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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Industrial and architectural design classics from 1930-1960 lay down the basis of many everyday products today. Products that were labelled as "design classics” were the best of their time but their appeal undoubtedly surpasses their historical period. My focus , with regard to the essay's statement, will be on how the design classic came to be and the reasoning behind the various product's lasting success. I will be discussing and analysing some of the many reasons and ideas as to how they still appeal today.  Industrial design's introduction as a profession allowed products to be fully functional before aesthetically appealing.In response to the statement, I agree as design classics emerged  in the 1930's - when industrial design as a profession came to be.

I will discuss and analyse the work of Henry Dreyfuss an industrial designer who created some of the most well known and used design classic products. As Dreyfuss was beginning to design products the Great Depression of 1929 had just occurred and America was suffering. The need for functional “design classic” products at this time can be shown with reference to the 1943 Architectural Design forum that claimed; “that in ties of extreme emergency, one turns unquestioningly to functional design and that these products of ingenuity, economy, and utmost exploitation of limited materials have unconsciously become the most satisfying designs of our machine civilisation”. In previous movements to the Machine Age, appealing to an audience or consumer through decoration was the top priority. The term design classic and the machine age movement began to imply that if something was to be designed to sell for industrial or home use it needed to put function first.

Manufacturing companies realised in the 1930's that good design alone could promote sales.

In the design world during the 1930s the arts and crafts movement had declined and the art deco movement was beginning to take hold in America. The ideas of ornamentation and decoration were fading and function, mass production and sales were pushed to the forefront in design.

Henry Dreyfuss

Henry Dreyfuss was one of the first self proclaimed professional industrial designers of the machine age. His approach based on technical research and the establishment of “universal” standards made him a pioneer in human factors engineering. His designs were based on the idea that “no detail was considered too small for thorough search and design attention - each was considered a major problem in itself”. Dreyfuss' designs strike a chord today. His designs were the basis for a mass of modern products that we use today. Some of his best know designs include the polaroid camera, the Bell laboratories telephone, the Hoover, the Typewriter and John Deere tractors in the 1960s. Dreyfuss was a man before his time when it came to design as he introduced the concept and theory of ergonomics and user centred design. He designed products that were the epitome of the technology at the time but they were also accepted by the masses,  “by embodying a familiar pattern in an otherwise wholly new and radical form…make the unusual acceptable to many people who would otherwise reject it”.In Dreyfuss' book ‘Designing for People' he outlined the five point formula that was used as “a yardstick in our office for good industrial design.. and is applied to every design problem”. The key points of Utility and Safety, Maintenance, Cost, Sales Appeal and Appearance gave Henry Dreyfuss confidence in solving industrial design problems.

Designers realised that to design both efficiently and effectively they had to work with other professionals in their respective fields.Previously design for industry was done painstakingly for craft, decoration or appeal. Industrial design had to be functional for mass production as well as aesthetic appeal to audiences with the turn of the machine age. In 1930 Henry Dreyfuss was commissioned by Bell Laboratories to design their telephone. He argued that involving various groups of professionals in the design process and involving those professionals that working designs would be more successful overall “from multiple viewpoints of ecological science, philosophy, literature and art”.

Bringing designers and engineers together meant that overall design problem could be resolved from the inside out and it was said that “the view that the problems of design can be solved primarily if not exclusively by designing has been shaken. The relationship between designer and the sciences must be thought out afresh”


Henry Dreyfuss associates culminated their experiments and user centred research around the measurements of the average man and woman to aid industrial design. These measurements were not only numerical but also relating to human development. Their findings were published in 1967 book “The Measure of Man and Woman”.The ideals that “machines fitted to people will be the most efficient” is the core idea behind ergonomics.The concept of user centred design and that form follows function lies deep in the scientific and mathematical reasoning of Dreyfuss' findings. I find it particularly interesting how Dreyfuss associates didn't just measure the average male and female human for mechanical measurements but they also researched the social development, language milestones and cognitive development of humans. In recent publications (2002) of The measure of Man and Woman there is updates for differently abled users. Thus confirming that Dreyfuss' findings continue to be developed and utilised past their immediate publication.

Fig 1. Page 2, Measure of Infants, The measure of Man and Woman, 1967

Bell Laboratories and The Model 300 Type Desk set

In 1930 Dreyfuss was asked to design the phone of the future by Bell Laboratories. Henry Dreyfuss would be “reinventing the point of contact between people and equipment, often by unifying mechanical parts inside smooth, cultural shells”.  L.M Ericsson had designed similar to Dreyfuss' industrial design process in that their telephone was “based on technical research and owing little to fashion”. At the beginning of Henry Dreyfuss' contract with Bell Laboratories he was asked to design the telephone using their own method of designing externally to internally. When he had designed how they would like and the outcome was unsuccessful , Bell laboratories allowed him to apply his own methods.While working with Bell Laboratories Dreyfuss decided that he wanted to work with the engineers to design the product from scratch and from the inside out. I believe that Dreyfuss' decision to work with other professionals was forward thinking on his part as “As self declared professionals, they realised one of the chief aims of the progressive movement, establishing the primacy of expertise in every field”

The Model 302 Type desk set was Henry Dreyfuss' first production of the Bell Laboratories telephone.It was designed ‘intended to be unintrusive and suitable' and described as a functional artefact of extraordinary beauty. The Model 302 was first released in 1937 and came with its own user issues as ‘the design didn't account for people's intuitive desire to talk hands free'..

Fig 2. Henry Dreyfuss, Model 300 type desk set, 1937, for Bell Laboratories

The Model 500 (1953)

The first Iteration of the Bell laboratories Telephone the Model 302 had a number of design deficiencies. For the Model 500 Henry Dreyfuss and the team “studied measurements of over two thousand human faces to determine the average space between the mouth and ear”. Sixteen years on from the original design Dreyfuss and associates continued to employ the concepts of ergonomics to improve user experience. I think it was quite interesting how they continued to improve on the previous design and iterate rather than begin afresh. They understood how consumers had become familiar with how the telephone appeared. Dreyfuss called the existing handset a “survival form - a familiar element incorporated into an updated product”

On the Model 301 the dial numbers were placed inside the dial but these began to wear away with time. The designers instead moved the graphic elements to the outside edge of the dial to extend the telephone's longevity. Henry Dreyfuss was designing these phones to withstand and  Instead a white dot was places inside each finger hole to give users a visual target. According to Dreyfuss this target reduced dialling time by seven-tenths of a second.

The princess phone

As America progressed through the 1940's and 1950's specific consumer markets emerged in the teenager and the housewife. The design of the Model 302 Type desk set met the needs of the general consumer but the Princess Telephone (1959) was designed by Henry Dreyfuss and associates to target the teenage market. Henry Dreyfuss continued to design for the users functionality but he also began to design for the consumers habits. The appeal to the user was not so much the functionality of the product but how it could now mould into their own way of living. The Princess phone depicts clearly how ‘organising the design process around users is a vital vein of contemporary pratice' Design adaptations were made from the Model 500 to the Princess phone that responded to how consumers would live with the product in their homes. ‘The design team had observed users lying in bed with the base of the model 500 resting heavily on their torso; the Princess was lighter, with a more portable design to respond to this unanticipated use'

The trilogy of The Model 302 , The Model 500 and The princess phone shows the designer's shift in focus from shaping the sculptural integrity and behaviour of the typical user to targeting a consumer demographic. The Designs of the Bell Laboratories telephones appeal long past their historical context as Henry Dreyfuss listened to the consumer of the time.

The age of obsolescence (contemporary analysis)

In the twentieth century releasing another version of the same product was solely based on the idea that an “annual model-change was a marketing device - but also provided a safety margin for designers - by allowing them to introduce change gradually and hedge their bets against miscalculation”. The annual model change was previously for functionality improvements to aid the user. In the twenty-first century consumers are drawn in to the ‘annual model change' by how different a product looks or feels rather than the improvements on how it works. The concept of appealing to the user nowadays has shifted to owning a commodity rather than the function of the product as it was in Henry Dreyfuss time. Henry Dreyfuss' theories on user centred design and ergonomics have undoubtedly aided industrial design whereas Dreyfuss' theories of function following form have been taken less seriously. Companies such as Apple have taken the technology sectors by storm for the last twenty years just as Bell Laboratories did in the 1930s. The success of Apple's products is largely in the realm of styling, bordering on the superficial. Apples approach to industrial design is to appeal through how sleek and smooth the products are as nowadays consumers expect the product to function seamlessly.

 The design methods of Apples designers during the Steve Job's era were in line with ,but also conflicting with those of Henry Dreyfuss and associates. During the production of  the iMac ‘there was almost no interaction between industrial design and user interface design'. An unlikely practice occurred where ‘jobs actively discourages communication or collaboration between them'.

Obsolesence is ______________________________________________________. I believe the concept of planned obsolescence would have horrified Henry Dreyfuss. “The appeal of styling can be used to overshadow a product's weakness”

The question is will Apple's products continue on to be design classics with this method of design practice?


Henry Dreyfuss' determination to understand and design for the end user is what makes his industrial design products like the Bell Laboratories line of telephones such design classics to this day. The trilogy of telephones is still fully functional, just as Henry Dreyfuss designed them to be.

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