Designing For Mass-Production
Niels Diffrient (Dreyfuss Associates)


Niels Diffrient, 1984

©Monica Pidgeon

About three and a half years ago I took the initiative to design, to the degree that I left a very successful business on the basis that the philosophy that I had been developing over a career really needed the freedom of being on my own, because of the freedom that existed within the furniture profession for designers, so that seemed like a place I could express some applied thoughts that I have been working on for quite a while about industrial design. Industrial design is a thing of course very enigmatic, in some people's minds, but basically to me it's the design of products for everyday use that are mass-produced. And this is the key word. But you have to embrace the limitations of the process which is of course those things that can be stamped, cast, rolled, formed and extruded through what we call tooling. Tooling is a very expensive foundation for the manner of manufacture. In short, you put large volumes of money up front, build elaborate jigs, fixtures and dyes, and as a result you obtain parts that are often quite complex, but, for the price of each, are very inexpensive. Now this immediately puts a burden on the designer to the degree that he must consider working very closely with engineers, both of the theoretical, practical and manufacturing categories, but also with marketing people, management people, and all of the specialties that go into the modern corporation. But because designers currently have been limited to aesthetic training largely, then they generally don't have this command of the fundamental nature of the product. And this is where I felt there was room for taking the initiative in design, to move more towards what has traditionally been known as the functional side of the design equation, and I relate that to the old axiom 'form follows function'. And we have mostly been obsessed with the form side of it and not the function side.


Austin Mini Minor Car Designed By Issigonis

©Niels Diffrient Drawings

And the way this has manifested itself most clearly in my mind is through the Bauhaus and the Modern Movement and the machine aesthetic, to the degree that I have come to the conclusion that these people were not really developing an intrinsic form related or growing out of function. They were developing a form that implied function. They were taking the smooth, glossy and frivolous aspects of the machine and visually incorporating them in very appealing and successful designs. But they weren't doing it the way of Issigonis and Brunel who of course knew how to build things. Brunel knew how to build a giant ocean liner or a tunnel under a river or a bridge, and he knew the structure of how it worked.' Issigonis knew how an automobile was built, and he knew how to engineer its suspension and its engine. And at the same time, if you look at Issigonis' work, you see that he sketched body forms the same as any industrial designer of today would do. But that was full scope designing, at least within reason it was full scope. The Bauhaus was not full scope design. The Bauhaus was craft and the machine aesthetic. These people were not really setting out to improve the design of functional objects, they were setting out to establish the somewhat revolutionary inspired aesthetic movement. And it was terribly effective. And one of the main reasons it was not discovered as just a fashion and an aesthetic period piece was the fact that, at that point, machine-made goods were not all that advanced. You could get away with it, and bent steel tubes chrome-plated were very close to being at the same level of development as many mass-produced techniques of the day. But the burden it has placed on us as designers has been that these have existed and persisted as role-models for what Modern design is really all about and what modern functional form type design is all about. Museums like the Museum of Modern Art have a collection of largely machine aesthetic Modernist products that are judged on a strictly aesthetic basis, because there's no-one there qualified to judge it on any other basis. And these are objects that will sit on pedestals as art sits on pedestals. Now functional products don't exist in that kind of condition. Functional products exist in the circumstances in which they're used and they're most often used by people. And this is the key to the difference between the interpretation of function - via the early Bauhaus and machine-aesthetic people - over what truly existed. When Issigonis did his car, and he turned the engine around, he created function. And the value of that function could be determined by its service to people. My approach is 'the function is the thing'. I prefer to talk about it from the standpoint of performance and I also prefer to evaluate all function and all performance in human terms. The key to all this is knowing more about people. There is a field called 'human factors engineering' - in Europe it's referred to more as ergonomics. I was first exposed to this over twenty-five years ago in the office of Henry Dreyfuss. He began his own studies of human factors and accumulating data about the relationship of human beings with their environment and especially with products. I've learned that this is a very rich resource for determining the functional characteristics of products. We're talking about designing a practical art now, we are talking about use, and we've got to build the practical side of the activity as much as the art side. And in order to do that, we have to have a substantial base of information and performance that we can build on and record for future use. This will only happen in the avenue of human factors, and it will only be useful in the combination of the strict specialist in human factors with the applied combination of human factors and design. And this is the direction in which I've been working in my latest projects.

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