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  • 07.25.17

The 1970s Design Manual That Quietly Shaped Everything You Use Today

Humanscale is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s–and it’s being reissued through Kickstarter.

The 1970s has been a frequently revisited decade in the design world lately, most notably in the resurgence of reissued graphic standards manuals from that era. For many graphic designers, the reissues stoke nostalgia for a time when corporate identity design was experiencing a golden age and when even the government valued effective branding. But beyond offering up a slice of design history for appreciation, there’s not much utility in these manuals; once guidelines for companies applying a new visual system, they are now beautiful coffee table books for idly flipping through.

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Not so for the Humanscale reissue, the latest vintage design manual to be released on Kickstarter. Created between 1974 and 1981 by the office of industrial design pioneer Henry Dreyfuss—the firm known for designing everything from Bell System’s first telephones to the Hoover vacuum and John Deere tractors—the Humanscale sets were meant to be the product designer’s bible. They contain thousands of human factors datasets on human dimensions, seating standards, wheelchair access guidelines, legibility principles, and other essential metrics for designers creating human-centered products and spaces. And even though the product design landscape has changed and digitized dramatically since the 1970s, human dimensions by and large have not. The data, and the ingenious way that data is presented, is still useful to designers working today.

In fact, according to the design consultancy IA Collaborative, which is publishing the reissue, no other resource has cropped up since Humanscale was published that can provide this data quite as accessibly and comprehensively. “Even though these were published decades ago, people haven’t changed in their heights or general dimensions since then,” IA Collaborative cofounder Dan Kraemer tells Co.Design. “They are analog but they are so easy to use. A simple reprint of these is applicable to design work today, but we also like the potential where we could digitize these and create interactive guides, and we could expand the data set to make it relevant for future user interfaces.”

For now, IA Collaborative plans to create facsimiles of the manuals if it reaches its Kickstarter goal of $137,800. The project is the first to come out of IA’s new ventures program, an initiative to bring employees’ passion projects to life (as a side hustle to the firm’s client work). IA’s design engineering lead Luke Westra and design researcher and strategist Nathan Ritter pitched the project last year after having acquired a rare edition of the Humanscale manual, which they estimate went out of print in the 1990s. Westra and Ritter use the manual as reference material for their design work at IA. “The applications are almost endless,” says Westra. “We use them for everything from medical devices to appliances to sporting goods to watches to consumer electronics.”

Humanscale is most useful as a starting point for determining the size, scale, and different dimensions of a product, before prototyping and refining it. The full manual is composed of three different sets, which themselves include three different “selectors”—essentially plastic, double-sided dial charts. Each selector is rendered in clean typography and bright colors—teal, purple, fire-engine red—and contains a circular disc. When the user rotates the disc to access data like age, height, and ability, corresponding measurements align in cut-out windows throughout the chart. So, for example, if IA designers are working on a shower chair with adjustable legs for someone who uses a wheelchair, they could use the chart to determine an adjustable height range: Rotating the wheel on that chart will show the appropriate height of a chair based on the average height of the person using it.

Here’s what a selector looks like in action:

The entire catalog contains around 60,000 data points, condensed and displayed in nine elegantly designed charts. Henry Dreyfuss Associates collected the data while working on projects that ranged from telephones and tractors to the Polaroid camera, the American Thermos, and a round thermostat for Honeywell. One of Dreyfuss’s first projects was designing tanks for the U.S. Army during WWII; he used human factors data to determine design elements like the size of the tanks, where exactly the foot pedals should be, and how to make them safe for the soldiers operating them. That project gave Dreyfuss’s firm a wealth of data that would prove useful in the future—the Army meticulously documented everything about the men that it drafted.

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With every new project the firm took on after that, designers continued to collect data relevant to whatever they were designing: the dimensions of farmers who would drive John Deere tractors, for example, or data on hand grip for Bell telephones. Henry Dreyfuss Associates published some of that information in its 1960 book The Measure of Manwhich contained anthropometric charts labeled “Joe” and “Josephine.” But the Humanscale manuals—the first set was published in 1974, and sets two and three in 1981—was the first time that the firm published the data so comprehensively. The project was headed up by designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the latter of whom set all of the tiny numbers scattered meticulously across the inner dial by hand.

Westra and Ritter insist that no human factors resource as complete and as easy to understand has been published since. In the decades since Humanscale’s publication, this type of data has been digitized, but since gathering the data is such an arduous task, most of it is privately held by the companies that undertook the research. “The stuff that is publicly available is buried behind menus and drop-downs and not very ‘discoverable’ user interfaces,” says Westra. “That’s the beauty of these tools—you can lay them out and just by surveying and looking over them you can be inspired by the data that maybe you should be considering, but you would never have found if it were hidden behind some search query box.”

If the Kickstarter for the Humanscale manuals is successful, IA plans to digitize and update the data. You can imagine some additions that would be useful for today’s designers—metrics for sound design (for designing devices like Amazon Echo and Google home), typography, and gestural interfaces. Since the original manuals were published some 20 years before the American Disabilities Act, there are also some accessibility standards that need to be added and updated.

As far as the visual design goes, the designers plan to remain as true as possible to the analog charts—even when translating them to a screen. “That’s a fun, interactive challenge for us to think about in digitizing these tools in the future,” says Kraemer. “We can guarantee it won’t be a bunch of drop-down menus.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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