On a plane flying to a speaking engagement recently, I was reading a book my wife recommended for me. It’s called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a psychological study on gut reaction and prejudices. I read the book in a search for answers to the complex problems involving racial prejudice and conflicts that have plagued our country lately, and I learned something inspiring I didn’t expect. I learned about the chair I sit on in my home office (Blink, pp. 167-175).
My love affair with Herman Miller’s Aeron chair purely came by accident. I used to look at architectural magazines when I was studying and working in architecture but that was another lifetime ago. I knew about Herman Miller from afar until one day, I was in this fancy hotel in one more speaking engagements. I parked my tired behind on the hotel room chair to answer my endless work emails and that’s when I encountered the Aeron chair. As soon as I leaned back on that chair, all of my fatigue and trouble just escaped through its porous seat back. I had to have that chair (the chair I’m sitting on in the photo of my study). Today, I own this wonderful chair, touted as one of the most aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic chairs around. I’ve tried lots of ergonomic and pretty chairs (including the art piece Goldman chair in my living room), but none came close to the Aeron. I don’t think I can work as well on any other chair since that day. What I didn’t know was the rough beginning of the Aeron chair.
Back in the 90s, Herman Miller sought to design the most ergonomic chair on the market especially for the executive clientele. He hired top industrial designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf to come up with the concepts. They first created Ergon and Equa which were highly copied but Herman Miller wasn’t satisfied. The Aeron which they came up will defied all chair fashion by sticking with the most basic skeleton design all without the traditional cushion. The entire chair is porous. What’s striking however is that the chair imitates how our hip and back pivot in order to avoid putting stress on the lower back. For those of us who make a living sitting in front of our desks, this is the deal breaker.
The Aeron chair back and the seat move independently while boasting a vertically and horizontally adjustable armrests. Thus, the chair doesn’t only take into consideration of how the back pivots but also the width of the person sitting on the chair. This legendary chair debut on terribly shaky reception. When it was first tested, the average customer satisfaction was somewhere around 4.75 out of 10. It was an invention nobody wanted. The problem isn’t the product. The problem is how Americans perceived comfort in the 90s. The average American equated comfort with cushion (may American chairs are still highly cushioned). Even though the mesh material of the Aeron provides the flexibility necessary to shape the chair to the body for comfort, the customers just couldn’t overcome the impression they had. Herman Miller continued to work on the comfort factor while the customer base continued to demand some kind of fabric or cushion. At the end, what was the cause for the feeling of the customers? It wasn’t the surface of the chair but the prejudice of the mind.
Herman Miller was in a bind. The company had already committed a lot of scientific research on this product. At this stage, it could do no more, unless the company decided to abandon ship. The marketing research and statistics pronounced nothing but doom. By popular opinion, the Aeron should be called the “Chair of Death” (someone in the marketing department actually named it that). What would the company do? The company had decided to stick to its commitment to its ideal and buck the aesthetic trend of the time. Popular opinions be damned, the Herman Miller Aeron was born.
Not much happened when it finally hit the market, but momentum slowly picked up as real clients who needed comfort for 8-10 hours a day sitting started to experience the Aeron. In cities like NYC or the Silicon Valley where more people sit in front of their keyboards, it became the artistic piece rich clients could show off for the radical aesthetics while experiencing comfort instead of back pain. It won the Industrial Designers of America award. Since then, this chair has become one of the most sought after in the world. You’ll find them in many upscale hotel rooms in front of the work desks. All this happened because Herman Miller stuck to its ideal.
What was the deciding factor that tipped the scale to put it on market instead of shelving the project? Certainly, it wasn’t the popular opinion from marketing research. Bill Dowell, the research leader in Herman Miller put the matter this way, “When you are in the product development world, you become immersed in your own stuff, and it’s hard to keep in mind the fact that the customers you go out and see spend very little time with your product. They know the experience of it then and there. But they don’t have any history with it, and it’s hard for them to imagine a future with it, especially if it’s something very different.” (Blink, pp. 173-174) But when they finally spend prolonged hours on the Aeron chair, their idea of what was “ugly” now changed to “beautiful” all due to the experienced comfort.
Herman Miller shows to us that expertise is a gift, but it isn’t always a gift for popular consumption. The designers of the Aeron spent more time and had a better grasp on ergonomic comfort more than anyone else. They believed in their data, as did Herman Miller. IF Herman Miller believed in popular opinion, we’d still be sitting on cushy chairs that cause back pain. The only people who benefit would be the chiropractor. The Aeron shows that something is more important than popular opinions (sometimes, even prejudices and idiocy). That something is the time spent honing a quality product. Quality isn’t about popularity. Quality is about longevity. Herman Miller should bring great comfort not only to our tired backs, but also to our ideal for high quality, whether we’re writing, speaking or working on a unique project. Since its shaky inception, the profit has grown 40-70% annually. When we work for something unique, we may not be immediately popular, but our results will last. Besides, who needs a cushy office chair when you have the ultimate office chair of all chairs: the Aeron chair. May Herman Miller inspire you today as you read. Thank you, Herman Miller, for not giving up on the unique Aeron chair.