PROFESSION: Designer (Although he preferred to be called "searcher")
INNOVATION: The Action Office II System (1968) and the movable "coherent structures” of the Co/Struc System designed for hospitals (1971)
ATTRIBUTES: Empathetic observer, serial problem solver, unorthodox thinker
You could be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the work of Robert Propst. After all, if his designs were working as he intended, they simply disappeared.
Propst became director of the Herman Miller Research Division (HMRD) in 1960, setting up shop in a small concrete building in Ann Arbor, Mich. The founder of Herman Miller, D.J. DePree, saw potential in Propst’s ambitious thinking and hired him to broaden the company’s product range. Very few guidelines were in place at HMRD: Nothing should be connected to military use, no furniture designs — and whatever was designed should simply “be useful.”
Robert Propst Outside Herman Miller Research Division Office, Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 1964. THF137214
Deliberately choosing a building more than 150 miles away from Herman Miller’s headquarters in Zeeland, Mich., Propst exercised his freedom to research without the distraction of corporate meetings. For every idea he had that went into production, hundreds more were filed away.
Two of Propst’s most impactful projects were holistic environments designed for high-impact workplaces: the improved Action Office II system (1968) and the movable “coherent structures” of the Co/Struc system designed for hospitals (1971).
In Propst’s mind, offices had become chaotic wastelands. Cobbled together furniture, nonergonomic chairs and an invasion of technology onto ad hoc surfaces. Action Office — a modular system of free standing panel walls — could be fluidly arranged into nooks for working, conference areas and other purpose-driven needs. An idealistic vision for the birth of the modern office cubicle.
Propst wasn’t always a designer of “things” but of situations. He attacked issues from the reverse, finding clues in the algorithms of human behavior working in high-stakes spaces. How did people move while working? Where was time being spent? Wasted? How can we support safety? Privacy? Collaboration? The physical solutions he engineered encouraged ideas of access, mobility and efficiency. His modular approach to office landscapes was intended to have a 1+1=3 effect. Which is to say that by implementing physical change, “knowledge” workers could then springboard off an improved relationship with their workspaces, which were suddenly more hospitable to launching new ideas, productive workflows and transformative projects.
Action Office Project Drawing by Robert Propst, April 6, 1964. THF241708
Did You Know - The proliferation of the office cubicle is almost single-handedly due to the introduction of the Action Office II system in 1968. Unfortunately, the mobile aspect of Action Office became rooted to the floor, quite literally. Large businesses filled their buildings with Action Office (or its various knock-offs) to create Dilbertesque “cubicle farms.”
- The first version of Action Office was conceived by Robert Propst and designed by George Nelson in 1964, but sales were lackluster. Corporate managers worried about the porous borders being offered to their staff, now called “knowledge workers,” and the cost was simply too high. Propst returned to the drawing board alone for AO2.
- Robert Propst did not like to be referred to as a designer. He also didn’t like the term “researcher,” because it implied looking backward. His ideal description for his activities was “searcher.”
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s bold textiles have broad appeal. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.
Learn more about Ruth's work in this video, and see examples of her designs in this expert set.
This alphabet quilt, likely made in Berks County, Pennsylvania, dates from about 1910. THF168579 (Purchased through the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund.)
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G— H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P—.… Now I know my ABCs”
The alphabet song gave us a fun way to learn our ABCs—and the order of the letters. (I don’t know about you, but I sometimes still find myself singing it as I alphabetize something.) Even before kids head off to school, we not only sing the alphabet song to them, but surround them with images of alphabet letters—on building blocks, children’s dishes, and even, wallpaper—to help them learn their ABCs.
Alphabet letters also appear on quilts. Quilt block patterns published in the 20th century made it easier to plan and create these quilts. In 1906, Ladies Art Company, a mail order business that published hundreds of quilt patterns, offered a series of alphabet block designs. The Henry Ford’s alphabet quilt was likely made using these patterns.
The letters on this alphabet quilt may look like they are curved—but they are actually made up of triangles, squares, rectangles and trapezoids. The letter blocks were designed to avoid curved seams, which are more difficult to execute than these other geometric shapes. Yet, even using these Ladies Art Company patterns offered challenges. Some letters, like the G and Q, required more intricate piecing. Some quiltmakers simply deviated a bit in piecing the blocks for these, and other letters. Our quiltmaker managed the Q, but made a few small changes in creating the G.
Though working from the same pattern, each individual quiltmaker created her own unique quilt through her choice of fabric, the exact arrangement of the letter blocks, the design of the sashing and borders, and the quilt patterns used in the decorative corner blocks that complete the quilt. Some quiltmakers arranged the letter blocks in rows of three and five. Others placed them in four rows of five letter blocks—and then figured out what to do with the leftover Z! Our quilt maker tucked the Z into one corner, creating a delightfully whimsical effect.
We don’t really know who made this quilt, or who they made it for. But it is easy to imagine a child cuddling with this charming alphabet quilt—and learning his or her letters at the same time.
"Seedy Weeds," Fabric Sample Designed by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1953. THF169002
Walking through the House Industries "A Type of Learning" exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation you're sure to notice the attention given to printed textiles, from kitchen tea towels to handmade dolls.
The textiles created by the House Industries team are just one of their popular offerings and make us think about other well-known textiles that reside within our collections.
Another set of bold textiles that have broad appeal are those created by pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.
Take a look at a few of Adler Schnee's pieces in The Henry Ford collections in this expert set.
Examining the social and economic context of The Henry Ford's rare Paul Revere teapot. Other examples can be seen in some of the country's premier art museums. THF 166148
Today, coffee and tea are enjoyed by millions of people, including blog readers. While connoisseurs of these beverages take their enjoyment very seriously, the relative affordability of these caffeinated drinks means that almost anyone can “benefit” from a caffeine boost and also enjoy their flavors. The resulting billion-dollar industries help power the world economy – and its workforce.
America has an especially close relationship with these drinks, one that dates back to before the country was formed. In modern times, coffee has dominated American tastes, but until the 20th century, Americans favored tea. Although still popular, tea drinking in America can be traced back to trade with China by Dutch merchants in the early 1600s.
Today, fast-paced Americans prefer their caffeinated beverages on the go, often consuming them from disposable drinkware. This is in marked contrast to colonial America, where these beverages would have been served from vessels made to impress and consumed as part of elaborate entertainments expressing the host’s good taste. THF 102595
Dutch traders not only introduced Chinese tea to their colony in present-day New York, but also introduced it to Europe. The hot drink quickly rose in popularity and by the end of the 1600s, tea became the most favored hot beverage in Britain. To support the mass consumption by its citizens at home and in its colonies, England became heavily involved in the China trade and the importation of tea.
As social customs evolved around the drinking of tea, so did the equipment used to consume the beverage. Wealthy citizens could afford to have their teapots fashioned in silver and silversmiths in the colonies, like Paul Revere, learned how to create silver designs from imported English examples. Son of Apollos Rivoire, a French immigrant and Boston silversmith, Paul Revere got his start as his father's apprentice.
Pictured here, an English teakettle-on-stand. Paul Revere imitated designs from English silver objects and pattern books in order to create silver in the most fashionable styles. THF 155178
After his father died in 1754, Revere started his career producing a wide variety of silver objects, including elaborate teapots for his wealthier clients. By the 1760s, the colonies faced increased taxation as England attempted to pay off their war debt from the French and Indian War. High taxes on imports like tea angered colonists, resulting in boycotts that affected what Revere could produce as a silversmith.
These taxes led Revere to join a resistance group known as the "Sons of Liberty" whose members included some of his customers angered by the increased taxation. The organization helped fuel anti-British sentiment in the colonies and Revere aided the groups’ cause by printing propaganda that provoked colonist anger towards the Crown.
As a member of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere helped energize the movement toward American independence by printing illustrations like this one of the Boston Massacre. An active citizen, he was part of numerous other civic organizations. THF 8141
In 1773, with tensions mounting, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty protested England's control over the tea trade by boarding recently docked British tea ships in the Boston harbor and dumping some of their tea chests overboard. The British responded to the event, known as the Boston Tea Party, by shutting the port of Boston and stripping the Massachusetts colony of its right to self-government.
War erupted in 1775 when Britain moved to seize the colonists' gunpowder and firearms outside of Boston. Revere made his famous midnight ride during this time to warn some of his fellow patriots that the British were on their way to arrest them. While patriot duties limited Paul Revere's silversmithing during the Revolutionary War, he returned to his craft as the war came to an end in the 1780s.
Post-war American silver customers preferred the neoclassical design that became popular in Europe during the war. In the years before the War, silver customers had preferred the Rococo style, an aesthetic known for its ornate decorations and curvilinear body designs. In contrast, neoclassical silver celebrated the classical style of Greece and Rome, making use of symmetry, hard lines, and an emphasis on simple forms. As a master craftsman, Revere developed an elegant and personal interpretation of the neoclassical style.
This 1782 teapot shows Revere’s experimentation with the neoclassical style.
The neoclassical teapot shown above was created in 1782 by Revere. Only six teapots featuring this cylindrical body are known to exist and were some of the last that Revere hand-forged, hammering or "raising" them up from a block of silver. In 1785 Revere acquired silver rolling machinery that he used to produce silver sheets. These sheets were cut to form standardized pieces and allowed Revere's shop to produce silver products more quickly. An example of a Revere teapot made from this later method can be seen in our collections here.
On the bottom of the 1782 teapot, the clear markings of Revere are stamped next to a monogram that can be attributed to Joseph and Sarah Henshaw of Boston. THF 166147
With the assistance of the Massachusetts Historical Society, home of the Revere Family Papers, Revere's own record books identified Joseph Henshaw as the patron for this teapot. The records show that on February 22, 1782 Paul Revere made a note that he needed to make a teapot and spoons for Joseph Henshaw. By April 27, 1782 it appears that Revere had completed the order and marked the weight of the teapot as "16-17". This weight of "16-17" can be seen scratched on the bottom of the teapot in the upper right of the picture above.
Joseph Henshaw was a prominent Boston merchant. With his wife Sarah, the two used their home to help plan further American resistance by occasionally hosting "Sons of Liberty" meetings. It was his membership in this radical group that led Joseph Henshaw to form a friendship with Paul Revere. While this teapot is a good representation of the tea culture that existed in the colonies, it is also a symbol of Revere and Henshaw's relationship, a relationship that helped establish the United States of America.
See more on Paul Revere's life from our Digital Collections in this expert set. Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Susan McCord (at far right) with family at the McCord farm, about 1904. (with Susan, from left to right: Susan’s daughter Millie McCord Canaday, husband Green McCord, granddaughter Ruth Canaday). Right: Susan and Green McCord, about 1885. EI.1929.2222
On her family’s farm near McCordsville, Indiana, Susan Noakes McCord (1829-1909) made meals for her husband and children, cleaned the house, sewed and mended the family’s clothing, knitted accessories, cared for the chickens, milked cows, tended the vegetable and flower gardens, read her Bible through each year, and participated in community gatherings.
In her “spare” time, she also made exquisite quilts. Exceptional quilts.
This ordinary Indiana farmwife had an extraordinary genius for designing and making quilts. Her “palette?” Like other resourceful housewives of her time, Susan used materials that she had on hand: scraps of cotton prints or dress velvets left over from making her family’s clothing. She also cut usable fabric from the family’s worn-out clothing. Susan made some of her quilts in patterns then popular. And she likely used the flowers in her garden as further inspiration.
But what Susan created with these everyday materials, the inspiration she found around her, and her rich imagination was stunning. Susan could manipulate fabric, color, and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary. Her workmanship was equally superb. She joined her quilt top, the layer of filling, and the backing with thousands of tiny, even stitches—averaging 10 to the inch.
Susan’s Floral Urn quilt is reminiscent of album quilts made of large appliqué floral or wreath blocks that were popular during the mid-19th century. But Susan's version is exceptionally imaginative. Susan's love of gardening likely inspired the fuchsia, tulips, and daisies which spill whimsically from the urns.
Ocean Waves Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1880. THF 95131
This Ocean Waves quilt pattern was well-known in the late 19th century. But in Susan's hands the design is breathtakingly executed, formed of hundreds of tiny half-inch triangles cut from printed cotton fabrics. Susan finished the borders of this quilt with her unique meandering vines with colorful pieced leaves.
Fan Variation Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1900. THF 95136
In the late 19th century, decorative "crazy" quilts -- made from silk, velvet, and wool scraps stitched together "crazily" and embellished with embroidery -- were all the rage. This quilt is a variation of a crazy quilt design called fans. Most quilters placed a fan in just one corner of a block. Susan sewed fans of varying sizes in each corner. Then she joined the blocks together to form "wheels" that dazzle with a sense of motion and energy.
This stunningly beautiful quilt is Susan's masterpiece. This trailing vine design is a Mc original. Susan pieced together printed and solid cotton fabric scraps to create the over 300 leaves on each of the 13 vine panels. Susan used variations of this vine in the borders of several quilts. But Susan's vine design is rendered to perfection in this work of genius.
Do I sound like a member of the Susan McCord Fan Club? I am—along with hundreds of her other admirers.
African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.
Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619
Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.
Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store. These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations. Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355
Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand. Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape. Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.
Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486
Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759 For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources. The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food.
Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834
Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.
Restored architectural gem stands out in its industrial space You don’t usually associate large manufacturing factories with architectural beauty. Sightseers at the Ford Rouge Complex’s glass plant, however, might be inclined to think otherwise.
This plant looks different. No concrete, only rivets and steel. From inside, the high roof and floor-to-ceiling windows create an unusually airy, spacious atmosphere. Natural light can’t help but stream in, creating a softness and easy glow.
Designed by famed American industrial architect Albert Kahn, the Ford Rouge’s glass plant was built in 1923 as an automotive glass-production facility. “It was about achieving volume,” Don Pijor, launch manager at the Dearborn Truck Plant and site expert for the glass plant, said of the building’s original design. “This space was built with steel columns riveted together, which gives it much more usable real estate.”
In the late ‘90s, the 40,000-square-foot building was taken out of the complex’s production equation, its sweeping windows covered with aluminum and its new primary purpose as a warehouse.
When the restoration process began in the mid-2000s, the original intent was to transition the building into office space. Pijor later helped persuade Ford Motor Company leadership to put the plant to better use as a prove-out and employee training building for the Ford F-150, the truck built at the Rouge’s Dearborn Truck Plant.
Careful decisions were made at every corner during the restoration. The building’s window glass, for example, had come from Europe, so the restoration team reached out overseas to the original manufacturer for the glass to replace the windows. Entry doors to a fire station that was part of the building’s layout were also replaced to replicate those of the original specs.
“It’s beautiful,” Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour manager, said of the glass plant today. “There’s lots of natural light, and even though the fire station doors are in an area the public doesn’t see, restoring them showed respect for the continuing history of the site.”
Today, the glass plant is a house for innovation, used for prototyping by Ford engineers and designers. As a result of its newfound purpose, the building’s glass at the lower levels is frosted so outsiders can’t see the confidential work being done inside.
Said Jones of balancing the building’s historical integrity with its modern uses, “When you’re making choices about restoring buildings, you look at product — what is it we’re making at this place and what does it need? You’re also employee-driven because if they can’t do their job well here, changes have to be made. Third, how does it affect the area around it? I think this site has that balance.”
Though the effectiveness of the plant’s current functions are at the forefront of any decision-making about its form, preserving its history is meaningful for the people who work there as well as for posterity. Added Pijor, “To sit in this space and watch flaming ore cars go by, it’s as if it has been like this for 100 years.”
National Historic Landmark The Ford Rouge Complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
The rare designation (with just 2,500 historic landmarks nationwide) usually restricts future changes to a site. The Ford Rouge Complex, however, is recognized as remaining in continual operation, which means the designation can be maintained even as the site continues to evolve.
“It’s important for the public to be aware” of the designation, said Jones. The designation is marked at the complex’s entry with a plaque and a statue of Henry Ford.
Summer 2015 marked 100 years since Ford started acquiring the property which the Rouge now inhabits. “We’re carving out space within this giant industrial complex to recognize its history and the history of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been employed here,” said Jones.
Architects for social impact look, listen and then create experiences that restore community, human dignity and eventually evoke change
Many architects today are discovering that success doesn’tnecessarily depend on talent, vision or how you apply learned design practices in the real world. Much of one’s success, in fact, relies on an ability to listen to and empathize with the needs of the community you’re trying to serve. And oftentimes, these needs aren’t simple, pretty or cut-and-dried.
Architect Michael Maltzan faced such a situation when he was brought on board to build an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles for the homeless. While many of today’s homeless shelters and low-income houses seem drab and without character or aesthetic beauty, Maltzan’s Star Apartments is just the opposite. The striking modular shaped structure adds visual impact to the neighborhood. And while most homeless housing is focused on the much-needed concept of basic shelter — without extra amenities or attention to detail — Maltzan’s design includes a community space with a state-of-the-art kitchen, an edible garden, exercise classrooms, art studios and a basketball court built on the top level of what was once a parking structure.
“I feel that carefully thought-out designs can contribute to a person’s rehabilitation,” said Maltzan, who understands the power of shelter and safety to help transform a life from uncertain to hopeful. “Whether it’s a single-family home, a museum or a school, you have to bring your highest level of design and focus on what makes the individual program unique."
Residents of Star Apartments describe the feeling of having what most overlook everyday — a front door with a lock, a doorbell, running water — as life altering.
Kenneth Davis is a peer counselor at the Skid Row Housing Trust, which built Star Apartments in 2013. He is also a resident of the complex. “Once I moved in and closed my door, my life flashed before me,” said Davis, who had to transition from a life behind bars and then on the streets to living in his own apartment. “At 49 years old, I finally had my own closed door. This made me feel as safe as others in society. It was phenomenal to hear my doorbell. It was music to my ears. The effect my home had on me: It gave me tranquility. I did not want to go backwards in life ever again.”
Davis returned to school and completed a drug and alcohol studies program and became certified as a mental health peer specialist for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Actions, he said, that are a direct result of having a place he could call home. “I see the same effect of permanent, supportive housing in residents. Eyes glowing in the groups that I facilitate, eager to participate from a good night’s sleep on a soft bed. I’ve seen mental illness and addiction addressed and tackled daily because of the power of a locked door.”
Add in the fact that the Skid Row Housing Trust also provides on-site access to health care and job training services, and that makes Star Apartments, as well as the trust’s two-dozen other buildings, a successful working example of design for social impact.
CONNECT, CREATE, CHANGE This idea that the people you are designing something for have a voice that needs to be heard before you start creating is at the heart of the social impact movement seeping into the world of modern architecture. The notion that improving living conditions and preserving a sense of community for everyone should be paramount before a design is drawn or a foundation laid.
Some of the most mainstream examples of design for social impact do not necessarily tackle such hardhitting societal issues as homelessness, either.
Celebrating its fifth anniversary in San Francisco, Pavement to Parks has made a commitment to converting underutilized street space into urban parklets and plazas that help foster neighborhood interaction, support local businesses and reimagine city streets. Most are temporary interventions, but some, such as the Jane Warner Plaza at Castro and Market streets designed by Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture, have become permanent neighborhood fixtures.
The temporary spaces often occupy parking spots and underused curb space, and add much-needed friendly, colorful and quaint public gathering areas in what might otherwise be a concrete-centric landscape. The Ocean Avenue Mobile Parklet, for example, made its way up and down San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, spending six months at one location before it moved to the next.
Designed and built by public high school students who are architecture interns at the Youth Art Exchange in San Francisco, the parklet project introduced students to the philosophies of social impact design to connect community, create commerce and beautify the neighborhood.
In San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District, the Noriega Street Parklet replaces three diagonal parking spots. The unique shape of the space gave designers the opportunity to create two separate, usable areas well suited to the diverse groups they knew made up the community. One is larger and more open for children, strollers and owners and their pets. The other is more protected and intimate for the quieter and older crowds.
In contrast to the Noriega Street Parklet’s angles and sharper edges is the whimsical, elongated design of the Sunset Parklet on Judah Street. If studied close enough for long enough, it looks somewhat like an ancient Viking longship, with modern-day addons, of course, such as a bike rack. Developing the spaces between a business and the street to help make cities more livable: What was once a guerrilla idea has become institutionalized with endless opportunities for access and inclusion.
Parklets are now popping up everywhere, from college campuses in Iowa to spaces across the world in Chile.
LISTEN, OBSERVE, UNDERSTAND On the more serious side of design for social impact is architect Liz Ogbu of Studio O, who has personally created an entire practice revolving around solving social issues through humancentered design practices. Actively involved in shaping some of the world’s leading public interest design nonprofits, Ogbu is part of the inaugural class of Innovators-in-Residence at IDEO.org, the sister nonprofit of the international design firm IDEO, which supports spreading human-centered design to improve the lives of low income communities across the globe
Ogbu has designed everything from thought-provoking exhibits and resource spaces for day laborers to public sidewalk plazas. She takes great inspiration from the concepts shared by pioneer architect Le Corbusier, who once said, “A house is a machine for living in” as well as “The home should be the treasure chest of living.”
“I have been on this long journey of linking up what is normally taught as architecture and design to the physical and tangibles of the containers in which people live their lives,” Ogbu said. “I want the process to be more active. I want to create more than just the container, giving people more agency to be able to shape it.”
Most recently, Ogbu found herself tackling how to upgrade sanitation services for residents of a remote village in Ghana. While she was there, she observed men, women and children often standing in long lines for public toilets. “We spent a week just talking to the people in their homes,” said Ogbu. “We talked to moms, pastors in churches, staff while they worked, in order to understand what their lives were like in general.”
At the end of this information gathering, Ogbu helped formulate plans to increase access to a pay toilet system in public spaces that would aid in the sanitation issues and generate much-needed revenue.
“The heart of human-centered design is the idea of empathy. It is important to take the time to listen, observe and understand people,” said Ogbu. “Just because someone is poor does not mean that they do not have desires and aspirations.”
Ogbu stresses the value of listening to the challenges and responding with designs that solve problems. “Developing deep empathetic skills and including people as part of the process of design is not social design, it’s just good design,” she added. “Whether you are building a gorgeous tower being paid for by a multibillion-dollar company or working on a toilet project, you are always trying to preserve the beauty of the project and the people it serves.”
In a recent post on our blog for National Space Day, Digital Access & Preservation Archivist Brian Wilson highlighted a few concept drawings created by the Sundberg-Ferar industrial design firm, in conjunction with Lockheed and NASA, in the early 1980s. As Brian notes, these drawings of a manned space station “considered how the astronauts would perform normal earthbound tasks in the tight quarters of the space station, including the need to exercise, bathe and sleep, and how a near-zero gravity environment would affect those tasks.” The drawings shown here, for example, demonstrate how dining might work in space. If your interest is piqued, you can now browse a couple dozen more of these newly-digitized drawings on our collections website.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.