How the Aeron Chair Continues To Inspire Good Design: Part 2
By Chloe Hill
December 10, 2015
Sometimes we recoil from something that is unfamiliar to us, even if it’s a better solution to a problem. We need to get used to it before we can appreciate it.
Ground breaking designs and ideas are like this. It takes a visionary and early adopter to recognize the beauty and significance of a radically different ground breaking design or idea before it is accepted by the masses.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company has never been afraid to embrace radical ideas.
D.J. DePree persuaded his father in law, a risk-taking entrepreneur named Herman Miller, to buy the Star Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan in 1923, and ignore the naysayers by transforming the traditional furniture line of the company into a functional modern line. While DePree knew nothing about modern design, he had enough foresight to understand where the world was headed. He sought out the most cutting-edge designers of the time including Gilbert Rhode, George Nelson, Charles Eames and Alexander Girard in the 1950s. DePree’s faith in these designers’ creativity allowed for the atmosphere of risk taking leading edge design.
The company continues to seek out cutting edge designers. Their commitment to a design driven philosophy translates into a devotion to quality, consumer research and empathy towards the human condition in its human-centered design.
Its human-centered design ideas produced the Aeron Chair which came on the market in 1994. The office chair was a result of much human-centered research and the observation of shifting life and work styles.
People were working from home, sitting in front of a computer more and working longer hours. Seeing a void in the market, Herman Miller designers set out to create a more streamlined, ergonomic chair.
The choice office chair at the time resembled a puffy throne. Remember the Lazy Boy recliner? So when Herman Miller carried out user testing of the minimally designed, exoskeleton like Aeron Chair in 1992, it was difficult for people to wrap their heads around it. On a comfort scale of 1-10, the testers scored it at 4.75. People expressed worry that the chair was unstable and wouldn’t hold them – they weren’t used to such streamlined furniture!
After designers tweaked the design, people overcame their hesitations and the score shot up to 8. However, the scores for the aesthetics still hovered between 2 and 3.
The odd thing was, designers know that there is usually a strong connection between comfort and aesthetics. In other words, if someone perceives something to be comfortable then it will be. People are funny that way. In the Aeron’s case though, people were rating it as comfortable but incredibly ugly.
Usually a furniture store won’t place a product on the market unless it receives all around scores of at least 7 but Herman Miller had invested an enormous amount of money in the development of the chair. It was a huge risk but Herman Miller decided to go with its instinct and place the chair on the market anyway.
It was a good thing they did. The chair drew keen interest from the design community and the chair won a “Designs of the Decade” Gold Winner Office Furniture Category award from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week magazine in 1999. It became a cult object, appeared in a number of movies and TV commercials and ushered a new age of a stripped down aesthetic. . A symbol of innovation, the chair was popular in Silicon Valley.
This chair redefined what beauty could be. Since the end of the 1990s, it has become the best-selling chair in the history of the Herman Miller Company. Today, it scores an aesthetic rating of 8 from testers.
Consumers’ first impressions need to be interpreted. The Aeron Chair was very different from anything people had ever seen and because it was so new and unusual, the testers called it ugly. They were misinterpreting their own feelings about the chair.
Malcolm Gladwell says this about the phenomena of the Aeron Chair in his book “Blink”: “This isn’t true of everything we call ugly. However, buried among the things that we hate is a class of products that are in that category only because they are weird – we don’t understand them just yet. It takes us some time to understand that we like them.”
All of this forward thinking has translated into financial gain and respect among consumers. As well as garnering numerous other awards, Herman Miller was ranked as “the most admired furniture company” by Fortune magazine. People actually appreciate when a company isn’t just trying to make a profit off of them and when that company is trying to solve problems and improve their lives!
So How is Hypnap Like Herman Miller?
We like to think there is a lot of correlation between Herman Miller and Hypnap and the Aeron Chair and our product the TruRest, an adjustable, collapsible and portable travel sleep aid that allows the user to rest in a supported, forward leaning position.
Here at Hypnap we also want to make improving people’s lives our primary goal. We’ve invested a great deal into the research and development of the TruRest. A human-centered, design-centered philosophy is at our core and like Herman Miller, we hired forward-thinking designers to help us with that.
We embrace radical ideas! When people see our product for the first time, many aren’t sure what to make of it. We understand!
Here at Hypnap we encourage you to question your perceptions and be open to new ideas because sometimes those ideas, as strange as they might seem at first, offer a better solution to a problem and improve your life.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, New York, New York, 2005
Russell, Beverly. Graphis 299, 1995
How the Aeron Chair Continues To Inspire Good Design: Part 1
By Chloe Hill
October 29, 2015
I spent a lot of time picking out my mattress five years ago.
At the mattress store, I spoke with a “sleep specialist” and laid on a cushion that was hooked up to a sensor device that was able to tell me which mattress would be best for my body type. This narrowed down the category of mattresses that I would test out.
All in all I spent about 2 hours choosing a mattress. I also threw down a substantial chunk of change for it. But a good night’s rest is vital to one’s health, so it makes sense to invest the time and effort into choosing a mattress.
It begs the question though: why don’t most people invest the same amount of time and money into the purchase of their office chairs?
I spend on average at least 8 hours sitting and working at my computer desk, yet I bought my office chair through an online office supply store just having seen a picture and read a brief description. When all was said and done, I spent just 20 minutes on the whole endeavor.
Renowned American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller certainly gave much more thought to the design and comfort of a desk chair. Out of that research came the Aeron Chair.
In the 1980s, Herman Miller recruited designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick to create improved furniture for the elderly. A significant segment of the American populace was aging and even though the elderly spent most of their time sitting, there was a lack of ergonomic furniture options. The La-Z Boy was wildly popular with this population, but its adjustment lever was difficult to operate, and its vinyl upholstered foam stuffing unevenly spread the user’s body weight and retained body heat and moisture which resulted in bedsores.
Not very comfortable, huh?
Stumpf and Chadwick’s solution was the Sarah Chair. Its pneumatic control made it easier to adjust. A unique construction feature was also employed in which the foam cushions were supported by plastic fabric stretched across a wooden frame. The foam’s backing was exposed to air making if more breathable thus preventing bedsores and the foam was thinner enabling it to shape to the body and more evenly distribute body weight.
Because no platform existed to market highly designed furniture to the elderly Herman Miller found it difficult to sell and they soon discontinued the Sarah Chair. However, not long after, Herman Miller asked Stumpf and Chadwick if they could apply what they learned designing the Sarah Chair to designing a chair for the office furniture market.
This resulted in the futuristic looking Aeron Chair which was launched in 1994. The Aeron has a pneumatic reclining mechanism which makes it easier to adjust. Foam is replaced by a breathable mesh, thus also making the chair more environmentally friendly. The chair comes in three sizes and has a number of adjustments for supportive features so that the user can fine tune the fitting to his or her individual need. These adjustments include seat height, back tilt tension, back tilt limiter, forward tilt, arm rest height, arm angle, lumbar support and a component called “Posturefit” which can adjust to provide back support at the base to eliminate lower back pain.
The Hypnap TruRest resembles the Aeron Chair in a number of ways. Like the Aeron Chair, the TruRest emphasizes more performance using fewer materials. We looked at the concept of the bulky foam filled tabletop massage devices and reduced them down to their essentials.
Bulky massage headrest support
TruRest Face Support
When one simplifies something that is meant for the human body, more investigation and complex engineering is required. The Aeron chair forecasted a move toward dematerialization, and a more function forward, more engineering-heavy approach. They studied the body, did elaborate testing and consulted specialists to achieve the most ergonomic result possible.
Hypnap carries the torch. We studied the human body and consulted doctors and chiropractors. We discovered that the distribution of the weight of the chest and the delicate facial area and the positioning of the head in relation to the neck and back is the key to comfort. All of this is being taken into account as we continue to refine the design of the TruRest. The correct positioning of elements of the TruRest and the ability for the user to make a specific number of adjustments is essential.
Aeron Chair Adjustment Features
Aeron Chair Adjustment Settings
Similar to the Aeron Chair, the TruRest offers a number of adjustments we discovered in testing were crucial for comfort. The TruRest has an adjustment for angle, proximity to the user, two separate adjustments for height and an adjustment for the head support. There are also markers on the TruRest that you can use to document your setting so you only need to go through your fitting once unless you want to make any changes to the settings for different situations.
TruRest Prototype Adjustment Features
TruRest Head Support Adj.
Height Adjustment 1
Height Adjustment 2
As with the designing of the Aeron Chair, the Hypnap team is taking a careful approach regarding the selection of materials. Like the Aeron Chair, the component of breath-ability in the TruRest is important. Skin will start to sweat after prolonged exposure to and pressure against materials and fabrics. Facial skin is the most delicate on the body and the face is the location of the eyes and nose, some of the most sensitive areas of the body. With that in mind, we’re currently investigating the use of a number of hypoallergenic, non-toxic, organic materials to incorporate into the face/head support of the TruRest.
TruRest prototype and material exploration
Herman Miller mesh weave options for Aeron Chair
Due to the elimination of materials and the absence of toxic foam, the Aeron Chair was an example of sustainability. It is also very important to the Hypnap team that the materials we use have the least impact on the environment as possible. We plan incorporate recycled and recyclable content into the frame of the TruRest and include designing for disassembly. For our cushions and carry bag we’re exploring eco-friendly materials.
Like the Aeron Chair, the TruRest is a premium product. Unlike the Aeron Chair, we’re aiming to make the TruRest affordable to the masses!
No matter if you are choosing a mattress, an office chair or a sleep aid, it’s worth spending the time and effort to achieve comfort and investing in a product that will not only deliver more comfort but also improve your health.
Huang, Cliff. “The Secret History of the Aeron Chair”. www.slate.com. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company, November 5, 2012. Web. 10/2/2015.
The Importance of Staying Open to New Ideas
By Chloe Hill
August 27, 2015
If no one took risks, new ideas would never have a chance blossom, businesses would conform to one another, and products would look and function in virtually the same way. Youngme Moon complains in her book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd” that this is essentially what is happening in the marketplace.
In trying to compete with one another in their respective markets, companies rely too much on market research and trying to match their competitors. A herd‐like mentality is the result: when one company does something, another company follows suit with a similar proposition. What happens is that products end up doing a lot of the same things but no single thing well, and an environment is created that discourages outliers and experimenters. They resort to relentless augmentation to differentiate their business proposition and product. She gives the example of Starbucks offering breakfast foods and McDonalds offering café drinks. This isn’t to say that businesses should completely ignore what their competitors are doing but blindly matching the competition benefits no one.
You wouldn’t want your orthopedist performing your heart surgery, right? Likewise, would you really want to go to McDonalds for a good cappuccino?
Another unfortunate outcome of business competition is hyper‐segmentation. The marketplace contains a growing number of alternatives in a product category but upon closer inspection the differences are barely perceptible and lose their meaning.
The next time you go to a convenience store, take a look in the bottled water section of the refrigerator aisle. Does it really matter if you’re drinking water from an aquifer in Iceland or an artesian spring in Tahiti? A product category that is hyper‐segmented has reached a stage in its evolution of “hyper‐maturity” in which change happens quickly and indiscriminately and all discipline within the category is lost. To be honest I’m fine with water from the tap in my kitchen – it’s free, I don’t have to feel guilty adding another plastic bottle into the waste system and I’m still pretty healthy.
Because of these factors , most companies are not offering something truly new and unique and customers experience what Moon terms “category blur”.
However, there are successful companies and products that are outliers offering unique business propositions. These companies are like a breath of fresh air. They took some risks and were brave enough to offer a product or service that to some may have seemed crazy and impractical at first, because it was so different from what everyone else was offering. However, customers recognized the merit in their offering and it really struck a chord with people.
For example, JetBlue offered a discount price and unexpected frills like spacious seating and legroom, free snacks and personalized video screens with satellite TV – amenities that were unheard of in the early 2000s when the company emerged. They were able to do this by cutting costs elsewhere – no free meals, no first or business class seating and flying out of less trafficked airports. Spacious seating (at least more than other airlines) and legroom alone has won me over as a customer!
Cirque du Soleil reinvented the idea of the traditional circus. They removed the animal acts, spectacle, and tacky trappings that people associated with the circus and instead focused on human skill including a combination of dance, theater, music and gymnastics with whimsical and chic sets and costumes.
Many people thought that if the animal acts were removed no one would buy tickets to a circus like show. Cirque du Soleil proved them wrong. Their modern rendition of the “Big Top” demonstrated that the circus could be a high art form therefore changing the public’s perception of what a circus could be and people flocked to the show.
This isn’t to say that every wacky and unusual idea has merit and should be pursued. Yet the success of Jet Blue and Cirque du Soleil demonstrates that more risks should be taken and more ideas should be given a chance to breath. Otherwise, innovative and creative solutions to problems will be overlooked and everyone misses out. As we face larger problems in society such as climate change, poverty, the list goes on and on, outliers and experimenters are crucial.
Taking calculated risks and being open to new ideas is a strong philosophy within the Hypnap team. If we’re not taking some chances and being open, we may miss an opportunity for something great to happen.
No product similar to the Hypnap TruRest exists on the market. Resting in the supported forward leaning position is a new approach. Some might be skeptical and that’s OK. The point is that we are trying to approach a common problem in a new way and taking the risk of testing it in the market. We strive to create something meaningful and we are excited by new ideas. We are grateful to be working with a great team of people and for the opportunity to bring a completely different solution to the market.
“Great ideas, novel ideas, original ideas…are tenuous at birth. And the reason for this is that, early on, they are often indistinguishable from crazy, impractical ideas. This is why…if we want innovation to happen, we need to suspend our disbelief enough to let it happen.” Youngme Moon