QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Democratic Design

[Note to editors: Photos available from the public information office at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Contact Barbara Livenstein at (212) 860-6894 to request slides from the Henry Dreyfuss exhibit.]What do a John Deere tractor, Polaroid instant camera, Bell telephone and Honeywell thermostat have in common? Each is a highly successful, user-friendly product that reflects the artistic touch of Henry Dreyfuss, a legendary industrial designer whose work focused -- as he put it -- on "fitting machines to people."Dreyfuss (1904-1972) was a remarkable visionary who managed to successfully navigate the shark-infested waters of big business while at the same time creating enduring devices with remarkable form, function and utility. It was his fundamental belief that technology should serve the needs of people, rather than people being forced to adapt to the needs of machines.That simple philosophy was behind some of the most durable inventions of the 20th Century. It was Dreyfuss, for example, who created the basic desktop telephone and the handset that could be easily cradled between the ear and shoulder, freeing the caller's hands. Later, he brought us the Princess, Trimline and TouchTone design phones.In the 1930's, Dreyfuss designed the sleek, modern Mercury long-distance passenger train for 20th Century Limited. Then, he helped farmers reduce back injuries by designing a better seat for farm machinery and produced an agricultural icon: the classic green John Deere tractor.Dreyfuss took Polaroid's technology for instant photography and created cameras that people could easily use, including the inexpensive "Swinger" (1965) and the remarkably innovative SX-70 (1972). When he noticed that rectangular thermostats were almost always mounted crooked on the walls of his friends' homes, he began a 13-year design odyssey that resulted in the Honeywell "Round" thermostat, first introduced in 1953 and now so common we no longer notice it.In hundreds of products, from the classic "Big Ben" alarm clock to the first anatomically-shaped toilet seat, the Dreyfuss touch was profound. The common link in every design was an overriding concern for the human using the device. It was Dreyfuss who pioneered anthropometrics -- the codification of human dimensions in industrial design.Fast forward to the present, when we are literally drowning in a flood of new technology. Where are the democratic design values of Henry Dreyfuss as we abandon our analog past and begin the transition to a digital future? Where are the creative designers who can successfully transform the raw stream of new technology into practical tools that real people can easily use to enhance their daily lives?Such values seem to be missing in action when it comes to today's personal computers and their budding off-spring, digital television (DTV). A daunting maze of complex technical issues still surrounds the installation of the most basic personal computer in the home or office. Despite claims to the contrary, these are not yet simple appliances average people can easily set-up and productively use.With the failure Federal Communication's Commission (FCC) to set even the most basic picture standard for digital television, why should we expect DTV to be any easier? (Let the "marketplace" determine the picture standard of DTV, said FCC chairman Reed Hundt, whose well-timed retirement leaves this ticking time bomb of incompatible TV signals to his successor.)Steve Jobs, who made a major leap in liberating personal computers when he oversaw the Apple Macintosh project in the early 1980s, contends great products are a triumph of good taste. The Mac -- with its user-friendly icons -- was such a great success, he has said, because the people who designed it were not only first rate computer scientists, but musicians, artists, poets and historians as well. They, like Henry Dreyfuss, brought brought a human dimension to the project.A lot has changed, however, since the Macintosh arrived on the scene in 1984. Microsoft -- not Apple -- has dominated personal computing, first with DOS and now with the increasingly Mac-like Windows operating system. Yet, after all these years, computers are still much too hard to use, they still freeze and crash, their software must be updated constantly, and they cost too much.A nerve was hit last year when Jobs, in an interview in the television documentary, "Triumph of the Nerds," accused Microsoft of lacking taste in designing the software it sells to more than 80 percent of PC users. "They don't bring much culture into their products," Jobs said in a stinging criticism of the computer industry's leading software maker.If personal computing is still not yet ready for prime time, one wonders what horrors are in store for digital television. We've heard the endless hype about the "crystal clear" pictures and "CD-quality" sound that DTV will bring, but do we really know how well this new technology it will work in our homes?Take ease of use, as just one example. Today's TV set, if anything, is simple and reliable. Turn it on, flip the channels, and it works. If, on the other hand, DTV sets are really going to be computers in disguise (remember "convergence?"), will the TV's operating system software crash when switching between programs or downloading one of those interactive commercials the industry thinks the public wants? If this doesn't happen, it will be the first computer ever offered to the American public that's crash-proof. Think about it.So far, the DTV revolution seems to be more about a few companies racing each other to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow than about building a next generation television system whose goal is to serve the needs of people. Too bad Henry Dreyfuss is not still around. His democratic design philosophy will be sorely missed as we tread across that rickety bridge to the 21st Century.[An exhibition of the work of Henry Dreyfuss is on display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City through August 31.]

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