What is the ideal desk chair? It turns out that is a very hard question to answer and one that we’ve been exploring for over 35 years. For us it has always been a question of ergonomics – that fascinating place where people and their tools interact. In fact, the late Bill Stumpf spent 11 years studying how the human body could sit comfortably, how we interact with not just our chairs but also the work surface and our work tools. The result was the Ergon chair which went public in 1976 and is still produced (for more check out the chair slideshow over on Discover).
Today Gretchen Gscheidle, Director of Insight and Exploration, for Herman Miller, who helped Bill Stumpf and Jeff Weber develop products including the Aeron and Embody, continues our research into ergonomics. Gscheidle, who trained as an industrial designer and product developer, is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and represents Herman Miller on the Office Ergonomics Research Committee. She knows a thing or two about sitting.
1. How do you choose an ergonomically-correct chair? Should you match the chair to the kind of back problem you may have? There are 3 rules in ergonomics, seating and otherwise: fit the user, fit the task, allow postural change and movement. The fitting depends on your body – size, shape, proportions. I for one have a long torso, short arms, so I’m extra focused on armrest height.
You must sit in the chair. If you have chronic issues or even temporary discomforts, yes, you’re going to gravitate toward those chairs that deliver the support where you need it. Fitting also requires “tuning” the chair’s adjustments. There’s often an “ah-ha” when you know everything just feels “right.”
There are plenty of pre-conceptions about what that should be. I encourage people to approach seating with an open mind – there are some amazing technologies in seating – and get some expert advice in the process.
Then you also have to take into consideration what tasks you’re going to be doing in the chair. Reclining is healthy for the back in that it offloads the weight of the upper back onto the chair – but you can’t do that if you’re sitting on an exercise ball, as some people choose to at work. Conversely, if you’re looking through a microscope or needing to look down at your hands as you’re sorting materials, reclining doesn’t do you much good there.
Finally, you need to keep moving so you don’t want to be locked into one posture the way that, say a race car driver is in a custom-molded seat.