How ergonomics affects our daily lives

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Ergonomics shapes the products we use every day, from mobiles to motors. Now, the Design Museum is celebrating this fascinating science. By Caroline Roux

On 14 June 2007, O2 launched a new phone, the Cocoon, with all the usual no-expense-spared festivities that accompany the introduction of new gadgets however small. Champagne corks popped in the VIP area of the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park as CSS and the Klaxons wandered by and the O2 marketing team talked breathlessly of the Cocoon's unique features, stylishness and unparalleled music-playing qualities.

You can swoon over the Cocoon too, because from today, it's on display at the Design Museum. But it hasn't been chosen for its musical charms. Instead, it has a starring role as an example of applied ergonomics in a new exhibition which hopes to show us exactly what that means.

Those who are irritated by composites like Brangelina or Jedward won't like this, but ergonomics is a portmanteau word, too – a combination of the Greek ergos and nomos (work and natural laws) created by one Hywell Murrell 60 years ago. It broadly means analysing how, why and when we use things in order to make design user-led, and not object led. Ergonomists will tell you that ergonomics are invisible precisely because they work, but we'll notice as soon as an object's user-friendliness is not what it could be. They reckon that we like ergonomic things best. In the Cocoon's case, its softly sculpted clamshell case, designed to be stroked and fondled by a stylish human hand, and its blue LED display telling us what it was up to ("Hello!" "Playing music!"), were meant to make us feel this inanimate object was comfortable and friendly. But did we fall for it? 02 discontinued the Cocoon after a year.

Still, the Design Museum exhibition is far from a catalogue of disasters. It's even got the control desk from the CERN control room (that bit functions fine, it's just the Collider that's problematic). "It's a huge scientific instrument, so it has to be right," says the show's curator Gemma Curtin. "They studied everyone's jobs, how they needed to be connected, how items had to be arranged on the desk." You do wonder, though, why they wouldn't study any of those things before coming up with a design. Sometimes, ergonomics does seem a little like the science of the bleedin' obvious.

And sometimes, it's just brilliant. Look at the black desks which passport officers sit behind in Heathrow Terminal 5, the work of designer Paul Priestman plus ergonomists. A white block of Corian is inserted into a cutaway corner to which the traveller naturally gravitates, lured by the bright whiteness. At the passport desks where you enter Britain, this white block has its top corner cut away too, encouraging you to lean in to the passport officer, creating closer contact. Stealthily good design.

Look at the Ford Focus, where a "third-age" simulation suit was used to enable designers to feel what it's like to have a less-agile ageing body. ("Designers are often young, and they can empathise with the elderly, but they don't really know what the stiffening of old age feels like," says Curtin.) As a result, seat positions were raised and handles were made more grabbable.

According to Dr Mark Young, who started out studying psychology but is now senior lecturer in Human Centred Design at Brunel University, a lot of the original work in ergonomics was started during the Second World War. "The altimeters in the cockpits were three dials, one reading hundreds of feet, one thousands and one tens of thousands. People were reading the wrong dials, and people were dying. Once research was done into how people actually read displays the problem was solved." Now displays are hybrid: we read rates of speed change better on an analogue dial and overall speed as one digital number. Young, who particularly likes the safey aspects of ergonomics, is currently developing an in-car device to encourage safer, greener driving called the Footlite. It should be launched in the next couple of years.

But as with everything, with ergonomics, there can be too much of a good thing. And sometimes you can get away with none at all. Designer Dick Powell, once celebrated for studying hundreds of women's breasts when he created an ergonomic bra in the 1990s (M&S bought it), was asked to turn his attention to the design of a horse saddle by a small independent maker. Ten years on, the AMS Quantum saddle is a triumph (horses can't speak, but their actions and stress-registering mats do). Yet Powell reckons: "there's more than enough ergonomics being applied. It's frustrating when the ergonomists tell you it's not enough. We usually design things to be produced in millions, and something has to give. And look at the iPhone." Indeed, look at the iPhone. It has every function imaginable except, unlike the Cocoon, the one of being comfortable to use. And do we care? The sales figures answer that question very nicely.

Ergonomics: A magnificent seven

Hadron Collider

Ergonomists helped design a better working environment for control room staff charged with operating the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Experts from CCD Design and the Ergonomics Consultancy in London made visits to the centre, just outside of Geneva, to interview staff, look at working practices and plot just how the new centre would operate.

The Aeron Chair

The poster product of ergonomics, launched by Herman Miller in 1994 and designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, the Aeron's got the lot: lumbar support, sacral support, endless possible adjustments, lightness. Even Malcolm Gladwell writes about it in his book Blink. Ugly and expensive and worth every last cent.

Swiss Air first class seats

While ergonomics has its roots in aeroplane design during the Second World War, it was the cockpit that received all the attention back then. Now, it's passengers who enjoy the benefits of good design. Swiss Air's seats, created by Priestman Goode combine architectural and ergonomic quality.

O2 COCOON

Exhaustive audience research, oodles of so-called stylishness courtesy Syntes Design and endless ergonomic input from System Concepts Limited couldn't save the Cocoon, which survived a mere year in the competitive mobile phone marketplace. As the iPhone has gone on to prove, consumers rate apps over comfort any day.

Ford Focus

OK, so it's not the coolest car on the road and God knows what Jeremy Clarkson would say. But the Ford Focus was impeccably researched and, following "third-age testing", adjusted to the needs of the older driver too. Stable, practical and kind to the real grown ups. Ford's subtle bid, perhaps, to suck up the silver pound.

Cylinda Coffee pot

Danish architect Arne Jacobsen was an ergonomics natural. His lovely, still-popular Egg chair accommodates the human form effortlessly. His Cylinda tea and coffee pot, peerless exercises in Danish modern style from 1960/4, are simply perfect to hold.

Sky remote control

Twelve years old and so good at its job, it is simply modified to accommodate each new addition to TV life. Frazer Design came up with the form, Davids Associates the ergonomics. So perfectly weighted that you know which way round it should sit in your hand, even with both eyes trained on the telly.

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