The Human Factor in Furniture Design and Workstation Development

Develop a Workstation at Home

Diffrient’s design mandate came from Robert B. Cadwallader, SunarHauserman’s vice chairman, after the latter concluded a number of years ago that office system had to be ready for the age of automation. He wanted to develop a system that started with the computer, rather than simply modifying a conventional system to accommodate it after the fact. His only charge was: “Design me a system.” Then, said Diffrient, “I was on my own: When Bobby chooses someone he trusts, he gives him latitude.” Diffrient took his latitude and ran, spending the first year of his five-year conception-to-production plan studying how people used systems and what was then available on the market. He realized that the problem with so many existing office systems is that they are based on structural panels, from which components, such as worksurfaces and storage cabinets, are hung, making it extremely difficult to adjust each workstation to its user. So diffrient decided to “put the system on the floor,” making each workstation a piece of furniture in its own right, with desk, chair, and overhead storage adjusting in unison. The panels, or screens, then become lightweight, flexible elements, since they don’t have to support anything, and simply provide visual and acoustical privacy.

Build a workstation with a powerful computer, beautiful desk, and best recliners for comfortable working
Build a workstation with a powerful computer, beautiful desk, and best recliners for comfortable working

Features required for the workstations

The components of the system break down into five smaller systems. The freestanding, adjustable worksurfaces or table move up or down from the legs, and their wood or laminate tops can tilt for reading or writing, either manually or with an electric motor. Wings, in a variety of shapes, cantilever out from the worksurfaces, creating more flat working area; bridges make corner connections between related worksurfaces. An integral track system supports accessories such as task lights, phone stands, video supports, etc., to clear the worksurface, “a valuable piece of real estate,” in Diffrient’s words, making the workstation more efficient without having to make it bigger. The panel system is used when and where needed, and attaches to storage units and light columns. The storage system consists of freestanding low and high units, as well as drawer and file units mounted under the workstation, and overhead storage mounted on the workstation, you automatically adjust the height of the storage unit accordingly. The lighting system consists of two task lights–one track-mounted, the other attached to the overhead storage–and an ambient light column that also houses wiring. Finally, the seating system–a task chair and an unorthodox reclining chair–are designed on the same principles of variable adjustment as the other pieces. Check tips on repairing or maintaining a house.

freestanding, adjustable worksurfaces or table for a workstation
freestanding, adjustable worksurfaces or table for a workstation

About 75 percent of the design, according to Diffrient, was determined by the sight lines to the video screen (or CRT) and keyboard. This led him to design the video and copy stands so that they could be symmetrical about the center of the worksurface, rather than having the CRT fixed in the middle and the copy stand off to one side. This also produced a video support that adjusts up and down, tilts, and swivels. Usually, the CRT is stuck atop the computer, an arrangement that proves comfortable for only about 50 percent of workers. With this system, the user has a side-by-side option.

The task chair represents an effort, in Cadwallader’s words, to “get rid of the bells and whistles.” Once the initial adjustments have been made, its only operating adjustment is for seat height; the seat automatically tilts forward and back to accommodate the movements of the worker, both at the keyboard and at ease.

Recliner chair and its Benefits

The reclining chair, the most unusual component of the system, is Diffrient’s answer to Cadwallader’s request for “a chair that I can read in,” which also became a chair in which he or anyone else could work at a personal computer. Since the chair didn’t work with a conventional desk, Diffrient designed a veritable workstation’s worth of accessories to go with it: a swivel table, video stand, adjustable light, and, of course, an ottoman. He cites a study made of college students’ study habits, in which those who reclined while working were found to have grades equal to those students who sat up straight. Approaching the recliner as a task chair problem. Diffrient called it a perfect “90 percent project–in which the performance criteria were so well developed that the product designed itself 90 percent.”

A most comfortable recliner is a must-have item for a great workstation
A most comfortable recliner is a must-have item for a great workstation

The look of the Diffrient system is frankly industrial: while the detailing is quite elegant, and its accessories downright snappy, it won’t win any beauty contests. But then, it wasn’t mean to. “Form is not just the way it looks,” insists Diffrient, who cites human factors and the lightest possible performance “weight” as his guides. “The best design is not found in products that scream, ‘Look at me, I’m designed!’ but in products that are just ‘there.’ I won’t go past a certain point of aesthetic elaboration.” Furthermore, making the system any more elaborate than necessary would increase its cost, and this product is designed to compete with the major systems in the industry–to perform just as well, at the same price, but with the crucial advantage of adjustability. The panels will cost half as much as those of other systems. The luxuries of this system are its accessories and “extras,” such as the motor-driven tilt-tops and CRT stands. One of its most important options is its capacity to house disk drives and printers in boxes suspended under the workstation wings, with the keyboard and CRT placed on the adjustable worksurface in the center. While other manufacturers are currently working on integrated electronics and “intelligent furniture” (P/a, May 1984, pp. 161-166), Diffrient emphasizes that electronics are only part of the picture: “You still need a lot of office stuff–lighting, storage, paper, management, etc.–and this system offers all those things.”

Find a good recliner for your workstation based on recliner reviews
Find a good recliner for your workstation based on recliner reviews

Just how wholeheartedly the furniture-buying market will agree with all this will have to wait until the system’s introduction this month at NEOCON. But the fact remains that the Diffrient system possesses the elegance of common sense, and these days, that counts for plenty.

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