The Smithsonian Design Museum Tells the Story of User-Centered Design Through 120 Beautiful Products

A thermostat, a wheelchair, a prosthetic arm and razors are all a part of “Beautiful Users,” now on display in New York City

Yves Béhar designed the August Smart Lock in 2013. The device covers the dead bolt on a door. An accompanying app allows users to designate family and friends as virtual key holders. Anytime these key holders and their smartphones approach the device, they are granted access. Courtesy of the designer
Henry Dreyfuss drew this design for an acratherm gauge in 1943. A decade later, he produced the Honeywell Round thermostat. The user turned the device's outer ring to adjust the temperature. Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photography: Matt Flynn
Bill Moggridge, former director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and a pioneer in user-centered design, created the GRiD Compass—the first laptop computer. "Beautiful Users" is dedicated to Moggridge, who died from cancer in 2012 at the age of 69. Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photography: Matt Flynn
Designer Jesse Howard creates appliances from repurposed parts and provides open-source instructions for makers seeking to build them. "The canister for Howard's Improvised Vacuum comes from a plastic thermos; the motor was salvaged from a broken vacuum," writes Lupton. Courtesy of the designer
In 2006, Iomai, a biotech company that has since been acquired by Intercell, commissioned IDEO to create a safe, needle-free way for people to give themselves vaccines. The design firm tested hundreds of prototypes and ultimately landed on this delivery system, which uses sandpaper to prepare the skin for a patch. Courtesy of the designers
Harry's mission is to provide "a great shave at a fair price." For the company's founders Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider, industrial designers Stuart Harvey Lee and Jochen Schaepers designed simple, ergonomic razors in 2013. Courtesy of Harry's
Amos Winter and students at the MIT Mobility Lab designed the Leveraged Freedom Chair, a wheelchair that is capable of off-roading and 80 percent faster on smooth surfaces than standard chairs. Courtesy of GRIT
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and Hunter Defense Technologies developed a modular prosthetic limb that users can control either by sensor on their other arm or electrodes that pick up on commands from their brain. Courtesy of Bryan Christie Design and Josh Fischman/National Geographic Creative
In 2012, designer Leon Ransmeier made nine pitchers with different handles, first in cardboard and then in glass, with help from the Corning Museum of Glass. Courtesy of the designer; Photography: Ransmeier, Inc.
Designers Francesca Lanzavecchia and Hunn Wai gave canes and walkers a second purpose. "The T-Cane helps users serve tea and snacks. The U-Cane holds books, magazines and supplies for knitting and crafting," Lupton writes. "The I-Cane doubles as an iPad stand." Courtesy of the designers; Photography: Davide Farabegoli
Sabi's Thrive line of products, designed by Yves Béhar, aims "to take the shame out of pill use," according the design firm's founder Assaf Wand. The pill cutter (top left) has a plastic blade instead of metal, making it available over the counter, and the folio (bottom right) is a chic alternative to a standard pill case. Courtesy of Sabi
"Joe" and "Josephine" inThe Measure of Man posters, authored by Henry Dreyfuss, designed by Alvin R. Tilley, 1969 Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photography: Matt Flynn
The late designer Eva Zeisel made these paper cutouts of forks in her efforts to create flatware for Crate and Barrel. Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photography: Matt Flynn

Meet Joe and Josephine.

"They are not very romantic-looking, staring coldly at the world, with figures and measurements buzzing around them like flies, but they are very dear to us," wrote Henry Dreyfuss, the prolific designer behind such iconic products as the Hoover vacuum, John Deere tractors and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera. "They remind us that everything we design is used by people."

The hero and heroine of Dreyfuss' 1955 book Designing for People are your average American couple—at least by mid-century standards. Dreyfuss' colleague, Alvin R. Tilley, pored over data from fashion houses and the U.S. military and drew the characters to specs representative of the 50th percentile of all men and women. Joe stood nearly 5 foot 11 inches tall and weighed 162 pounds, while Josephine was just about 5 foot 5 inches and 135 pounds.

Offices had wall charts with life-sized Joes and Josephines, which Tilley distributed in a handbook called The Measure of Man. (Over the years, several updated editions have been released to keep the measurements current.) And designers used the figures to create products to fit the average consumer.

"Joe enacts numerous roles. Within twenty-four hours he may determine the control positions on a linotype, be measured for an airplane chair, be squeezed into an armored tank, or be driving a tractor," Dreyfuss noted. "And we may prevail upon Josephine to do a day's ironing, sit at a telephone switchboard, push a vacuum cleaner around a room, type a letter." The glaring gender stereotypes, of course, are a vestige of the times.

Dreyfuss' practice of "fitting the machine to the man rather than the man to the machine," as he put it, was revolutionary in the 1950s. "He observed how users interacted with products at home, at work and in stores," says Ellen Lupton, senior curator of conteporary design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. "He argued that design should be 'obvious,' meaning that we should understand how to safely use a product without much training and explanation."

Today, designers make products with a variety of interests in mind. "Some objects are designed primarily to express visual beauty, or to maximize profits, or simply to reinforce old habits and tradition," says Lupton. But, she adds, "Organizing the design process around users is a vital vein of contemporary practice."

"Beautiful Users," a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Design Museum, tells the story of user-centered design through 120 objects. From Dreyfuss' Honeywell thermostat—his archives are housed at the museum—to prosthetic limbs and app-enabled air conditioning units, the products chart this history of designing with respect to human anatomy and behavior, up through the open-source, maker culture we see today. "The phrase 'designing for people' is giving way to 'designing with people' as creative teams seek more egalitarian relationships with an increasingly well-informed public," writes Lupton, in the exhibition catalog.

Beautiful Users: Designing for People

In the mid-twentieth century, Henry Dreyfuss-widely considered the father of industrial design-pioneered a user-centered approach to design that focuses on studying people's behaviors and attitudes as a key first step in developing successful products.

"Beautiful Users" is on view in the new first-floor Design Process Galleries of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, through April 26, 2015.

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