You might be familiar with the term ‘ergonomics’ from ads for cars or in relation to office chairs, but it is a broad subject that can be applied to many aspects of our lives. Essentially it’s about designing for people to improve, amongst other things, wellbeing. This often takes place at work, but can be anywhere that people go, and involve anything that people do – or you’d like them to do.
When people interact with a system, which could be a museum, urban park or network of paths through woodland, there is a need to ensure the design complements their abilities and strengths. Ergonomists do this by applying their knowledge of people to design, so that products and places make sense. Ergonomics can also be applied in a subtlety different way, the knowledge and skills about people can be used to change behaviour through design.
Ergonomists’ understanding of the factors that can affect people’s decisions can be applied to positively influence behaviour. In a simple example, a central-heating system in the home can be designed so that people adjust the settings differently and use less energy – here we have ‘Green Ergonomics’, design for sustainability, to conserve and restore nature.
The journal Ergonomics, had a special issue on this emerging area last year and within it green ergonomics was defined by Andrew Thatcher as ‘ergonomics interventions that have a pro-nature focus; specifically ergonomics that focuses on human affinity with the natural world’. Thatcher continues by outlining the scope of green ergonomics, from the design of low resource products, ‘greening’ jobs through access to nature, and ergonomics design for behaviour change – finding ways to design places to facilitate positive human-nature connections.
Living Worlds (credit Ant Clausen, courtesy of Manchester Museum)
So what might places that increase connection to nature look like? A first example is the Living Worlds natural history gallery at Manchester Museum. The design is based on the biophilia work of the ecologist Stephen Kellert and explores the connection between all living things, in order to shape the choices we make and encourage reflection. This use of design to influence choices is also related to concepts such as ‘nudge’ and ‘design thinking’ – using design to tackle social and behavioural issues, I wrote about nudge and ergonomics back in 2008.
“Skyspace” by James Turrell
Two further examples that come to mind are art installations. The first is a place that influences behaviour through design by having seating (back to ergonomics!) that obliges the user to look-up, towards a ceiling that brings attention to, and frames, the sky. This is “Skyspace” by James Turrell at Tremenhere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall.
Sky glade at Rievaulx Terrace
The second is a low budget alternative to Skyspace. Sky glade at Rievaulx Terrace is a National Trust installation using sycamore pillars standing at an angle in woodland to encourage passers-by to pause, repose, and look upwards towards the canopy. These prompts to pause and reflect link nicely to one of my current research projects. I’m looking at the importance of pausing to reflect on nature, and how this leads to a greater feeling of having shared place in the natural world. Ultimately, it is this change in the sense of self that brings about the benefits a connection to nature can offer.
Thatcher, A. (2013). Green ergonomics: definition and scope. Ergonomics,56(3), 389-398.
Richardson, M. (2008)., “Ergonomists as Choice Architects: Behavioural Economics and Ergonomics.” The Ergonomist, 458, pp. 1-2.