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Robert King: Humanscale’s Universal Language

In light of Humanscale’s recent showroom launch in Singapore at 66 Club Street, we chat with Robert King, founder and CEO of the globally renowned ergonomics company, on building core foundations and distribution strategies.

Robert King: Humanscale’s Universal Language


June 3rd, 2015

Top: Robert King, CEO and Founder of Humanscale. Photo: Humanscale

Over the years, Humanscale has become a brand synonymous with usability, simplicity and user comfort. The company that pioneered ergonomics maintains close relationships with its customers and conducts regular research and case studies worldwide on working habits. These form the starting points of its two to four year long process of bringing a product to market. Besides materializing groundbreaking functions, Humanscale’s products are incorporated with seamless functionality, as Robert King, CEO and founder, believes that, “If something is really easy to use, it gets used. If its not, it ends up being just a barrier to to movement.”

While reducing the ‘barrier to movement’, the company is able to utilise fewer materials and components in its products. This allows for multiple manufacturing bases and assembly hubs to be located adjacent to their markets. Besides significantly reducing transportation needs, and allowing products to reach customers quicker, Humanscale is also able to remain close to its market and hire local ambassadors for its range of universally accessible products that focus on functionality.

Diffrient World, White, Conference room
Diffrient World, White, Conference room. Photo: Humanscale

Tell us about Humanscale’s activities in Asia.

We have been in the Asia market since early 90s. We have typically worked with distributors in various countries. Over the last 20 years, we started putting our own people in place, and we have showrooms in major cities, as well as distribution in just about every country [in Asia].

What about your key strategies and plans for the region?

As you know, our showroom just opened in Singapore. We will continue to expand our reach. Now that we have distribution in every significant distribution country in Asia, the focus is to ensure that we have strong distribution in the secondary market in every country. It is easy to have distribution in say, Kuala Lumpur, but it is critically important to have strong distribution in all cities of Malaysia.

Diffrient Smart Chair in Conference. Photo: Humanscale

What have you observed over the years of being in the Asia market?

Like Westerners, Asians feel comfortable working with local people. In the west, we employ local people: in Europe, we employ Europeans, and in China, we tend to employ Chinese and in Singapore, we tend to employ Singaporeans. We think that having local presence and people telling our story is very important.

Even manufacturing plants are placed as close to a market as possible…

We think it is very important to have manufacturing near the local market. If you have to transport long distance, it causes problems for customers. It is also harder to predict how long it will take to get the product to the customer. It is also important to have local distribution as it is obviously better for the environment too, if we don’t have to transport things long distance.

We believe strongly that it is important to make things locally. We are fortunate that we don’t have millions of products, but very targeted number of products that really matter to people.

M8 Monitor Arm, Side View. Photo: Humanscale

Products that take a rigorous process to bring to market.

There is a huge amount of effort that goes into designing products, making them and getting them ready to produce in quantity. We are not a furniture company, we are really an ergonomics company. We make ergonomic tools that work intelligently with people.

Horizon Task Light. Photo: Humanscale

While Humanscale has fewer products, they stay in the market for a long time.

That is an interesting point. Our products are unique, and we are very devoted to function, so all of our designs start with function. We don’t think about the way a product is going to look, until towards the end of the process, so the form of our products flow from the function.

As a result, our products are not tied visually to a particular time. They look relevant after many years. They are also not tied to a particular place. I think a lot of American companies have struggled with this. If you start with function, the product is just as relevant in Singapore, as it would be in Paris. The products are universal in terms of time and place, which works in our favour and more importantly, the customers’ favour.

Humanscale Robert King Niels Diffrient
From left: Robert King and Niels Diffrient. Photo: Humanscale

Tell us about your relationship with Niels Diffrient, and how it shaped Humanscale.

I started the company back in 83, and I had always been passionate about the ease of use and simplicity – making things as simple as they possibly could be. Not only in terms of the way a product is made with fewer parts and materials, but in terms of ease of use. If something is really easy to use, it gets used. If its not, it ends up being just a barrier to movement.

I had noticed, by talking to people, that no one knew how to use their chair. I had asked hundreds of people: How does your chair work? I never found anyone, shockingly, who could for example lean back. They don’t know where manual controls are and as a result, they don’t use it. They stay still, which is the worse thing we can do. I interviewed dozens of designers with the idea of designing our own ergonomic chair that would allow people to move freely, yet support them in terms of health and comfort. No one knew how to deal with this. They said, ‘we will put instructions on the arm pad, under the seat’ and I said, ‘No, people don’t want instructions. They don’t pay attention. Even if they read a manual, they can’t be bothered to operate controls’.

Freedom Headrest, White. Photo: Humanscale

Then someone said the greatest chair designer in the world lived nearby, in Connecticut – Niels Diffrient. We were a very small company then – this was the mid-90s – he had never heard of us. I made an appointment and saw him in the studio. We talked for hours about the importance of simplicity and ease of use. The difference between a product that is easy to use, and one that is not was enormous. People use one and don’t use the other.

After awhile, he showed me a chair that he had been working on for many years, on his own. It turned out to be the precursor of the Freedom chair. It worked the way our [Humanscale] chairs work today. It uses your body weight to adjust the recline of the chair perfectly so no matter how much you weigh, when you sit on the chair, it fits you.

That was how our relationship started. We became very close friends and developed a lot of products over the next 20 years. We have four chairs of Niels in development today. We are taking those into production over the next several years. Developing a chair can take five, maybe six years. Its a long process, if you do things that are new and we tend to do that.

Ballo Stool. Photo: Humanscale

Are you working with any other designers today?

We worked with Don Chadwick, recently to develop the Ballo stool, a product for collaborative spaces – short term seating that you can’t sit still as it encourages you to move, which is what we are all about.

We developed a chair with Todd Bracher, a New York based designer, who is a rising star in global design. We will continue to work with him on some new products and, of course we have our in house design studio with folks that are incredibly talented and have been here a long time, and truly understand our philosophy and values.

Trea. Photo: Humanscale

What happens when you encounter changes in market trends, while in the midst of developing products?

We are very close to the market. We don’t have a lot of layers in our organisation. As the CEO, I visit many customers every week. I am a student of customers. I love to be in customers’ offices and learn. However, we pay more attention to how people interact with their work and workplace versus focusing on the latest style trends. Our design focus is on function, not fashion, which allows us to come out with products that are unique and timeless regardless of changing style trends.

QuickStand, Home Office. Photo: Humanscale

The way people work today is different, but not dramatically different. For example, people spend more time in collaborative spaces today, which is great. For a long time, people had desks that didn’t move. Computers were on those desks, and chairs that were often locked were in front of those desks, so people sat still, or stood perfectly still, which is the worst thing you can do. We have talked about getting people to move since we started, so we create products that keep people moving. That is as relevant today, as it was 25 years ago.

Look out for a brand story on Humanscale in the upcoming issue of Cubes 74.


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