Ergonomics: Physical, Behavior, Emotional

"Design is so simple. That's why it's
so complicated"
- Paul Rand

Speaking by telephone from London, England, Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd shared some thoughts about design and how to help people to feel more at home in different types of spaces

 

t: we have been thinking about how design, and especially interior design, influences one's state of mind, one's mood and emotions. is that part of your thinking as well?

TOM: It is. In our practice, we pay a lot of attention to materiality and the feeling of a space that is created through many layers—materials, form, scale, detail and so forth. We see furniture as a way to change how people connect to architecture and how people manage their relationship to the architecture and the space they occupy. Whether we are designing a workspace, a hotel room or the cabin of a commercial jet, these are all rather compressed spaces and we have to work hard to make the behavioral ergonomics work across all of those strands.

t: can you clarify the idea of "behavioral ergonomics?"

TOM: Ergonomics or behavioral ergonomics has the sound of a dry technical or engineering term, but the idea is that we can encourage or amend behaviors through design. For example, a desk is an item of furniture that appears everywhere and tends to be used always in the same way. How can we design a desk that changes the way a person operates or feels when seated at the desk? How does design influence how one interacts with the desk in the context of the architecture and the culture of the workplace?

In the past, office design has been seen as a way to manage people. The mark of success was either the ability to fit lots of desks into a given amount of space or to measure how efficiently people did their work—a sort of “command and control” idea. The Taylorist office, which imitated the factory assembly line, was a highly structured environment meant to deliver the goods with maximum efficiency. That’s not the way we deliver value any longer.

To a certain extent, we are attempting to manage emotional well-being, which is somewhat paradoxical. To be efficient, to perform well, people need to sustain psychological health. And we do have to acknowledge economic objectives; we have to respond to the conditions of a commercial environment. At the same time, I think that quite often, company leadership does care about employees and about the quality of the workspace. Most clients are beginning to understand how much the language of a space influences how people feel about their workspace and how they feel about the company, how engaged employees are in their work.

LUKE: We think about ergonomics as being both physical and emotional. There’s the side of ergonomics that one can measure – the physical or metric aspect —and we can design a chair based strictly on those measurements, but it might be hideous to look at. No one will want to use it. On the other hand, there are chairs that one falls in love with on sight, but which turn out to be quite uncomfortable. One needs to find a balance. Certainly, the emotional component has always been very important in our work. The way a person responds to furniture, the way furniture interacts with the space. . .those interactions will change the way it is used. So, we begin to develop layers of aesthetic features or qualities. That holds true for any type of interior environment.

t: your design of room interiors for intercontinental hotels group departs from the standard look and layout of a guest room. the "work/life" room has several layers and a lot of texture that creates a very warm look.

TOM: We began by thinking about a traveler’s emotional needs. A person often arrives late and has to get up early. He or she may be jet lagged, tired and hungry, so the room has to be comfortable and the layout of the room needs to be logical as well. What are the spatial relationships required to get your activities going? How can we make it easy to work, relax or prepare for the next day? We actually looked at how kitchens are designed so that you can easily reach the refrigerator from the cooker and so on.

As a way of creating the most legible space, we built it around the triangulation of the bed, a lounge/work area and the area with a television and coffee bar —a kind of “magic triangle.” We connected the elements that make up a hotel room in a different way, not only to manage the space, but also to represent the brand, the responsiveness to a traveler’s needs.

t: the furniture has a lightness that's rare in many hotel rooms and you've used some traditional elements like the analog clock on the wall-a big clock with black hands on a white face. it seems as if inspiration comes from users as well as context.

TOM: Yes, the furniture has a softness and a simplicity, but there is a technical character underneath. It’s a machine wrapped in a blanket that allows you to be productive in a pleasant environment.

About the clock…we do pay a lot of attention to craft and to incorporating analog elements into environments or into the furniture collections that we design. There is a need for humanity and craft, almost in inverse proportion to the degree to which technology proliferates. Again, it’s a balance of the hard and the soft, of analog and digital. The clock is a kind of explicit signal, a presence quite unlike that of flashing digital numbers.

LUKE: 
It’s good to have things that we immediately understand. Technology is often hard to interface with; it certainly takes some mental effort. I just bought a digital radio. On my analog radio, I know where the stations are, but the digital model just gives me numbers, which at first had no meaning for me. In the same way, an analog clock gives you a sense of time by the movement of the hands through space. The beauty of it is, you don’t even need numbers to interpret the position of the hands.

Business travelers are often disoriented, and simple, tactile things are a way to ground them. You don’t have to compute anything. There’s no secondary mental process required. You can see time vs. space. It’s very physical. We are overly indulged in the digital and we need things that ground us, our lives, in our spaces.

 

 

"We do not want to
work in a factory or in
a home. Is it possible
to work in a space
that is both informal
and productive?" 
- Luke Pearson &
Tom Lloyd

t: how does that approach translate to the workplace?

LUKE: In every project, we’re interested in the basic human experience or need. It’s a nice way of commencing the work of design. In the office, almost everyone has a glass of water or an apple during the day and you need a place for these ordinary things. In 2015, we designed a group of table-top accessories for Teknion to create a place for fruit, water, a pencil—items that introduce a human element into the workspace.

TOM: We’ve also designed a simple wood hat rack, another very simple, pure symbol. The reality of my workday is that when I arrive I don’t want to go to a locker room 50 yards down the corridor. I want to be able to go to the place I am working for the day and have a place for my jacket, my hat or whatever I am carrying. We always try to observe and take note of people's everyday needs. Our approach is to respond directly to needs, to create products or spaces that are a natural consequence of how we behave, how we think and feel.

Collaboration no longer sets up the workplace. The bench system has sold all over Europe because it is equitable and collaborative and it certainly has its uses. It also has its drawbacks if people are seated too close to one another and making too much noise. When we design furniture for the workplace, we think about how one’s needs change from day to day or hour to hour and how to create the right mix of forms and functions—which makes for a much more dynamic space.

LUKE: 
We have been involved in workplace design for 20 years. When we started, the hero was getting cables to lay in and data delivered to all the workstations – and it was incredibly static. Five years after we started, Wi-Fi began to be trusted and that began to change the culture in a radical way. In terms of how a more dynamic workplace affects people emotionally, I think it’s a good thing not to stare at the same wall all day long. It’s good to be able to move around.

t: i agree. it's important to get up and get the blood circulation, or simply change one's perspective.

LUKE: We often step out and go down to our local club because it’s a good place for a private conversation. We make use of the city, as well as our studio, going to a different space to achieve different things and to experience different emotions. Our work has changed, too. To return to the analog/digital dialogue, we find that our work has gone back to whiteboards.

t:there is something reassuring about such familiar, low-tech forms. and, of course, we have also seen a trend towards a more residential look and feel in the workplace.

TOM: Familiarity is an intentional part of our design, but the familiar forms fit into new kinds of spaces in the office. I think that the domestic or residential tag is a tough one. We’ve yet to find the right word to describe what others are calling residential, empathetic and so forth. It’s more about a softness and an informality, a balance between soft and tech, productivity and style - finding a sweet spot between empathy and rationality. We have begun to use the term ‘informal productivity’ to describe the new paradigm of work that is embodied in Zones.

LUKE: We used to design task chairs that were about adjusting the chair to your own body. Now that people sit still for much less time, we can design a chair that is very comfortable and supportive, one that embraces the body, but isn’t as technical. It’s a much softer sense of what ergonomics needs to be and it’s contextual. A simpler, less technical seat is actually very smart and creates a more exciting visual landscape.

TOM: 
If we’re completely rational all of the time, design becomes uninteresting. It’s too pragmatic. Design doesn’t always have to start from a purely rational or ergonomic analysis. Interior design does have the opportunity to create the Wow! And we do want to “surprise and delight.” That is an old, well-known phrase, but why not?

LUKE: 
Technology has liberated office design in a way. The furniture doesn’t need to be technically served—we’re all happy with Wi-Fi. Design can be more about creating singular elements that people like and that can be chosen for what they are. Of course, taking that direction too far can create chaos.

TOM: 
Organizations like to systemize and organize things, so there’s a bit of conflict between our ability to deliver singular elements and the need for very practical, scalable solutions. But the corporate world today is much more aware of how the workplace represents the brand, how it influences the perceptions of outsiders and also how people within the organization feel about themselves. The workspace can function as a way to leverage the brand in a positive way.

LUKE: 
I could compare it to flowers that attract the right sort of insect because each flower has a visible personality. But it’s more than that. Organizations can really express how they want to behave and who they want to attract through a cohesive expression of the brand. Everyone can understand everyone else a bit better.

TOM: 
By tapping into all of our experience, knowledge and intuition, we can create objects that are unique and appealing, even lighthearted and poetic—but frivolity can be tiring. Right now, there may be a little too much frivolity in design. It lacks calm and balance. There’s a sense of anything goes. I think that is changing. One thing we do know is that the economy will change, technology will change, it is all endlessly evolving and that we are trembling along this wave of change doing the best we can.

t: WHAT ABOUT SMART ROOMS AND ROBOTS? HOW WILL WE BALANCE THAT LEVEL OF EMBEDDED TECHNOLOGY WITH HUMANITY?

LUKE: I would feel rather harassed by a smart room. I would rather go find a space that I feel good in – a white room or a purple room – than have one room that responds to what I am doing or thinking about and changes color.

The question may be, how will technology, and new technologies that we can’t even yet imagine, change human thinking and creativity? We don’t know. At work in our studio, when we feel that we have an idea, the quickest way to communicate it is on a piece of paper. We like lead and paper and our hieroglyphics.

I would like to comment further, but I must go pick up my daughter from school.

T: THAT'S A VERY BSIC HUMAN NEED! THANK YOU BOTH SO MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

 

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