The US office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller could be leading a revolution. Last year the company launched an office chair which is not only ergonomic - like all such chairs - but is produced in three sizes. Herman Miller's aim was partly to satisfy different markets but also to meet the needs of workplaces with a mix of sexes and ethnic groups, which tends to mean that people come in a wider range of sizes than usual. Might this innovation have relevance for other types of product?
Shoes and skis are among the handful of items traditionally sized for their users. But their manufacturers seldom try to make one design cater for everybody, points out Don Chadwick, the Aeron chair's Santa Monica-based co-designer. Even bespoke tailors are constrained by a client's sex, and usually by age, too. Obviously a furniture maker such as Herman Miller couldn't strive for infinite adaptability with a single design. `Aesthetically, it would have been a Jungle Jim,' says Chadwick. But three sizes represent a big step forward.
True, other products - besides shoes and skis - have their variants. Frequently, however, the variant is introduced for cosmetic reasons, or because different versions are designed for separate jobs rather than separate users. Take screwdrivers. `There are various reasons for multi-sizing, not all of which are ergonomic,' accepts Barrie Gostelow, product engineering manager at Stanley Tools. `We have to be mindful of appearance for display, whether singly or in multiples or in mixed sets.' So purchasers seeking the tool that fits them best will be offered an array of products that are differentiated according to other criteria.
Some products may always have to be standardised. Public telephone booths must have a universal design to suit all users, including children and the disabled, explains David Mercer, senior design manager at British Telecommunications. `If you made them in different sizes, with the telephone apparatus at different heights, it would add complexity. Using a phone box is generally a distress purchase. I'm not sure whether people are all that bothered whether the apparatus is at the optimum height.' On the other hand Mercer admits that Herman Miller's idea could be applied to telephone handsets - at a price, of course. `It would certainly increase costs, not just of tooling but also of distribution and stocking.'
This was a factor that the furniture maker also had to consider. By opting for variety, Herman Miller was inescapably sacrificing economies of scale. At present, office services managers tend to specify the mid-size B chair, rather than order a number of each, apparently because they are unaccustomed to choice. All three versions are offered at the same list price, so the B version in effect subsidises its larger and smaller counterparts. Chadwick expects this to change as the novelty wears off: `I suspect numbers will tend to equalise.'
Herman Miller believes that the new chair, besides bringing greater comfort to offices, will suit today's decreasingly hierarchical corporate structures. The design is meant for keyboard operators but 16e also for boardrooms. The slightly built executive may therefore face a dilemma: whether to sit comfortably in the small chair or send power signals from the large one. As Levant Caglar, ergonomist at the Furniture Industry Research Association, says, it is `ergonomically incorrect' to associate size with status. It is also anachronistic. Despite corporate conservatism, `what we're finding', Chadwick claims, `is that more people are coming out of the closet and are not fitting into the norms any more'.
Consumer goods manufacturers, and advertisers, might take note.