Henry Dreyfuss

I was first introduced to the work of Henry Dreyfuss in school, researching my thesis. In search of information on the dimensions of the human body, I was directed to The Measure of Man, Dreyfuss' 1959 book on ergonomics and human factors. The Art and Architecture library had a gorgeous, near-original manuscript with big, beautiful drawings. I recentIy bought another book of his, Designing for People.

This mid-century masterwork introduced industrial design best practices to the world, one of the earliest examples of applying "design thinking" to general business and quality-of-life problems.

Born in Brooklyn in 1904, Dreyfuss apprenticed himself to the legendary Norman Bel Geddes at the tender age of 20. At the time, industrial design was not entirely recognized as a field in and of itself. Bel Geddes' studio mainly paid the bills by designing sets for theatrical productions in and around New York. Dreyfuss split off to form his own practice (still working today) in 1929.


Man at work.

Over the next thirty years, he worked in everything from automobiles to safety razors to farm tractors. Many of those designs joined a canon of mid-century classics, among them the Western Electric 500 telephone and the Polaroid Land Camera. During World War II, he teamed up with Raymond Loewy and Norman Teague to design the war room for the Joint Chiefs of staff, including a set of 13' diameter globes for the British, Russian, and American high commands. 


Model 500.

His war experience turned out to be formative, as he gained access to reams of data collected about the millions of men and women pressed into service for the fight. This information, collated and sorted, provided the anthropological basis forThe Measure of Man.

A massive sample size made mean and median measures truly accurate for the first time. This book contained some of the first modern infographics, startling in their clarity.



However,The Measure of Man was also flawed. It was based on the fittest portion of the population, mostly white males in their late teens and twenties. There was little or no accounting for the old, the young, the disabled, or variations in minority populations. At the time, human factors was a new field and the term ergonomics had just been coined, so certain shortcomings can be forgiven. Now, the information is also somewhat out of date. The average WWII-era man weighed about 161 pounds; today, the average American male is 196 pounds, which is its own problem.

Designing for People, his other well-known book, is about a broader design philosophy. In the introduction, he lays out the basic task of the designer, which was posted on the wall in his offices:

"What we are working on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient -- or just plain happier -- the designer has succeeded. . . . And if he designs enough things in good taste, he brings better living and greater satisfaction." (p. 25-26)

Now, that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like 'ol Charles Eames' pithy the best for the most for the least, but it does shed light on the role of the dignified designer, toiling away to make thing better for the rest of us. 

Dreyfuss was on the technological edge when he was working -- designing the electronics and vehicles of the future. The first phones, record players, and cameras had to take abstract functions and make them tangible.  An ax is an ax; a hammer is a hammer; many objects in the world inescapably telegraph their function.

Dreyfuss bridged this gap between strict functionalism and abstract reality, bringing communication, information, and a lack of friction to everyday living. His legacy lives on in the smoothly integrated world of Apple products, or the satisfying balance of a Makita drill, easing the points of contact between us and the world.