
13:28
Would everybody put their hand under their bottom
13:30
and feel their tailbone?
13:33
(Laughter)
13:35
You feel that bone under there?
13:37
(Laughter)
13:39
Just your own.
13:40
(Laughter)
13:42
There's two of them, one on either side.
13:48
All the weight of your upper torso --
13:53
your arms, your head --
13:55
goes right down through your back,
13:57
your spine, into those bones when you sit.
14:00
And that's a lot of load.
14:04
Just relieving your arms with armrests
14:06
takes 20 percent of that load off.
14:08
Now that, if your spine is not held in a good position,
14:11
will help bend your spine the wrong way, and so on.
14:16
So to unload
14:21
that great weight --
14:23
if that indeed exists --
14:27
you can recline.
14:29
When you recline you take away a lot of that load
14:32
off your bottom end, and transfer it to your back.
14:35
At the same time, as I say, you open up this joint.
14:38
And breathability is good.
14:41
But to do that, if you have any
14:44
amount of recline,
14:48
it gets to the point where you need a headrest
14:52
because nearly always,
14:55
automatically hold your head
14:59
in a vertical position, see?
15:01
As I recline, my head says more or less vertical.
15:03
Well if you're reclined a great deal,
15:08
you have to use muscle force
15:10
to hold your head there.
15:12
So that's where a headrest comes in.
15:14
Now headrest is a challenge
15:16
because you want it to adjust
15:18
enough so that it'll fit,
15:21
you know, a tall guy and a short girl.
15:25
So here we are.
15:28
I've got five inches of adjustment here
15:30
in order to get the headrest in the right place.
15:34
But then I knew from experience
15:37
and looking around in offices
15:39
where there were chairs with headrests
15:42
that nobody would ever bother
15:45
to reach back and turn a knob
15:47
and adjust the headrest to put it in position.
15:50
And you need it in a different position
15:52
when you're upright, then when you're reclined.
15:54
So I knew that had to be solved, and had to be automatic.
15:56
So if you watch this chair
16:00
as I recline, the headrest comes up
16:02
to meet my neck.
16:05
Ideally you want to put the head support
16:07
in the cranial area, right there.
16:11
So that part of it took a long time
16:15
to work out.
16:20
And there is a variety of other things: the shape of the cushions,
16:22
the gel we put.
16:25
We stole the idea from bicycle seats,
16:28
and put gel in the cushions
16:31
and in the armrests
16:33
to absorb point load --
16:35
distributes the loading so you don't get hard spots.
16:39
You cant hit your elbow
16:42
on bottom.
16:44
And I did want to demonstrate
16:46
the fact that the chair can accommodate people.
16:49
While you're sitting in it you can adjust it
16:54
down for the five-footer,
16:56
or you can adjust it
16:59
for the six-foot-six guy --
17:02
all within the scope of a few simple adjustments.
17:07
(Applause)
17:13

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Niels Diffrient - Designer
Design legend Niels Diffrient is the creator of the Freedom Chair, a radical rethink of the way we sit today. Throughout his career, he's been a pioneer of ergonomic design -- studying the human body (in all its shapes and sizes) and how to make it comfortable.

Why you should listen

Niels Diffrient is a pioneer of ergonomic design -- taking the radical approach of examining the human body as it interacts with furniture, and asking, Is there a better way to sit? His three-volume reference work, Humanscale, explores the relationship of spine to chair and other "human engineering" data necessary for highly specialized workplaces such as a cockpit or a truck cab, as well as aiding in the search for the perfectly comfortable place to sit down.

In the 1990s, Diffrient turned his attention to the office task chair. Working with the company Humanscale, he drew up the Freedom chair, a self-adjusting chair that mixed advanced materials (such as a gel seat pad) with good old-fashioned sketchbook design. The Freedom chair was part of a late-'90s revolution in design that turned expensive ergonomic office chairs into dot-com covetables. In 2004, Diffrient and Humanscale released the lighter and lower-priced Liberty task chair.

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