online: 28 september 2004
modified: 28 septemeber, 14 october 2004

19 september 2004

1.1 How I got into a subject that did not yet exist!

Is this how new occupations begin - when individuals, unknown to each other, notice weaknesses in the culture and try to do something about them?

If you look at the chronology of my early life you will see that I came to designing as a childhood interest in physical objects and in making them. But I can see now that I was interested not so much in the objects themselves as in the invisible processes that made them move or gave them form (wind, electricity, organised thought). Much of this came, I believe, from my father, a teacher of physics and an idealist who had his own theory (of vibrations) that he thought explained and connected everything. And yet he believed in God though I never heard him speak of his belief except to say that anyone who needs miracles to support belief in Christianity is not a believer.

I got from these childhood interests to industrial design and design methods via the mistaken belief that I would like to be a designer of aircraft. Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (the designer of the Tiger Moth, in which I later learnt to fly, the Mosquito, the Comet, and many other beautiful aircraft) was my role model (though the phrase was unknown in those days). Eventually I got to be a vacation student at the de Havilland Technical School (and in the aircraft works at Hatfield) but to my shock and sorrow I found that I didn't like the life of an engineer - I wanted to do something closer to people, and to ideas.

As I write I guess that most of this is coloured by what happened since and at the time I'd have explained myself differently, or failed to, for I was baffled by finding that I'd got into a career I didn't want to continue - and I didn't know what to do next.

Eventually I came across some magazines called 'Art and Industry' which revealed the existence of industrial design - a subject that then, as now, no one seems to know of or be able to describe. I could see that it was a more human version of engineering design so I jumped for it, via a job in the Festival of Britain which gave me access to manufacturers and to industrial designers. I went to art school in the evenings. At the festival I met Harry West, Chief Engineer of Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company, Manchester, where he took me as his protege, made me do a two-year college apprentiship in electrical engineering, and put me to work under R M Kay the appearance design engineer. He agreed to let me spend part of my apprentiship in the Olivetti works at Ivrea trying to learn 'the secret of good design'.

I much enjoyed that visit and inferred that the Olivetti secret, if they had one, was to separate the cover from the working parts of a typewriter (or other product) so that they did not interfere with each other. The most obvious result was the pure form of the Olivetti Lexicon which was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an industrial sculpture.

Another secret of Olivetti's success was that they paid everyone somewhat more than they would get elsewhere and so were able to employ the best people available. And I had the impression that they gave their employees as much discretion as possible... How different from those super executives who nowadays are paid fortunes to 'turn round' failing companies by imposing detailed control of everyone's actions, cutting pay, exporting jobs, and 'making people redundant' or 'letting them go', as they put it... I know that global economics have changed but I doubt if those Olivetti principles are outmoded.

After these apprentiships Harry West gave me the freedom to go anywhere in the vast works (of 25 000 people, mostly very skilled) to do whatever I thought might improve the appearance of the electrical generators, switchgear, transformers, control rooms, electric locomotives or any other equipment that was designed and made in the factory. During this time I learnt much from their design consultant, Jack Howe, who had himself been Walter Gropius's assistant when he designed a village college at Impington in Cambridgeshire. I worked for six months in Jack's office in London.

I was at Metropolitan-Vickers for ten years during which time I worked in several departments, making some design changes in each. The first of these was a the exterior of a hydro-electric generator now installed inside a mountain in Canada. I've never seen it but I still have the perspective drawing I made and a photograph of the appearance model. My last job was the external design and ergonomics of an early mainframe computer, the AEI 1010 (the company had in the interval changed its name to AEI Ltd.).

During that time I realised that the two or three people employed to add 'good appearance' to a vast range of high quality products would never have much on an impact so I started an in-house evening class for particularly talented section leaders in both engineering and drawing offices. To these unselfconscious artists I taught Bauhaus-type 'basic design' and my first attempt at 'systematic design method' as I then called it. How to put people first and how to consciously organise your design process for both imagination and rightness. I was influenced in this by knowing of John Arnold's course in psychology and aesthetics for design engineers at MIT and by knowing of the work and films of Charles and Ray Eames. Their film the information machine was part of my course - as were films of Barbara Hepworth's sculptures and the seas and rocks of Cornwall. This was in the late 1950s.

I also got to dislike the superficiality of 'appearance design' as we called it. So when I heard of the formation of the Ergonomics Research Society (in the mid 1950s) I wrote to ask if I could join it. As I was not qualified in psychology or physiology they admitted me as one of their first industrial members. Eventually I learnt quite a lot of applied psychology and Harry West and his successor Charles Fluerscheim permitted me to start an ergonomics laboratory in the works and to change my title from 'appearance design engineer' to 'ergonomics design engineer' or some such.

By this I felt that these various activities were coming together as a new way of organising design and I began to look around for allies outside the works who might share my belief in the need to improve design processes generally and to make the industrialised world a better place for people. How I found them and what we did is the next part of this story.

(these pages are designed to be read with the window set to two-thirds of the screen width)

what's new


digital diary archive

daffodil email newsletter

© 2002, 2003, 2004 john chris jones

You may transmit this text to anyone for any non-commercial purpose if you include the copyright line and this notice and if you respect the copyright of quotations.

If you wish to reproduce any of this text commercially please send a copyright permission request to jcj at