Design Is Everybody’s Business

It’s no surprise that the company behind the much-praised Aeron chairHerman Miller – would embrace a compelling design ethos.  The exquisitely-designed chair is featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, after all.

And yet, I was captivated by a recent presentation by the company’s director of insight and exploration, Gretchen Gscheidle.  (Thanks to the folks at San Diego’s CONNECT, for putting on the terrific seminar.)  As Gretchen outlined Herman Miller’s ten principles of design, I found them at once simple and profound.1.  Human CenteredWe design for people.

Gretchen explained that the company desires to “see the human performer excel.”  It designs for people on both a macro level (companies needing to change the way they do business) and micro level (the way individual workers need to work is changing.)

2.  PurposefulWe design to solve a problem.

When one of Herman Miller’s designers, Jeff Weber, broke his foot, he realized how awfully-designed crutches were.  Not just uncomfortable, they can damage nerves, arteries, and tissue, and it’s easy to slip and cause more pain or more injury.  So he went about designing a better crutch (Mobilegs).  This is a perfect example of the purposefulness that informs the company’s designs.

3.  IntegrityEverything relates to the problem.

As an example, Gretchen pointed to the Setu Chair.  Designed to be “as simple as possible, but no simpler,” the chair is made of only 17 pieces – it has only what it needs to provide instant comfort – “not a molecule more.”

4.  OriginalWe don’t copy.

The company’s rich history starts with D.J. De Pree who bought the Michigan Star Furniture Company and renamed it after his father-in-law who bankrolled the purchase.  D.J. was taught early on that he had an obligation not to copy others’ designs.  It would be more honest to create his own, and in following this “Christian moral principle,” he also learned he would have more success by being original.

5.  Apparent QualityThe quality of our work is evident.

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman can be found in interiors belonging to those with discriminating taste as well as in several documentaries and books — and on the set of the 90’s TV sitcom Frasier — not only because of their unique aesthetic, but also because the materials and craftsmanship speak to their quality.

6.  SustainableAlways protecting the environment.

One proof point:  All Herman Miller facilities have a 50% Open Space requirement – they must dedicate 50% or more to green space to promote a healthy environment.

7.  Beautiful and UsefulPeople need to want to own what we make.

Company designer Bill Stumpf once admitted, “I design for myself.”  This wasn’t meant – and hopefully it hasn’t been interpreted – as an egotistical statement.  Rather, it demonstrates his commitment to designing things that people really want to own.  In fact, the Aeron chair, Stump said, was designed to make people look at it and think “I want to sit on this really bad.

8.  SpiritedDoes it say Herman Miller?

Despite the range of products the company produces, there is a unifying design language present across all.   Some of the distinctives of Herman Miller design include playfulness and ergonomic, Gretchen explained.

9.  Beyond ExpectationsCreating surprise and delight.

Gretchen departed from her discussion of products to describe this principle.  She talked about the Marigold Lodge, on the north side of Lake Macatawa in Holland, MI.  It’s the company’s guest lodge, a corporate “home” of sorts.  Staying at the lodge is such a delight, Herman Miller customers will often request a room there – even when they’re calling on other companies.

10.  InevitableThis is the way it has to be.

Gretchen didn’t say much about this principle but she really didn’t have to because it seems the most appropriate.  There is something so natural and compelling about the company’s designs.  They are inventive, but not contrived; exquisite, but not elaborate.  They are “the way they have to be.

From the talk and everything else I’ve read about and experienced with Herman Miller, I sense how much design is a core value of the company. In fact, Gretchen explained, “Design is everybody’s business.”  No wonder she concluded her remarks quoting one of the company’s CEOs:

“What comes out of the truck is furniture, but what goes in is an amalgam of everything we believe in.”

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