The New Ergonomics

In this age of ubiquitous computing, what exactly are we doing to our bodies?

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The “aha” moment in Steelcase’s investigation of workplace postures came when the researchers included smart devices and laptops in the study. The nine postures (left) and key movement zones (far left) they identified influenced the design of the Gesture chair, launched earlier this year. 

Courtesy Steelcase

I have a favorite Starbucks location that is my office away from my office. I try not to think too much about why crouching over my laptop and latte while perched on an uncomfortable bar stool is sometimes the most effective way of getting work done. All I know is that to-do lists evaporate when I’m in that caffeinated digital cocoon. And when my shoulders start to stiffen and my feet go to sleep—as they eventually do—I stretch and look up to catch the iPad user next to me trying out some neck flexes. We share a sympathetic smile.

There is clearly a disconnect between what the communications revolution allows us to do today and how enthusiastic our bodies are about doing it. History indicates that this kind of rift between technology and comfort should be like catnip for designers—ask the secretaries whose pain inspired Henry Dreyfuss’s 1960 study in ergonomics and anthropometric data, The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design (Whitney Library of Design). Today, our fingers are furiously swiping and typing, our shoulders are hunched, our spines are curved, our necks are either bent over tiny screens or swiveling to catch the magnificent sweep of big ones, and we increasingly want to start doing these things earlier in life and keep doing them later in life. We continue to go wide-eyed at the release of each new smartphone and we want to use technology everywhere, with little thought for the physiological and cultural consequences. How can we learn to use our bodies more kindly in this new millennium? 

continued on page 3

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