LINUS office chair; Designed by Piotr Kuchciński, 2003; Manufactured by PROFIm
The first ergonomic tool in the history of humankind was undoubtedly the biface. It was used by Homo erectus over one and a half million years ago, long before Homo sapiens appeared on the face of the earth. The biface met all the basic requirements of ergonomics: it fitted the human hand and fulfilled the function that it was meant for.
We owe the concept of a scientific approach to ergonomics as a field of knowledge to a Pole. The naturalist, professor at the Institute of Agriculture and Forestry [Instytut Rolniczo-Leśny] in Marymont near Warsaw, Wojciech Jastrzębowski, first used the term ergonomics in 1857 in his treatise “An Outline of Ergonomics, or the Science of Work”. He derived the term, defined by him as “science of work, i.e. of the use of the strengths and talents given to man by his Creator”, from the Greek words ergon (work) and nomos (law, principle). In the second half of the 19th century in Western Europe and the United States forerunners of the management theory – Frederick Winslow Taylor, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, and physiologist G. Lehmann – conducted research on the borderline of ergonomics and work organisation in response to the growing need for maximising work efficiency in the developing factories and reducing the number of injuries and accidents among workers. The real catalyst of interest in the role of the human factor in the functioning of the human–machine system was, however, the Second World War and the development of the armaments industry. Soon after the war, in 1949, the Ergonomics Society was established in England. Ten years later the International Ergonomics Association was created which now federates 47 national societies, including the Polish Ergonomics Society established in 1977.
Modern ergonomics is defined as a field of knowledge concerned with the principles and methods of adapting working conditions to physical and mental human features, that is, the construction of technical equipment and the shaping of a material work environment which are required by the physiology and psychology of labour. It draws on the achievements of biological human sciences, including anatomy, physiology, anthropology, medicine, psychology and sociology; technical sciences, such as engineering, technology, materials science and architecture; on the experience of management and organisation, logistics, law and economics, as well as the arts and aesthetics. In the 1970s, together with the advancing process of European integration, sets of rules and regulations — directives — were created, which formed the legal basis for the laws in force. Based on these directives, in 1975 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) appointed a Technical Committee (TC159) for the purpose of creating ergonomic norms, which were to standardize terminology, methods and anthropometric, biomechanical, physiological and psychological data. Until the present, ISO Committee 159 has developed 103 standards. Additionally, the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) has drawn up 43 standards regulating ergonomic requirements for products, devices and workstations in various fields, from school black- and whiteboards to control centres.
- Obviously, the elements of ergonomic requirements which accompany safety or functionality criteria in other standards are far more numerous.
Strong links with science have always existed in Polish industrial design.
There are well known instances of multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers and scientists which based their work on empirical research, and whose results brought acclaim in the international forum. One such example is the team which created the Pm 36-1 steam engine produced in the Factory of Locomotives in Chrzanów, which was a top achievement of Polish construction work and industrial design in the field of interwar railway technology — as proven by the gold medal awarded to Poland for this engine in 1937 at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Paris. However, the sociopolitical changes which took place after the Second World War, the command-and-quota economic system, and the omnipresent slogan “science for industry” were just illusions of real economic mechanisms supporting synergy of operations and a multidisciplinary approach, which stand at the core of industrial design.
Ergonomics began to be promoted and applied in the 1960s. The institutions which first introduced the subject into their curriculum included the Warsaw and Poznań Universities of Technology, the AGH University of Science and Technology, the Jagiellonian, Poznań, Warsaw and Gdańsk Universities, the Central School of Planning and Statistics in Warsaw and the Agricultural School of Higher Education in Poznań. Lectures concerned mainly the basics of ergonomics, occupational health and safety, and the impact of material working environment factors on the human organism. However, only the curricula of art schools dealt with the creation of the groundwork and principles of ergonomics for design and the location of this stage in the new product development chain (currently, elements of ergonomics are statutorily present in the educational standards for design courses, created by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education). Within IWP the Institute of Ergonomic Research was created in 1968, the first and to this day only Polish research centre which deals with physical ergonomics of everyday objects, both from the static (anthropometry) and functional (biomechanics, electrophysiology and movement analysis) perspective. Although most of IWP’s activities in the post-war Poland fell victim to the system or became divorced from economic realities through their own actions, they also brought significant results. The concept of universal and democratic design which was promoted by the Institute, the designs of furniture, e.g. for the blind, visually impaired, the elderly and the disabled, of special clothing for various groups of disabled persons, both adult and children, and of protective clothing all resulted from the cooperation of designers and ergonomists. Designs — not implemented for various reasons, shown as prototypes, or used to make products only in one copy — were a frame of reference, a standard both for designers and consumers. In 1974, the Committee on Ergonomics, affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences, was established. Its task was to initiate interdisciplinary research on professional and non-professional human activities, with the goal of optimally adapting tangible products and the conditions of their use to human features, taking into account material and social environment factors.
After 1989, resulting in the change in the political and economic situation, the concept of Polish design was modified and a crystallisation of goals, methods and operations occurred. The entities commissioning product design services changed. These were now new enterprises and reformed state-owned companies which could not afford to develop their own purpose-designed objects. Their initial activities in many cases consisted in importing products from abroad and, at most, assembling them in Poland. Through this, they gained a technological and organisational know-how and extended their machine parks. The process of establishing the procedures of cooperation between the new companies, which were intentionally building their first collections, and the designers, who were independently creating the foundations for the first private studios, now inspires respect and seems surprisingly far-sighted in its decisions.
- Rivalry on the dynamically developing market resulted in companies searching for the most efficient tools for raising competitiveness on the one hand, and for added value on the other.
They found both in design and, within design, in ergonomics. Design officially became part of Poland’s strategy for development. The amount of EUR 186 billion was allocated from EU funds within the “Innovative Economy” Operational Programme, measure 4.2: Stimulation of R&D activity of enterprises and support in the scope of industrial design until 2015. IWP has started the Design Your Profit project, which comprehensively supports cooperation between designers and the industry. Its main task is to make available knowledge about management of the new product development process, whose indispensable elements are the creation of assumptions and the verification of the ergonomic parameters arrived at. As part of its activities, IWP is extending the research and apparatus facilities of the Institute of Ergonomic Research to include equipment of such companies as Vicon, Noraxon, AMTI, Measurand and Tekscan. It is also developing new areas of ergonomics research, including electrophysiology, biomechanics and movement analysis in 3D, introducing methodology of design project management which takes into account initial knowledge input, as well as providing ergonomics lectures and training for designers. Additionally, for three years IWP has been organising International Scientific Conferences on the most recent research results and aspects of the ergonomics application.
The growing importance of ergonomics in objects designed within all industries is noticeable at international fairs and exhibitions. The latest concepts, often in the form of prototypes, are presented there. Some prove successful in practice, some do not, but they are always at the centre of interest and debate, and determine future trends. The biannual ORGATEC Modern Office & Facility Fair in Cologne gives the impression of being devoted completely to ergonomics. Ergonomics is also a significant criterion for assessing designs in competitions — independently, e.g. in the Good Design competition for the best-designed market product, or as a vehicle for innovation, functionality, usability or emotional values, as in the Red Dot competition. Modern design in Poland must therefore be based on knowledge, including, of course, ergonomics, as only then it will guarantee added value.