Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Digital work habits and long hours: what is the future of the office chair?

Hani Asfour, dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, explains how students are being challenged to improve seat design in the workplace

Chris Morley of Herman Miller Middle East in the brand’s ergonomic Aeron chair.  Reem Mohammed / The National
Chris Morley of Herman Miller Middle East in the brand’s ergonomic Aeron chair.  Reem Mohammed / The National

Humans are not designed to sit. Many recent studies show that sitting is one of the unhealthiest things we can do. For example, sitting compresses the lungs, bends the spine and could limit blood circulation to the lower limbs. That is why we fidget and move about on our seats so much.

Galen Kranz, author of The Chair, shows that the seating posture is inherently unstable. You are probably reading this while sitting: do observe how you have shifted in your seat, at one point leaning back, at another sliding forward and at a third sitting at the edge of your seat, probably to straighten your spine.

At the height of the Cold War, many designers reacted by producing lighthearted, colourful designs and furniture for the home. Ettore Sottsass, a veteran Italian designer, took this trend into the office with the Synthesis 45 chair of 1971. With its whimsical expression, it was asking “why not have fun at work as well?”. While the workplace became less stuffy over time, by the 1990s, with the pervasiveness of digital work habits, long hours and always-on communication, office chair design shifted its focus to human well-being and planetary sustainability.

Herman Miller is a pioneer of ergonomic chair design, and is well known for several technologically advanced and sustainable seating solutions, such as the Aeron chair of 1990, designed by Dan Chadwick and Bill Stumpf. Herman Miller has partnered with the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation to have students address the challenge of everyday seating design. ErgoChair is a six-week exercise in which DIDI students studied a traditional worker through field research and observations of their seating behaviour and needs. Students proposed design solutions to improve the worker’s seating situation and productivity, and developed prototypes and scale models.

While historically the focus of office chair design has been on the white-collar workplace, many industries and opportunities have been neglected. Observing and empathising with, for example, how an abra boat captain crouches inside the hull, a shoemaker squats within arm’s reach of his tools or a coppersmith bends forward to master the details of his craft, can provide centuries-old lessons in design. Innovative solutions can be found through studying and improving body posture during repetitive tasks, gleaning anthropometric insights on critical distances and dimensions, and optimising the well-being of the sitter.

The power of rethinking the chair allows us to not take the everyday for granted and realise that design can better the lives of everyone

The importance of addressing real-world problems cannot be overstated or underestimated. The power of rethinking the chair allows us to not take the everyday for granted and realise that design can better the lives of everyone. In the fourth industrial revolution, design is the new voice of change and it is showing business and engineering the need to place the user at the centre of problem-solving. The notion of one-size-fits-all is no longer valid.

User-centred design ensures the success of any product or service, through empathy and relevance. The students’ chair designs are a good representation of Dubai’s young people practising design thinking and innovation that is inclusive and empathetic with all types of users. So the next time you catch yourself sitting, do think about how you might improve that experience, for yourself and others. And don’t take it for granted. Our students won’t.

Updated: November 7, 2019 06:35 PM

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