A design for living

Most designers would rather stretch your body or cut off your legs than alter their creations. Hugh

There used to be a dummy manning the reception area of a New York firm of designers called Smart Design. Nothing odd in that, there are dummies in many a company lobby. But this was a real dummy. It was labelled with typical bodily dimensions and their ranges into the fifth and 95th percentiles of the population. It had leapt from the pages of a famous ergonomics reference book called Humanscale, by the great American designer Henry Dreyfuss. The Smart Designers had put a pair of jazzy boxer shorts on the cut-out, which about sums up many designers' attitude to ergonomics.

Similar dummies adorn the Science Museum's unlikely exhibition on this subject. They aren't wearing shorts, but they have the curious expressiveness of Antony Gormley figures with a greater sense of humour. Some have been mechanically abused so that they twitch and fidget. The effect was especially amusing during the self-serving speech to open the exhibition given by the ubiquitous inventor Trevor Bayliss. You could see why they'd asked him: name a famous ergonomist. This is a field of anti-heroes. The most senior must be Procrustes. In old Attica, you may recall, Procrustes would stretch his victims to fit the bed in which he had lain them. If they were too tall, he would chop their legs off. Robbery was his trade until Theseus came and cut him down to size.

Designers have a certain Procrustean bloody-mindedness. User fit is not always top of their list. But few ergonomists cut the swathe of a Theseus. There are many charismatic designers. Now design's dismal science needs a media hero, its own Ralph Nader, Michael Moore or Derek Cooper.

It would be possible to make a very dull exhibition on ergonomics. Fortunately, the Science Museum had the inspired idea of calling in Tim Hunkin and Sarah Angliss, who are geniuses of interactive "edutainment". Theirs are the dummies, as well as a device for measuring your buttocks, chairs that you score for comfort, and a hilarious "driving test" that demonstrates the link between design and safety with frightening effectiveness. To take the test you sit in an old Lada. As you bowl along in this cheap simulator, the pompous-voiced instructor (stuffed) in the passenger seat tells you to find the switch for this and that, and cut-out figures leap out into the roadway. For good measure, there's a mad dog in the back which starts barking at moments of stress.

It's all too lifelike. It's also quite unlike real ergonomics studies. Traditional tests take place closeted from the real world. At the Science Museum, you can put yourself through a time-and-motion analysis, shuffling papers from one set of filing trays to another. A camera tracks the path of lights strapped to your wrists; at the end, a monitor displays the traces of your endeavour. As you struggle to keep the papers separate from the wiring of the experiment, though, you realise that such tests are poor mimics of real work.

The laboratory simulations suggest ergonomists' unwillingness to see the big picture. The man in the Attica chariot might wonder why Procrustes chose such a complicated way to rob people. An ergonomist would simply advise him to try an adjustable bed. And so today. It takes an ergonomist - offering, along with ordinary users, caption comments on various common products - to diagnose the video recorder he has bought as "error-prone". A panel on "researchers' waffle" is cruelly but justifiably illustrated by an impenetrable paper - on ergonomics.

Elsewhere, the exhibition entices: stress yourself out with these impossible controls, crash the computer interface from hell. But I can do these things at home. And as the caption says: "If you want to see some more bad interfaces, take a look at the Internet." In Hunkin and Angliss's subversive hands, this is no celebration of achievement (the show marks the 50th anniversary of the Ergonomics Society and the silver jubilee of the government's Health and Safety Executive) but a reminder of continuing ineffectualness.

The half-century is significant. Ergonomics has military origins. Here conditions are more demanding and consequences more calamitous. Early research naturally focused on a tiny proportion of the population: fit young men. Much of the emphasis in the decades since has been to embrace all kinds of users of products, young and old, adept and tyro, sweet and sour.

In the early 1980s, researchers and users thought that computer displays might present various health hazards. You never hear about that now. Why? Nobody seems to know. Perhaps the technology was modified. Perhaps people just got used to it. Perhaps the research was flawed. Today's scare concerns mobile phones. The hazards may be greater, but the fuss is less. People like their mobile phones because they confer status, whereas computers were seen as an imposition by "management". These social and market factors influence reactions to new products as much as physical fit.

Much remains to be done even at a basic level. There are a million and a half sufferers from work-related musculo-skeletal disorders in Britain. The catch-all term includes everything from voguish repetitive strain injury to good old-fashioned backache. The home presents, if anything, a greater challenge. Magdalen Page, director of ICE Ergonomics (formerly the Institute for Consumer Ergonomics), says domestic architecture is one of the biggest unacknowledged problem areas. People want traditional rooms and more of them. Fitting their requirements into an affordable volume is increasingly difficult, leading builders to make stairs as steep and corridors as narrow as regulations allow, introducing danger and discomfort. There are ergonomic remedies. But again, they fail to take account of the broader nature of the problem: people are far more conservative about the design of their living space than products they might buy.

Ergonomists may come up with solutions that work, but they often lack appeal. Some designers are renowned for creating products that look great and work not at all. The best designers are secret ergonomists. One of the greatest success stories in recent years is the range of kitchen and garden tools marketed under the name Good Grips. They have large, rubberised handles, but they don't look as if they were designed for "special needs". They were created by Smart Design.

"The Human Factor" is at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 (0171-938 8080) until 31 August

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong