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Josh Safdie Assoc. AIA speaks with Ellen Lupton

“Designing for people,” a phrase coined by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss after World War II, is central to Ellen Lupton’s belief system. The senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Lupton is the editor of Beautiful Users, which explores the changing relation­ship between designers and the human beings whose needs they address. In a video interview with Josh Safdie, director of the studio at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston, Lupton talks about how, as she puts it in the book’s opening essay, organizing the design process around bodies of diverse sizes and abilities is “a vital vein of contemporary practice.” Today, a well-informed public is an increasingly dynamic force in the evolution of user-centered design.

Humanscale Body Measurements template, 1973, by Henry Dreyfuss. Photo: Henry Dreyfuss Associates.

Josh Safdie: Tell me about the book and what you think people might get out of it.

Ellen Lupton: The book is being published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized by Cooper Hewitt; the exhibi­tion is one of a series that introduces the public to what design is, through different themes and focus topics. We felt this was a great theme to start with: One of the ways that design is different from engineering or from art is that it always has a user in mind. And designers can have different points of view about that user, but it is a strong philosophy within design, since the mid-20th century, to really think of the user as almost a subject of what we do. That the user makes possible our work. That the user brings design to life.

Josh Safdie: My perspective in thinking about these issues within the built environment is that, more often than not, they are overlooked or not prioritized by architects and other designers of physical space. So it’s interesting to hear you say that this is really at the center of the definition of design that you want to put forward. Do you think that people would find this a departure from other experiences at the Cooper Hewitt or other exhibitions?

I think often the hiding of disability is for the benefit of the abled people: The idea of preventing that discomfort or shock or surprise of seeing something that’s different.

Ellen Lupton: It’s a point of view that we have espoused for quite some time, that the user is key to design. We haven’t done an exhibition with that as a focus since the mid-’90s, so it’s definitely time to bring that camera back and to put the user and the designer’s relationship into focus. We think it is helpful to think about that as one of the things that distinguishes design from other disciplines. We talk about design as utilitarian, design as a function, but that function is for people, right? It’s directed at people.

Josh Safdie: You also teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I’m curious, partly because I teach at a school of art as well, if this way of thinking finds its way into your teaching? If so, how?

Ellen Lupton: Absolutely. I teach graphic design at mica, in Baltimore. One of my courses is on design theory and practice, where we look at different paradigms for how the design profession views itself and functions. We talk about experience design. We talk about sustainability. We talk about the psychology of design and affordances [an object’s capacity to support human action], and how design triggers behaviors in people. So it’s very much part of our dialogue in talking about the design process. It’s fairly recent to have that emphasis, especially in a graphic design program.

Josh Safdie: [Engineer] Alvin Tilley’s drawings of “Joe” and “Josephine” [depicted in Henry Dreyfuss’ 1955 book, Designing for People] were meant to represent a typical American couple and their use of products and spaces; the idea was that these norms address most of the population. But they exclude a majority of people from a lot of the conversation. So do you bring users, particularly users at the edges of the spectrum, into the equivalent of a design studio to work with students?

Ellen Lupton: [Yes,] in our special design program, a master’s program that works with the community around Baltimore. Students do projects with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and other divisions of Hopkins. We work directly with people in the community.

Josh Safdie: Some of the most exciting moments for me as an instructor are when students’ eyes are opened — through sharing lived experience with people who have bodies and abilities that are very different from theirs. It’s one thing to read the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act or a book about a paraplegic or a person with limited vision. It’s another to actually walk through the world alongside them and understand their interaction with architecture or the built environment. Taking these experiences, even within the form of the exhibition, and putting it in front of people coming to the museum is an analog for doing that. How much interaction between the public and these ideas will happen in real time? Is it a static exhibit or one that will give them the opportunity to experience things firsthand?

Ellen Lupton: You mean to touch and to try products?

Josh Safdie: Yes.

Ellen Lupton: One of the projects that we’re featuring is the Leveraged Freedom wheelchair, which is designed in Cambridge [at MIT’s Mobility Lab]. It’s a wheelchair created for rough terrain. This is a typical circumstance for wheelchair users around the world. Here in the US we take for granted, which we shouldn’t, things like ramps and paved roads. But in most parts of the world, that’s not available. So the Leveraged Freedom chair uses a unique gear-shifting technology to maximize the power exerted by the user, [resulting in a product] that can be used on diverse terrain and actually gets people out of their houses. It’s not just a wheelchair they can use inside their dwellings but out in the world that they live in. Visitors to our exhibition will be able to get in the wheel-chair and play with the gears . . . to experience the chair. An interesting fact about the chair is it’s rather small compared to a US wheelchair because it’s created for smaller people. And that will be a kind of lesson in itself of the difference between body scales in different parts of the world.

LEFT Leveraged Freedom Chair Prime Prototype, 2012. Photo: Courtesy of Continuum LLC.
RIGHT Leveraged Freedom Chair, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of GRIT.

Josh Safdie: When I read through the chapter you wrote for Beautiful Users, one of the things that piqued my interest was [design historian] Bess Williamson’s critique that if we integrate features related to disability into mass-market products, we’re in some ways ignoring or hiding or making less apparent the differences in people’s abilities. What are your thoughts about that?

Ellen Lupton: I was very interested to read her essay. It’s a remarkable history of the universal-design movement that is affirmative of universal design but also casts a questioning eye: that we can’t have truly universal products because people aren’t all the same, and no product environment is going to satisfy literally every user. That’s something we all know. But I found her notion of encouraging designers to create products that actually celebrate and magnify difference, as opposed to assimilating difference, very interesting and in a sense an idea that comes out of multicultural studies and bringing that to play in relation to universal design. In our exhibition, we feature a number of prosthetic devices, which are quite remarkable as pieces of sculpture and design. In no way do they look like “natural limbs.” They’re not about pretending that someone has all their limbs. They’re about creating something new that has its own appearance, its own function. I find that a really interesting point of view.

Josh Safdie: When people try to figure out what universal-design approach means, the easy example is when you renovate a historic building, if you can put the ramp entering the front door next to the historic steps, then everybody’s sort of coming through the same place. Things are somewhat equalized without calling attention to your particular mode of entering the building. But it’s interesting to think about something like a prosthesis and the design of it, and the celebration of it, as opposed to trying to pretend to be an arm or a leg. That can be an act of design, but it can also be, in some ways, a social act or a political act, right? You’re not trying to hide things.

Ellen Lupton: I think often the hiding of disability is for the benefit of the abled people: The idea of preventing that discomfort or shock or surprise of seeing something that’s different.

Josh Safdie: We talk a lot in our work about the idea that disability is often viewed as a binary thing. There are people who are disabled and then there is everybody else in the world. In reality, it’s much more of a spectrum of ability. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have said that disability is a universal human condition. Everybody experiences changes in their ability at some point in their lives, even if it’s just being underwater and needing the assistive technology of scuba gear to be able to breathe in that environment.

Ellen Lupton: Or being a child.

Josh Safdie: Exactly. I gave a lecture a couple of years back at a design school right after I had had surgery to reconstruct my acl after a soccer injury. I was presented with an inaccessible stage when I got there. It was a great firsthand lesson for the students: Here is a young guy, he’s active, and yet he’s experiencing disability for a short period of time. The other thing that comes to mind is assistive technology that has been totally normalized, like eyeglasses. The choice of your eyeglasses is a personal expression. It’s seen in a very different way than something that’s compensating for a disability, so it’s not something that we try to hide.

Ellen Lupton: Now with Google Glass, we have sort of bionic eyeglasses, and perhaps other types of prosthetics and assistive devices will also make people even better.

Josh Safdie: The way you closed your chapter was interesting to me, talking about [industrial designer, ideo cofounder, and director of Cooper Hewitt from 2010 –2012] Bill Moggridge and the idea of the limits of user-centered design. I’m curious where you stand on this idea that user-centered design may be too narrow or limiting.

Ellen Lupton: I think the term “user-centered’’ at some point became human-centered, which is less looking at people as consumers but looking at the broader spectrum of human need and human experience. Of course, if we only focus on the needs of people, that’s at the expense of other creatures and other systems. So there is a limit to any kind of human-centered view of life or systems. If universal design itself requires systems in order to really function, all the design that we create also has these other impacts. And we really have to look at the life cycle of an entire product, not just how people use it, but what happens to it when we’re done with it. That’s a subject for another exhibition. But it’s important to acknowledge that we have to look beyond only human needs. In fact, designers have been broadening their under-standing of what a user is, but also broadening their understanding of the bigger impact, the larger systems in which humans live.

Josh Safdie: That makes a lot of sense, the idea that ecology is at the top of the list of things that we’re trying to serve. Certainly within architecture and construction, the origins of the universal-design movement are shared very much in the cultural zeitgeist that gave birth to the green movement as well. The first Whole Earth Catalog, if you want to go back that far, came out at the same time that the first accessibility regulations were passed in the US. For those of us who are focused on the human-centered design part of the profession, we have seen green really take off.

Ellen Lupton: And leed certification. It’s become a prestige piece for developers and architects.

Josh Safdie: Interesting to see the joining of ecological and user-centered or human-centered considerations within different design disciplines, coming from my perspective of architecture and the built environment. Maybe the idea is that we’re looking at user-centered design as one of the many lenses that you need to bring to the design process.

Ellen Lupton: Exactly.

Josh Safdie: But that it might not be an end unto itself.

Ellen Lupton: Some companies, I think, when they say that all their decisions are driven by creating a better user experience, that can actually backfire, right? If you look at Amazon and what’s going on with [its] conflict with the publishing industry, there’s a trade-off when you try to offer your consumers cheaper and cheaper goods. There’s also the damage that happens to the content-providing community, all of that. Or if Wal-Mart wants to provide ever-cheaper goods to its customers — that can have a negative impact on other systems.

Josh Safdie: I’m going back to something from your chapter: the Princess phone, which was sort of the first departure—speaking of consumers and products and trying to sell things—for Bell Telephone from the very utilitarian phone, which was standard for everybody, to one which might be marketed to a particular demographic. You described it as something that moved more toward consideration of human habits and anatomy as opposed to just an abstract play of angles and curves. That was an interesting juxtaposition.

Ellen Lupton: It’s really the middle phone, the 500-series phone. That was the result of this intensive ergonomic and psychological research. The Princess phone uses the same handset but creates a new body for it. That body is feminine and elongated and has a little light in it and is lightweight, so you can carry it around your bedroom. It does speak to new habits, to the discovery of teenaged girls as consumers and people who love phones and who want privacy in their bedrooms. But it’s definitely moving away from the kind of universal utilitarian artifact that the 500-series phone had aspired to, toward something focused on a narrower user, a more specific user.

Josh Safdie: That’s interesting, though, the idea of a specific user. It’s marrying an aesthetic agenda or an aesthetic desire, which is geared toward marketing to a particular demographic, and the designer’s own idea of beauty or form. But it still retains important user-centered attributes, which came from the earlier version.

Ellen Lupton: Yes, right.

Josh Safdie: I’m thinking about the limits of user-centered design as a means to an end. Does the progression you describe in the Bell phones point to something, which is that it needs to be one of the considerations but not the only one?

Ellen Lupton: That there are even different ways to think about users. The notion that everybody gets his or her own phone in creating specific products that are geared toward ever-narrower demographics, versus creating something “universal” that everybody can use. They’re both user-centered, but they take a different perspective. They both have value. What we’re seeing now are things like the iPhone, where the shape is completely standard for everyone, but people have a great degree of freedom in terms of customizing how the thing works. But the shape has nothing really to do with the body and is not specific or changeable in any way. It’s generic. The product is infinitely customizable.

Josh Safdie: From our perspective [at the ihcd], we’ve spoken with lots of people with disabilities who have told us that they’re throwing out tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of assistive technology and replacing it with apps on their phones.Ellen Lupton: That’s fantastic.

Josh Safdie: It’s a great thing, and it probably points to Apple’s intention from the beginning of considering the user experience and also of considering diverse abilities as part of what the user experience is meant to be.

Ellen Lupton: [Apple is] creating a platform in which it’s affordable to create narrower apps for people. Apple doesn’t have to create all those apps; specialists and communities that know what is needed can create them. It can be done and it’s affordable, using this universal platform. I think that’s a very interesting development. ■