Every driver is in possession of one but they are all different: bodies. An obvious major challenge in design is making a vehicle fit a wide range of them.
And another is to design something the minds inside the bodies’ heads can understand. Like any discipline, one can trace ergonomics back to the stone age when cavemen argued over the best shape of a stone for cutting skins. I’d like to fast forward to World War 2 when the US military tried to put some of the findings of Frederick Winslow Taylor into effect so as to make it easier to operate military equipment and the controls of aeroplanes. It wasn’t until 1960 when the American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss published The Measure of Man that the idea that machines might fit people and not the other way around began its slow percolation into the minds of car designers.
In some ways the idea was ahead of the application. Advertisements in the 1960’s talked about ergonomics with little evidence to show for it in terms of seating design, controls placement or legibility of the instruments.
A casual glance at almost any car interior from the time shows haphazard placement of switches and seating designed after no particular principle. It wasn’t really until the late 60’s and 70’s that ergonomics began to be applied in earnest to car interior design. Interestingly, the application of ergonomics coincides with the slow fading away of sexist advertising. Both trends were part of a movement towards greater social awareness generally and the industry in particular. Apart from being nice it was also good business.
And not uncoincidentally, the Scandinavians led the way in ergonomics and its related field, safety. Volvo and Saab both launched cars inspired by a deeper insight into human factors than was the norm. The 1968 Saab 99 had ergonomic seating, based on the premise that comfort reduced fatigue. Around this time BLMC still believed that bad seating kept the driver awake and therefore alert.
Moving the game on somewhat, Volvo’s 240 of 1974 built on Saab’s ergonomic seating with adjustable lumbar support, specially tested instrument displays and clearer controls than was the norm. I have no proof of this but I suspect that Sweden’s use of shared decision-making in the design of production lines and factory equipment was a possible inspiration for the use of similar approaches to the design of the cars themselves.
An interesting quirk of the history of ergonomics in car design is that Citroen applied some very deep thinking to controls when designing the SM, GS, CX, BX and Visa but it was less successful in the long run. The CX’s is an entirely different type of interior to the 1974 Volvo 240. Whereas the Swedes were incremental in their improvement of interior designs (they did not look very unconventional) the CX was space-age and is still radically futuristic today. It is based on sensible ideas such as keeping the minor controls close to the steering wheel, reducing the need for steering inputs and their own seating designs that used softer foams than the Swedes or Germans. This radicalism is often mistaken for artistic license.
The Citroen case shows that users will only take to a design if they understand it. It also shows up a paradox in ergonomics. Namely, that adapting the design to the user sometimes might not produce the most effective result, short term. One ergonomic requirement – ease of use – is at odds with another which is effective long-term use. While the Volvo approach is very easy to understand it is not, with prolonged use, as effective as the Citroen way which, on first acquaintance, is not intuitive. For many of us interested in effective, efficient and comfortable controls, it is more than annoying that the Volvo conception won over that of Citroen. We are living in the past, again. Citroen expected the user to make an effort to learn the system while Volvo, with the best of intentions, assumed a lower level of engagement.
Thus we find ourselves in the position today where the advances in ergonomics have not been translated into ever more effective car interiors. Rather we find meaningless variations in appearance driving the layouts of controls. Seating is still a hit and miss affair. Door handles and boot-lids get more and less easy to use depending on designers’ whims.
Some firms fit reasonable seating and some firms (Ford, step forward) still show little aptitude. There has been a kind of standstill and backsliding in the insights made regarding fitting drivers’ and passengers’ bodies into cars. And this is perplexing since in many other areas such as durability, reliability and economy vehicles are vastly better than they were when cars were sold with exploitative images of bodies that would not sit all that well inside the vehicles in question.
[Post-script: regular readers will be familiar with my scepticism towards Modernism. Here is some more. Ergonomics and Modernism part company when Modernism determines to make change for change’s sake. That means tried and tested standards will be rejected for something new because it is new. By and large there are some general principles in ergonomics that, when applied would lead to quite similar designs. Our old friend the HVAC controls don’t have to look all that different from the three dials set-up that use to be the norm. While marketing has some part to play in the over-use of fiddly buttons, I feel that designers’ wish to be seen to be Modernist plays a part in proposing non-standard layouts.]