Connection Between Two Icons of Design

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by accessibility/User Experience(UX) expert Whitney Quesenbery for her and Sara Horton’s Rosenfeld Media podcast, A Podcast for Everyone (released September 3, 2014). The interview focused on a project combining accessibility and electronic personal health records. In that interview I told a story about accessibility leading to innovation and thought I would expand on it here.

According to The History of Computing Project, the late 1970’s were full of amazing technology industry breakthroughs including the development of the 5.25-inch disk drive, the Intel 8086 chip, Al Gore coining the phrase “information highway,” Microsoft earning over $1,000,000 in annual business and the first COMDEX computer show in Las Vegas.

Curiously absent from this list is a unique processor that took the consumer market by storm. In the late 1970s industrial designer and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Industrial Design Department Chair, Marc Harrison, was commissioned to design a radical new processor for home use. Harrison applied his innovative design approach based on studying people with disabilities in order to create elegant and versatile products for everyone. Using rapid iterative prototyping he went from concept to production in record time. The product was a massive success selling millions of units.

Harrison’s processor dominated the market and was copied by competitors hoping to bank on the undeniable commercial success of the innovative and elegant design. The new processor presented an irresistible emotional design response at the visceral, behavioral and reflective level. The design was so innovative it even influenced Steve Jobs in the early 1980s when he was working on the original Macintosh. In the biography, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, this connection is mentioned twice. Jobs insisted, in his typical emphatic manner, that Apple designers study Harrison’s processor as they worked on the first Mac. Even today, in 2014, variations of Harrison’s processor are still being produced and reside in millions of households.

The techno-astute reader is probably thinking, “Why have I never heard of this processor? Is it Motorola? Intel? AMD?” Here’s a hint. The goal of Harrison’s design was to promote the art of French cuisine. Harrison’s processor wasn’t in a computer, it was in the kitchen. It was the Cuisinart Food Processor.

A side by side comparison of the 1984 Macintosh computer and Cuisnart food processor.

Figure 1: Side by side comparison.* Both designs have the recessed base with heat vents. The Cuisinart has a large easy to grasp handle on the front, the Mac has one recessed in the top. Both designs have the “screen” in the same general location (images are not to scale). The position and shape of the Mac disk drive and Cuisinart switch are practically identical.
* Note: this may be a more recent model Cuisinart, but I have lower quality pics from a 1982 ad for the model DLC 10E that appears identical except for variations in the top plunger. The Cuisiart Steve Jobs insisted his original Mac designers study looked very much like the one pictured here.

Harrison’s simple and elegant Cuisinart design was based on studying the requirements of people with disabilities. The large and easy to use handle and button were inspired by the needs of people with motor skill impairments while the large clear text labels came from thinking about people with low vision. Though I am certainly not an expert on the history of industrial design, I have been told that Harrison’s work, as a designer and teacher, was an early and major influence on the design of so many innovative and ergonomic kitchen gadgets – products that are repeatedly referenced as examples of great design.

It has been almost thirty years since Harrison demonstrated that thinking about people with disabilities can result in innovative, influential and highly commercially successful products, yet too many people, especially in technology, still work under the false assumption that making products accessible is a burden (while struggling to discover sources of innovation).

Some time ago I had a chance to spend an amazing day reading through Harrison’s personal papers at the Hagley Museum and Library. There I learned that Harrison applied his universal design approach to many other projects including the Red Cross Blood Mobile, the Universal Kitchen Project and more. Last but not least, he actually did design a computer too (no tricks this time).

What led to Harrison’s design philosophy? A somewhat new topic of great interest in User Experience is the concept of empathy. As a child Harrison experienced injury and disability and this seems to have been a major influence in his design approach. Sadly, he experienced disability at the end of his life too. He died from complications of ALS.

In the BBC television series, Connections, James Burke presented fascinating examples of how seemingly disconnected people each contributed to invention and discovery. Harrison’s connection to the physical design of the original Mac and ergonomic kitchen devices seem to be established, but maybe it goes further than that. Many web designers, developers and UX professionals are becoming more and more excited about universal design and accessibility and that’s great, but I’m sure few know about Marc Harrison. Even so, perhaps those who are excited about universal design and accessibility can discover their own hidden James Burke-esque connection with Harrison via an appreciation of the Mac, an interest in universal design, experiences with ergonomic kitchen devices, a passion for accessibility, or in understanding that designing for the “extreme user” vs the average user results in more innovative designs.

Unfortunately, there is very little online information about Marc Harrison, but pasted below are a few links to start with. Harrison’s work seems the perfect topic for a master’s thesis (or even a book). Perhaps some day a student in Industrial Design, Human Factors or UX will give Harrison the credit he deserves.

Wiki Page on Marc Harrison

Harrison’s papers at the Hagley Library

University of Virginia page outlining Harrison’s life and work 

Smithsonian page on Harrison’s life and work

Thomas Lamb, Marc Harrison, Richard Hollerith and the Origins of Universal Design, by Lynn Catanese

Shoot for the Moon, RISD Monthly Article with a brief mention of Harrison on page 3


4 thoughts on “Connection Between Two Icons of Design

  1. Dean Karavite Post author

    Bob, please accept my apologies for the delay in approving and replying to your thoughtful post (no excuse, but it was buried among 100 spam posts). With your interests and ideas on EHR usability, I have to imagine you are aware of and/or know Ross Koppel.

  2. Bob Coli, MD

    Dear Dean,
    Thanks for your excellent overview of the crying need to significantly improve the functionality and usability of electronic medical records for patients.

    One vital functional component of all PHR, EHR and HIE platforms that desperately needs to be redesigned, by using human factor, usability and UX design principles, is the antiquated, infinitely variable user interface still being used to display the results of diagnostic tests to both physicians and patients as hard to read, incomplete and fragmented data.

    This hidden, industry-wide user interface problem and its proposed clinically logical solution are described and illustrated here: .

    For more background details, please see the comments I made in response to Dr. Jacob Reider’s January 2014 HealthIT Buzz Blog posting describing why the “Usability of EHRs remains a priority for ONC.” (See: Dr. Reider is one of the first federal health IT policy makers to publicly acknowledge the patient safety, physician workflow and other adverse effects of the limited usability of all existing patient diagnostic test result reports.

    I would be happy to discuss with you at any convenient time how to create “usable accessibility” in any tethered or untethered PHR by using a standard test results reporting format to display all results as integrated, actionable information.

    Best regards,
    Bob Coli, MD

  3. Pingback: Learning about Usability from Accessibility: Exploring PHRs with Dean Karavite

  4. Pingback: Learning about Usability from Accessibility: PHRs | HL7 Standards

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