It is undeniable that the Herman Miller Aeron Chair has become a lasting staple of industrial design over the last two decades. Without the truly groundbreaking inventiveness and verve that the chair possessed, many of the advancements in office chair technology and ergonomics that we know and love today would have been delayed, or even permanently put off. Without innovations like the PostureFit feature and the use of pellicle mesh, many advances in the industry would have fallen by the wayside. The strangeness of the Aeron Chair’s appearance has also given rise to a new freedom of expression when it comes to office chairs and office design. So the Aeron has contributed in many ways to the current world we live in – by making it more comfortable, more supported, more accepting of bold looks and new ideas in the workplace and in the design studio. But it has also taught us something about the way societies integrate and use breathtakingly new forms of art, science, and information. The Aeron Chair has been written about extensively, and much of that writing has dwelt not on the look of the chair or the unique design concepts that landed it in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; much of it has dwelt instead on what the chair has to tell us about consumers, offices, and users.
Among the thousands of words and plethora of articles written about the Aeron Chair, one particular example is notable both for its excellent prose and its explanatory, revealing nature. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is a book about instant thoughts, instant reactions, and instant judgments. Gladwell has been writing on these subjects for over a decade, both as a reporter for the Washington Post and as a writer for the New Yorker (possibly the greatest magazine currently being published in America). Gladwell has made his career on finding contradictions in the system, on using scientific research and understanding to reach fresh conclusions about the ideas many Americans consider settled. He has written about head trauma in football, how musical taste is formed, and how trends in the marketplace, schoolyard, or city can gain traction and wide adoption. Blink is his second book, following the also excellent The Tipping Point. Both books were New York Times #1 Bestsellers, and Gladwell has been hailed as one of the premier essayists and non-fiction writers of his time. That he was interested enough in the Aeron Chair to devote much of a chapter in his book to discussing it is instructive as to how important the chair really is. What it has to offer is important, not only in the historical and aesthetic sense, but in the cultural, scientific, and intellectual senses. Gladwell was interested in the Aeron because it’s more than singular; it touches on so many aspects of the modern world, and offers so many intellectual digressions and enigmas, that it became a worthy subject for a book about nothing less than the way the human being thinks about the external world.
The “Locked Room”
Blink is chock full of example after example, explication after explication, on the subject of thought – particularly snap judgments and prejudice in the marketplace of ideas, commerce, expression, and experience. As a primer on the way information is processed, filed, and interpreted by the brain, it’s unparalleled in its incisive, plain, and highly readable content. One of the concepts most discussed in the book is the idea of part of our brains as a “locked room,” into which we cannot consciously peer. In this locked room we make decisions without knowing why, draw conclusions without complete information, and make hundreds of judgments a day – some true and some false, some based in reality, and some not. The locked room is driven by experiences, prejudices, knowledge, biological functions (like heart rate, adrenaline, dopamine), intense focus, attention, and fears. Because it is so primal and potent while remaining so mysterious and unyielding, the locked room is one of the most important parts of our brain, if not the most important, and Blink is all about trying to unlock that door. One of many excellent examples used in the book is that of the Aeron Chair, which was instrumental in helping psychologists and researchers understand concepts like taste, preference, and snap choice-making. This was because the chair offered so many contradictions and so many stimuli. It was a comfortable chair with no foam or padding, an office chair that looked like nothing that had even been seen in an office, a sturdy and supportive chair that you could actually see through. No wonder the responses of the people who first sat in and tested the chair could be so important to understanding the “locked room” or internal judgment and information processing.
According to Gladwell, when Herman Miller contacted legendary designer Bill Stumpf to design a new chair for them, he was on a mission: a mission to create something brand new. Stumpf had been responsible earlier in his relationship with Herman Miller for the Equa Chair, a very popular and well-received piece that had since been copied by many other firms. With the Aeron Chair, this chance at a new design, Stumpf wanted to do something that didn’t look like any other chair. The design he came up with, the classic form which would be become the Aeron Chair – the most popular office chair of all time – was indeed very different. And in Gladwell’s words, this difference was instrumental in studying the behavior of people who have to “explain (their) feelings about unfamiliar things.”
Herman Miller’s research had long told them that consumers desired status in their products. In other words, they tend to gravitate toward furniture and objects that imply power or prestige; think high-backed chairs, leather, tasteful detailing, plenty of padding. These weren’t really the types of chairs Herman Miller made in general, and they were the polar opposite of the Aeron Chair. Aeron was constructed from pellicle, a high tech mesh, as well as rigid plastics. You could see through it, it wasn’t high-backed at all, and the seat and arms were joined to the chair in places you wouldn’t expect. Most arm rests are attached to the seat of the chair, but on the Aeron they were attached to the back. Most chairs form a joint hinge between seat and back, but the Aeron had a highly engineered system that allowed each plane to move independently of the other. There was no leather, no padding, no power-implication in the chair whatsoever. Even so, the people at Herman Miller appreciated the new design for what it was, and hoped that consumers would love it as much as they did.
Immediate Image Problem
They were wrong. At first, test groups said they despised the Aeron Chair. They thought it was ugly, they claimed it was uncomfortable, they even said it reminded them of something alien. When the original test groups were brought in for half-day testing sessions, they were asked to rate the chair on a scale of 1 to 10 for comfort. In the furniture industry, there are accepted norms for this kind of testing, and the average score most companies want to have before they send anything to market is about 7.5. The Aeron averaged out to 4.75. This caused a lot of consternation in the Herman Miller offices. Why was a chair that was so revolutionary, so comfortable, and so supportive getting such low ratings from test subjects? How could something they loved and believed in be performing so far below their expectations? The mystery of why people didn’t like the Aeron Chair as far as comfort and support went was truly perplexing. The engineers and designers at Herman Miller knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the chair they’d made was the most ergonomic office chair ever built in America. It had been researched, re-researched, designed and designed again, re-drawn, fussed over, and tested to the Nth degree time and again. Every piece of factual and evidence-based information they had pointed to the chair as one of the most comfortable ever made, one of the most supportive ever made, and assuredly the most ergonomic ever made. Every piece of evidence – that is, except the evidence of the folks who were actually sitting in the chair and telling the design team they didn’t like it. There was a joke around the office, posted on bulletin boards: “CHAIR OF DEATH, EVERYONE WHO SITS IN IT DIES.” What was going wrong with the testing? Why was something the scientists knew to be empirically true, that the chair was comfortable and supportive to a degree never before so artfully and ergonomically accomplished, conflicting with the feelings and thoughts of the testers?
The answer lay in the locked room. Something in the head of the average tester was mishandling the information it was being given. She sat in a chair with unrivaled back support and said it didn’t feel right. He sat on the most painstakingly engineered seat ever constructed and said it wasn’t soft enough, not comfortable enough. Why was the physical ease their physical bodies were registering not being properly evaluated by their brains? One reason was time. The first testers (the “CHAIR OF DEATH” groups) were only getting a limited amount of time with the chair – about half a day. Soon, the team at Herman Miller began to understand that this wasn’t enough time. The extreme looks of the chair, the newness of it, the alien feel it imparted to the people who were seeing it for the first time, was being taken as the primary measurement of the chair’s value by the infamous locked room. Eventually, after the test groups got used to the chair and sat in it for longer periods of time, they started to change their minds. Their prolonged exposure to the incredible comfort of the Aeron Chair eventually overcame their preconceived notions of what “comfortable” looked like. In effect, the original tests and testers weren’t judging based on how they really felt; they were judging from the locked room. They saw a chair with no leather and no padding, no high back, see-through material, and pellicle, and immediately made a calculation that they couldn’t shake for a long time. “This chair looks alien and uncomfortable. Therefore, it must actually be uncomfortable.” And it took quite a long time, longer than the average workday, for these testers to re-evaluate their thoughts and feelings about the chair. In other words, the evidence – the physical signals from the testers’ bodies that scientists and engineers who worked on the chair knew must be communicating comfort and support – had to amass a very large amount of information contradicting the locked room’s pre-conceived notions before they could be overturned by rational thought.
Crowd-Sourcing Aesthetic Approval
The same went for the aesthetic ratings for the chair. At first, it was getting 2s and 3s from the test groups. The same thing was happening, the scientists thought; the locked room is not allowing them to get past their automatic and internal feelings about the chair. When testers looked at the chair, even though they knew it to be comfortable and supportive, they still didn’t believe it was attractive. The design, so beautifully worked out by Bill Stumpf, was a failure in the eyes of the test groups involved in evaluating the chair. Nothing could convince them. So, the design team at Herman Miller tried the same thing they’d done with the comfort ratings; they gave their test groups more time to evaluate the chair, more than the average workday. And it worked; but only to an extent. The Aeron Chair was still only meriting an average of about 6 when it came to looks. This was disturbing in the extreme for the Herman Miller people. While prolonged exposure to the chair had certainly raised its average aesthetic rating – up about 3.5 points in fact – it was still rating well below where most chairs that go to market needed see their numbers. If the company was going to release this chair, they would have to do it with the full knowledge that so far, people thought it was ugly. And this time, there wasn’t any scientific evidence that could bolster their confidence; nothing in the testing that could assure them the chair was beautiful except their own expert (but obviously biased) opinions. In the end, Herman Miller stood by their chair and released it anyway. The rest is history. After the rest of the world got a good look at the chair, all the prejudices from the locked room were eventually overcome. Designers, critics and writers all stood behind the look, and anyone who sat in it for long periods of time gave it excellent comfort ratings. The participants in the early experiments weren’t telling the testers how they really felt; they were telling them how they were prejudiced against something so different from their experience. Only this time, their own personal feelings weren’t quite enough to get them over the hump of prejudice; they had to wait on the enormous influence of artists, designers, and critics the world over before they could finally get past that particular buggaboo.
Gladwell found this pattern repeated again and again throughout his wonderful book. The Aeron Chair is just one of the many examples that goes to show that truly innovative style and comfort must be, in a large and somewhat indefinable sense, learned … and not always immediately perceived. It’s a real testement to the faith and expertise of the Herman Miller design crew and executive office that this chair got a great release at all; at every step of the way, the locked room responses of large test groups told them the chair wouldn’t work. But a dependence on fact-based evidence, faith in the ability of users and testers to eventually overcome their prejudices, and the considerable experience, aesthetic taste, and design acumen of the people responsible for the chair led them to release it the way it deserved to be released: as a symbol of a new era in office chair design and execution, a statement on behalf of ergonomic research and the value of ergonomic construction, and a museum-worthy classic of modern furniture design. The Aeron Chair can be seen now at nearly any big office in the country or – of course – in the permanent collection of design museums across the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A Perfect Example
Blink is a big book about a big subject, and the Aeron Chair became the perfect example of how users think about and process information about new products. While the Aeron Chair seemed too strange and out of place to be considered comfortable at first sight (and even first sit!), unlocking that “locked room” led to a flow of knowledge about how that part of the brain works. And worth remembering is that – of course – after exposure to the chair, users absolutely loved it. That’s no surprise; it’s the most comfortable and supportive chair out there. Malcolm Gladwell chose a great chair to highlight.