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Vintage Humanscale design manuals show nerdy beauty of ergonomics

Like da Vinci drawings for today’s designers, these references are analog tools for a digital age

One of the selectors within the Humanscale Manuals, a guide to ergonomics, activity, and movement for designers. Numerous data points can be adjusted by turning a wheel.
All images via IA Collaborative

Another classic design manual has joined the rush of lost publications being reintroduced to a new generation of creators via crowdfunding. But this time, the publishers believe they’re not just providing an inspiration, but also a valuable tool.

Released by IA Collaborative, a Chicago-based global design consultancy, the Humanscale Manuals, a set of three books and nine measurement selectors being reissued via the firm’s new Kickstarter campaign, place important information about human anatomy and movement at a designers’ fingertips. Broken down in easy-to-access charts and manuals meant for industrial designers, architects, planners and others, these information-rich resources for both activity and ergonomics offer important analog tools in a digital design age. The dozens, even hundreds, of choices about size and dimensions designers have to make are placed within their hands.

“The analog nature of these guides lets us as designers look at things together and be inspired, resolve disagreements, and solve problems,” says Luke Westra, design engineering director at IA Collaborative and the project lead for the Humanscale reissue.

The Humanscale manuals were the brainchild of Henry Dreyfuss Associates, a famous design firm that helped pioneer human-centered methodology and collaborated on the creation of iconic products such as the modern telephone, the Polaroid camera and the John Deere tractor.

Created between 1974 and 1981, these manuals codify and lay out countless human interactions and movements, compiling more than 60,000 data points the firm collected while designing consumer products into “beautiful design objects.” Out of print for more than 25 years, IA had been using old copies of the manuals they found on eBay, and decided they were too valuable not to share with others.

The detailed nature of the information on the Humanscale manuals is matched by the exacting nature of the graphic design. Assembled and laid out by Niels Diffrient (who would go on to form the Humanscale furniture company) and Alvin Tilley, these design references are works of art in themselves, expertly communicating numerous and often overlapping data points with clarity and ease.

An architect can, by turning a wheel on one of these measurement selectors, see how the dimensions of a room should change to fit differing numbers of people, or the way clearances need to shift to accommodate varying crowds. A furniture designer working on a new desk can reference these manuals and see the average reach of an adult, the correct, comfortable height for seating, or the full range of motion of a seated worker.

The Public Space selector also includes reference for corridors, doorways, lavatories, classrooms and outdoor walks—with considerations as detailed as affordances for people holding umbrellas, while the Space Planning selector covers both home and office. There’s even a selector that deals with visuals displays (though its wasn’t prescient enough to predict the advent of smaller screens and the mobile age).

Since much of this information today is proprietary or only available by paying research companies, according to IA, the Humanscale manuals offer key insight to today’s small design firms or independent makers.

“Never before or since has there been such a complete and consolidated reference tool for anyone designing spaces and environments,” says Dan Kraemer, founder and chief design office of IA Collaborative.

The Kickstarter campaign, which launched earlier this week, has almost hit its goal. If and when the goal is reached, IA plans to print and ship in time for manuals to arrive in December. Eventually, the firm wants to expand the program and create an additional selector that deals with digital interfaces, such as smart home hubs.