Professor Bruce Archer

Mechanical engineer who established design as an academic discipline
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The Independent Online

Bruce Archer had just qualified as a chartered mechanical engineer when the Festival of Britain took place. "I was saved," he said later. "I heard of industrial design. I could be an artist and an engineer at one and the same time." Archer was to spend most of his working life in schools of art and design, more than 25 years of it at the Royal College of Art. Promoting the use of systems-level analysis, evidence-based design, and evaluation through field testing within industrial design, he led a multi-disciplinary team which employed these methods in practice - working on, among other things, the design of what became the standard British hospital bed.

Leonard Bruce Archer, engineering designer: born London 22 November 1922; Lecturer, Central School of Art and Design 1957-60; Guest Professor, Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm 1960-61; Research Fellow, Royal College of Art 1961-71, Head of the Department of Design Research 1968-85, Professor 1971-88 (Emeritus), Director of Research 1985-88, Honorary Fellow 1988; CBE 1976; married 1950 JoAnn Allen (died 2001; one daughter); died London 16 May 2005.

Bruce Archer had just qualified as a chartered mechanical engineer when the Festival of Britain took place. "I was saved," he said later. "I heard of industrial design. I could be an artist and an engineer at one and the same time." Archer was to spend most of his working life in schools of art and design, more than 25 years of it at the Royal College of Art. Promoting the use of systems-level analysis, evidence-based design, and evaluation through field testing within industrial design, he led a multi-disciplinary team which employed these methods in practice - working on, among other things, the design of what became the standard British hospital bed.

He was eventually head of a postgraduate research and teaching department at the college, where he identified that scholarly enquiry in design was just as vital as it was in the arts, the humanities and the sciences, and argued that design warranted its own body of scholarship and knowledge no less than conventional academic disciplines. He proposed that modelling be recognised as the fundamental competence of design, just as numeracy underpins mathematics and literacy the humanities and he believed that - like both literacy and numeracy - it should be widely taught.

Archer trained a generation of design researchers, showing them how the procedures of scholarly research based on well-founded evidence and systematic analysis were as applicable in design as in the more traditional academic subjects. For design practice, he argued there was a need for method and rigour, and for decisions to be recorded and explained so that they could, if necessary, be defended.

Today, practitioners are familiar with these issues through the requirements of quality assurance, while in academia the research assessment exercise has pushed even the art and design community into taking research seriously. Thirty or forty years ago, however, Archer's ideas were radical and pioneering, and the very existence of his research department - in an art college - controversial. It was his own force of character and his persuasive ability to argue his case with absolute clarity and conviction that ensured the department's survival, and provided him with the opportunity to demonstrate that design is not just a craft skill but a knowledge-based discipline in its own right.

Leonard Bruce Archer was born in London in 1922. His father was a regimental sergeant major in the Guards and his mother a dressmaker and a trained amateur artist. During his schooldays, he wanted to be a painter, but he was academically bright and not allowed to continue with art beyond 15. His school certificates were in entirely scientific subjects. The Second World War intervened before he could go to art school or university and he joined the Army, but left after failing to meet their physical requirements. After giving him an aptitude test, the Ministry of Labour said to him, as he recorded wryly: "You seem to be a bit of an artist at heart. You can become an engineering draughtsman."

So he did. He worked as an engineering designer in manufacturing, designing jigs and tools and later process plant. He attended evening classes for years at Northampton College, London (now City University), where he trained as a mechanical engineering designer, eventually gaining his Higher National Certificate in mechanical engineering. He became a member of the Institution of Engineering Designers in 1950, and in 1951 was awarded its national prize for the best thesis on design. In the same year, the year of the Festival of Britain, he joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1953 he left full-time employment in industry to set up his own consultancy and started teaching evening classes at the Central School of Art and Design, becoming a full-time lecturer there in 1957. He began writing articles for Design magazine, promoting what he called "a rational approach to design".

At a party given by a colleague from the Central School, he was approached by Tomas Maldonado, Director of the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, and offered a job acting as a bridge between two rival factions at the school - "scientists" and "artists". Archer moved there in 1960 as a guest professor to find two opposing belief systems. The ergonomists and psychologists believed in analysis and experiment as the basis for design, whereas the stylists were mostly concerned with form, and had evolved design rules about proportion, colour and texture which they thought of as a logical system for creating the cool, minimalist look for which Ulm became famous. Archer tried to convey each side's belief systems across the divide, but each group thought he had aligned himself with the other. Maldonado had left Ulm even before Archer arrived, and he found himself isolated. Later he said that learning how the two cultures thought was a highly formative experience.

In 1961 Misha Black was appointed Head of Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art and asked Archer to lead a research project, "Studies in the Function and Design of Non-surgical Hospital Equipment", funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Archer returned to Britain in the summer of 1962 and, with a small team, identified four urgent design problems: a receptacle for soiled dressings, a means of reducing incorrect dispensing of medicines to ward patients, the need for a standard design for hospital beds, and a way to prevent smoke control doors being routinely propped open. The team presented its report to the Nuffield Foundation at the end of the first year. Unfortunately,

They hated it. They'd expected beautifully presented designs for funny-looking cutlery for hospital patients to use in bed. That was what art schools did.

Nuffield refused to fund a second year, leaving Archer and Black stunned. Undaunted, Archer took a job at the Eldorado ice-cream factory in Southwark, loading ice-cream into refrigerated vans every night and working at the college unpaid during the day. Eventually, commercial funding was found for the soiled-dressings receptacle, and in 1963 Archer gave up his evening job when support was obtained from the King Edward's Hospital Fund for London to study the medicine- dispensing problem. A radical solution was devised - a medicine trolley on wheels which could be securely padlocked to a wall when not in use.

The hospital-bed problem was also re-examined. The King Edward's Hospital Fund became the King's Fund and was seeking a major exercise to promote its new nationwide role. It took on the standardisation of the hospital bed. Archer was appointed to a working party, and in due course won a contract for a standard specification and a prototype design. After widespread consultation, evidence gathering through direct observations, and extensive field trials using mock-ups and test devices, the specification was adopted by the King's Fund and became a British Standard; a successful prototype was also developed at the college for a commercial bed manufacturer. The fire-door problem was solved by the use of electro-magnetic door-holders wired to the fire alarm, which released the doors when the alarm was triggered.

So solutions to all four of the original projects were delivered. In the process, Archer had demonstrated that work study, systems analysis and ergonomics were proper tools for use by designers, and that systematic methods were not inimical to creativity in design, but essential contributors to it.

Generalising from his experiences in these and other design projects undertaken by what became the Industrial Design (Engineering) Research Unit, Archer presented his ideas at design conferences and wrote the paper for which he is perhaps most widely known, Systematic Method for Designers (1965, first published in a series in Design). A 1968 MA thesis, "The Structure of Design Processes", was published by the US National Bureau of Standards in 1969. Both papers were translated into several languages, and Archer continued to receive requests for reprints for a decade or more afterwards. Many of his ideas were brought together in 1971 in Technological Innovation: a methodology, a paper published by the Science Policy Foundation.

Later that year, the Rector of the Royal College of Art, Sir Robin Darwin, called Archer into his office and "gruffly told me I was to become a professor in my own right, independent from Sir Misha Black and with my own department". Soon Archer's Department of Design Research had a complement of more than 30 researchers. As they marched daily into the college's Senior Common Room, they represented quite a large body of people, and were not entirely welcomed by staff from other departments. Archer himself reluctantly became what he described as a "travelling salesman" to ensure a steady flow of research contracts.

After two or three years, there was a change of direction following a college decision to turn the Department of Design Research into a postgraduate teaching department like every other, with funding from the Science Research Council. Design graduates arrived to learn how to conduct research, while others from disciplines like psychology and mathematics learned to apply their skills to the discipline of design.

Archer's own lectures ranged widely across the philosophy of science, ethics, aesthetics, economics, innovation, measurement and value theory, and were delivered with directness and enthusiasm. The department itself was organised in a highly systematic way, with procedural memoranda setting out agendas for every type of meeting including structured progress reviews for students. Every event was meticulously recorded in Archer's daily log.

He was instrumental in the move to see design taught as part of the school curriculum, campaigning to influence the Department for Education and Science and running short courses at the college for schoolteachers. He launched a Department for Design Education at the college, giving teachers the opportunity to undertake master's level research into design.

In 1984, when Jocelyn Stevens was appointed Rector of the Royal College of Art, he peremptorily closed the Department of Design Research. It had operated successfully for exactly 25 years. Archer himself was appointed Director of Research with college-wide responsibilities. Although he was approaching retirement age, his knowledge of the workings of the college and his academic credibility placed him in great demand, and Stevens thought nothing of contacting him at any time of day or night for advice.

After retiring in 1988, Archer ran in-service training courses about research for art and design institutes and was active as president of the Design Research Society. In 2004, a dinner was held at the Royal College of Art organised by the society at which he was presented with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Archer himself, though frail, made a typically forceful and eloquent acceptance speech in which he acknowledged the contributions of his many co-workers, and contrasted the skills of decision-making and advocacy which typify design, with those of enquiry and analysis which are essential in research.

Sebastian Macmillan

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