Design Museum: London - design, architecture and fashion.

Ergonomics Real Design, © Luke Hayes

Ergonomics Real Design, © Luke Hayes

Commode, Pearson Design for Design Bugs Out, 2009

Commode, Pearson Design for Design Bugs Out, 2009

Anthropomorphic hand measurements © Luke Hayes

Anthropomorphic hand measurements © Luke Hayes

Bloodhound SSC Cockpit Test Rig, students University of West England, Bristol © Luke Hayes

Bloodhound SSC Cockpit Test Rig, students University of West England, Bristol © Luke Hayes

Graphic Design of Medical Packaging, Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art, 2006-2008 © Luke Hayes

Graphic Design of Medical Packaging, Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art, 2006-2008 © Luke Hayes

Handheld Tape Measure, Frazer Designers, 2000-2002, © Luke Hayes

Handheld Tape Measure, Frazer Designers, 2000-2002, © Luke Hayes

Resus Station, Jonathan West & Sally Halls, 2005, © Luke Hayes

Resus Station, Jonathan West & Sally Halls, 2005, © Luke Hayes

Osteoarthritis Simulation Suit, Loughborough University and Napp Pharmaceutical Holdings, 2006, © Luke Hayes

Osteoarthritis Simulation Suit, Loughborough University and Napp Pharmaceutical Holdings, 2006, © Luke Hayes


Design Science (1949-)
Ergonomics: Real Design
18 November 2009 – 7 March 2010

Often described as the science of everyday life, ERGONOMICS combines scientific knowledge of human performance with design and engineering to create systems, products and services which are safe, efficient and enjoyable to use. Human capabilities and limitations – whether physical, psychological, or organisational – are applied by ergonomists to specify the design requirements for everything from everyday consumer products to complex safety-critical systems. Whether at home, at work, or in transport, anything that has been designed for human use is relevant to ergonomics.

The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance?. It further goes on to define an ergonomist as “an individual whose knowledge and skills concern the analysis of human-system interaction and the design of the system in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance?.

An alternative, more concise definition was offered by Dempsey et al. (2000) in the inaugural paper of the journal Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, as “...the design and engineering of human-machine systems for the purpose of enhancing human performance? (p.6).

Ergonomics is therefore a discipline very much rooted in design, but with a strong interdisciplinary emphasis. Ergonomists may hail from a variety of backgrounds, including design, engineering, computer science, physiology, biology, psychology, or sociology. The key is the interrelationship between human and mechanical elements of a system to optimise overall performance. Indeed, this ‘systems perspective’ is fundamental to the ergonomists’ approach, combining the strengths and weaknesses of human and machine performance to improve safety, efficiency, and satisfaction in operations. Increasingly in our modern world, there are many human elements in a team-based system, while the machine elements are highly technological or even automated. Thus the term ‘sociotechnical systems’ is used to represent this area of study.

Broadly speaking, there are three main branches of ergonomics: physical ergonomics (how the body works), cognitive ergonomics (how the mind works), and organisational ergonomics (how companies and societies work).
Physical ergonomics is the branch dealing with the physical properties of the human body, including anthropometrics, biomechanics, and physiology. This is often the stereotypical perception of ergonomics, and covers workstation design, postural assessments, musculoskeletal disorders, and manual handling.

Cognitive ergonomics covers the psychological processes involved when interacting with systems, such as perception, attention, memory, mental workload, and decision making. Other pertinent topics include skilled performance and human error. Domains of application are becoming more relevant in this field as technological progress imposes more mental than physical demands on operators. Human-computer interaction and interface design are significant areas of research in their own right, though the ubiquity of computing nowadays means that these have diverse influences across applications such as transport and mobile devices.

Organisational ergonomics is the branch dealing with the wider sociotechnical system, covering organisational issues such as culture, teamwork and human resources. Relevant topics include communication and teamwork, computer-supported cooperative work, and job and task design.

Ergonomics, and the kind of work that ergonomists conduct, may otherwise be referred to under other terms such as human factors or user- (or human-) centred design. There are often subtle differences in interpretation of these terms. For instance, human factors has traditionally been the term adopted in the US, whilst the UK has preferred ergonomics; meanwhile, some read ergonomics as pertaining to physical ergonomics, and human factors to cognitive or organisational ergonomics. The distinction persists in job titles and professional descriptions, with various practitioners referring to themselves as ergonomists or human factors specialists. Accordingly, major professional societies around the world have acknowledged the distinction in their names, with those in the US (Human Factors and Ergonomics Society), Australia (Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia), and most recently the UK (Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors; formerly The Ergonomics Society) being cases in point.

To all intents and purposes, though, the terms are synonymous. Indeed, it has been argued (Dempsey et al., 2000) that the various ways of referring to the same underlying discipline only serve to confuse matters to those outside the field, and some advocate the adoption of ergonomics as a single umbrella term for clarity. The current article takes this stance and uses ergonomics throughout.

The first known use of the term ‘ergonomics’ was as far back as 1857, by a Polish scholar, philosopher and naturalist, Wojciech Jastrzębowski. In his treatise, “An Outline of Ergonomics, Or The Science of Work based upon the truths drawn from the Science of Nature?, Jastrzębowski derives ergonomics from the Greek ‘ergon’ (meaning work), and ‘nomos’ (principle or law) to arrive at the science of work. With remarkable prescience, Jastrzębowski divides ergonomics into “physical, aesthetic, rational, and moral work; that is, work which is kinetic, emotional, intellectual and spiritual, or motory, or sensory, or rational, and which may otherwise be known as: labour, entertainment, thinking and devotion or toil, or pastime, or reasoning, or dedication?.

Since Jastrzębowski’s time, the Industrial Revolution brought to the fore issues associated with the human-machine interface and the design of work. Prior to the First World War, the rise of Taylorism and the pioneering time-and-motion studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth laid “...the foundations of the fundamental principles of human performance relevant to the design and evolution of industrial systems? (Dempsey et al., 2000; p.4). During the First World War itself, the Industrial Health Research Board established that excessive working hours were self-defeating in that they reduced output due to fatigue (Sell, 2009).

The Second World War accelerated developments in this field, with psychologists such as Sir Frederic Bartlett and Kenneth Craik leading the way with studies on human interaction with technology. Indeed, the concept of the sociotechnical system – such a fundamental in modern ergonomics – is clearly grounded in Craik’s work. His untimely death in 1945 curtailed what might otherwise have been an even more significant contribution to ergonomics. Post-war, aircraft accidents became a stimulus for detailed ergonomics studies in the cockpit, as many crashes were due to pilots confusing controls and displays.

In many ways these events laid the foundation for what is widely recognised as the birth of ergonomics as a formal scientific discipline. In 1949, Hywel Murrell gathered a small group of like-minded researchers in Oxford to form “a group to enable research workers in different disciplines to meet and exchange ideas? (Waterson & Sell, 2006). Murrell subsequently experimented with etymology to establish (or, arguably, re-establish – following Jastrzębowski in 1857) the term ergonomics. On 27th September 1949, this group met at the Admiralty in London, and established the Ergonomics Research Society – later to become known as the Ergonomics Society, and is today the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF).

Today, the IEHF is the oldest professional ergonomics society in the world, comprising some 1500 members (as at 2009). In fields as diverse as transport, medicine, nuclear power, defence, and consumer product design w What was originally the science of work has evolved to become designing for the real world – making things better through usability to improve safety, efficiency and satisfaction.

© Design Museum, 2010


1857 Jastrzębowski publishes “An Outline of Ergonomics, or the Science of Work based upon the truths drawn from the Science of Nature? in Nature and Industry.

1949 Ergonomics Research Society formed at Queen Anne Mansions, Admiralty, London, 27th September

1957 First issue of the journal Ergonomics published, November

1960 First ergonomics textbook published, Ergonomics: Fitting the Job to the Worker, by Hywel Murrell

1961 International Ergonomics Association (IEA) formed

1977 Ergonomics Research Society becomes the Ergonomics Society

1984 Death of Hywel Murrell (21st January)

1999 50th anniversary of Ergonomics Society marked by an exhibition at the Science Museum in London, entitled ‘The Human Factor’

2009 Ergonomics Society becomes the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (20th October)
60th anniversary of Ergonomics Society marked by an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, called ‘Ergonomics: Real Design’


Dempsey, P. G., Wogalter, M. S. & Hancock, P. A. (2000). What’s in a name? Using terms from definitions to examine the fundamental foundation of human factors and ergonomics science. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 1(1), 3-10.

Dul, J. & Weerdmeester, B. (2001). Ergonomics for Beginners: A Quick Reference Guide (2nd edition). London: Taylor & Francis.

Jastrzębowski, W. (1857). An outline of Ergonomics, Or The Science of Work based upon the truths drawn from the Science of Nature. Nature and Industry, 29-32.

Murrell, K. F. H. (1960). Ergonomics: Fitting the Job to the Worker. London: British Productivity Council.

Pheasant, S. & Haslegrave, C. M. (2005). Bodyspace: Anthropometry, Ergonomics and the Design of Work (3rd edition). Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis / CRC Press.

Sell, R. (2009). Sixty years of The Ergonomics Society. Hazards Forum Newsletter, 64, 8-9.

Stanton, N. A. & Stammers, R. B. (2008). Bartlett and the Future of Ergonomics. Ergonomics, 51(1), 1-13.

Waterson, P. & Eason, K. (2009). ‘1966 and all that’: Trends and developments in UK ergonomics during the 1960s.

Ergonomics, 52(11), 1323-1341.

Waterson, P. & Sell, R. (2006). Recurrent themes and developments in the history of the Ergonomics Society. Ergonomics, 49(8), 743-799.

Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

International Ergonomics Association

Design Council’s webpages on ergonomics

Ergonomics: Real Design exhibition at the Design Museum

© Design Museum, 2010

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