All texts from Deconstructing Product Design by William Lidwell & Gerry Manacsa, 2009, Rockport Publishers Inc.

Variable Balans Stool

Peter Opsvik, 1976
  1. active sittingPeter Opsvik has been rethinking the way people sit since the early 1970s, challenging virtually every assumption of chair design, both form and function, considered sacrosanct by furniture designers. With the Balans, a variation of the word balance, he presses the case that the flaw of traditional chair design is its failure to address the natural urge and ergonomic need to keep moving when seated. Peter Opsvik comments: "If we are able to move, we do. When we stand up, we very rarely ever stay still — we shift our weight around, moving our feet and our arms much more than you ever think. We can walk for hours, but we get tired after only a few minutes if we have to stand still."
  2. The aesthetic is utilitarian, akin to that of a rocking chair sans the back support, and offers little by way of affective appeal. Assuming the primary sitting position—sitting on the upper pad with knees on the lower pads—is surprisingly intuitive, though entry and exit are cumbersome for the newly initiated and the infirm. The stool is designed to promote movement and variation, not just to be "sat in" or "kneeled in," and accordingly compels the user to self-balance and self-support their posture. It is this "active" paradigm of sitting that is its greatest challenge, as it flies against convention of what sitting is understood to be — that is, resting in a supported position and not moving. Accordingly, appreciating the design is as much a process of education as exposure. The user must buy into the basic proposition that "active sitting" is good for you, even if it isn't always comfortable for you.
  3. The primary seating surface is large and well padded, parallel to the upright position of the rocker arms. The surface is flat, allowing the user to shift, spin, and slide in and out, though as stated this maneuver requires practice. The kneepads enable users to achieve steeper leaning positions without sliding off the seat than would otherwise be possible with traditional chairs, making it is easier to retain the natural curvature of the lumbar region.
  4. The two kneepads are appropriately angled, supporting average statures with little or no discomfort, and facilitating changes to leg positions. The kneepads clearly afford having knees and upper shins placed on them, which is one reason many users assume this is the singular manner that one is supposed to sit in the stool. It's not. Rather than trying to promote one Platonic ergonomic posture, the stool aspires to accommodate them all; the premise being that even a highly comfortable position becomes uncomfortable over time. Therefore, users are supposed to actively change their sitting angle and position, sometimes using one versus two kneepads, sometimes using neither. This manner of use is intuitive, but leads many to think that they are working around a design defect versus using the stool as intended.
  5. The rocker arms support two resting positions, leaning forward and sitting upright, and a third balancing position at the fulcrum. The third position is the most interesting and distinctive, underscoring the "balance inspires movement" philosophy of the design. Used properly, the dynamic balancing and rocking motion is not just healthy, but enjoyable.
active sitting benefits


A man I worked for years ago owned this stool and loved it. He used it every day as a computer chair and swore by its ability to ease his back pain. My coworkers and I would also use it but always ended up putting the soles of our shoes on the part of the stool where your knees are supposed to go. It was such a clear affordance for all of us — and much more comfortable. My boss hated seeing shoeprints on his favorite chair and we were all soon forbidden to use it.


A doer's chair. The design is derived from the function of aligning and enhancing one's seating posture while involved in a desk activity. But I feel the material selection and detailing for this chair has destined it to mediocre suburban desk locations.


The Balans is, in many ways, the 1970s equivalent of the Segway. Logically, this is a superior product than its more traditional counterparts — it's better for your body than a standard seat, it uses less material, and the design takes advantage of a subtle engineering simplicity. Yet just as the Segway makes the rider look utterly absurd, so too does the Balans reject the more emotional qualities of human experience. The riders looks ridiculous, and what's more, feels as though they are using the stool incorrectly; they return to their slouching position, and the stool adds even more negative baggage to the genre of "ergonomic" products.


This stool along with others like it was an honest attempt to address ergonomic concerns regarding proper pelvis and lumbar spine positions when sitting. This stool promotes semisitting or semikneeling positions based on the understanding that the best chair for humans is one that allows for active positioning referred to as free posturing. This design uses wood material elegantly for its warm aesthetic and flexible characteristics, but this kind of stool was perhaps too unusual for mainstream acceptance.

Sonicare Toothbrush

David Giuliani, David Engel, Roy Martin, and Steve Meginniss, 1992
  1. Sonic toothbrushHaving had a very personal and painful experience with periodontal disease a few years earlier, David Giuliani was excited to learn about research going on at the University of Washington that studied an improved method of cleaning teeth using sonic technology — a method that not only cleaned teeth better, but that dislodged dental plaque beneath the gums. Giuliani licensed the technology and worked with a small team of designers and engineers for over five years to transform the research technology into a commercially viable product. David Giuliani comments: "We designed the toothbrush to be simple to use. We wanted it to be so natural and so intuitive that there would be no need for an operator manual — no need to translate anything into twelve different languages. So easy that kids could just pick it up and use it. So solid and robust that you could drop it on the floor like a brick and it would continue to function. This is why we used a sealed-case design, with no shafts or exposed mechanical interfaces. The simplicity appealed to users, who could just look at the product and know immediately how to use it. Steve Meginniss, the mechanical engineer who worked on the project, had a philosophy, 'The best part is no part.' This philosophy kept us focused on simplifying mechanisms and eliminating unnecessary elements whenever possible."
  2. The form is clean and simple. The bristled head indicates that it is a toothbrush, and the body indicates that it is powered. The differentiated aspect of the toothbrush is not evident upon inspection, though the name on the handle offers a hint. The use of white and light blue give the brush a clinical patina, reinforcing its function as a serious dental hygiene product.
  3. The brush employs two cleaning actions: high-speed scrubbing action, and vibration and cavitation of fluids near the tips of the bristles. The high-speed scrubbing action is achieved by vibrating the bristle head, achieving the equivalent of 31,000 strokes per minute. By contrast, an enthusiastic brusher can achieve 300 strokes per minute with a standard brush, and approximately 4,000 strokes per minute with an electric toothbrush. An effect of this rapid vibration is the agitation of fluids around the bristles, creating waves of pressure, tiny bubbles, and shear forces in the fluids that work to remove bacteria and plaque up to 4 millimeters beyond where the bristles actually make contact. It is this secondary action that makes the Sonicare a revolutionary innovation. Further, the vibrating action is achieved almost entirely through solid-state electronics — there is only one moving part in the toothbrush, making it exceptionally reliable.
  4. There is only one button: it is large, centered in the body, contrasting in color, slightly convex, and rubbery in texture. Later models also indicated that the toothbrush was charging through an indicator light in the button. It is hard to imagine what one could do to make the brush more usable or to make the button better invite pressing.
  5. The body of the brush and recharging base are completely sealed, waterproofing the electronics, minimizing the accumulation of bacteria, and facilitating cleaning. The brush sits upright in the base, enabling it to drain dry while also preventing contact with surfaces. Recharging occurs without any visible electrical contacts, which makes the process seamless and magical. A fully charged toothbrush can last an amazing two weeks without recharging.


With its simple shape, subdued blue-gray tones, clean white plastic, and lack of decoration, the Sonicare Toothbrush looks like a medical device. On the main body of the model I have, there is a logo and one button, the latter of which serves dual purpose as a light when the toothbrush is charging. There are also indentations in the body that afford gripping for holding and for changing the head. That's it — clean and slightly clinical. Because of its aesthetics, this toothbrush seems serious about cleaning my teeth, and I trust it to do so.


Besides improved cleaning ability, the charging station and battery options make this device very portable. The toothbrush fits nicely in the hand and is easy to use. The very small brush cap on some models is easy to drop, is ambiguous regarding direction of placement, and fits tightly even in the correct position. It doesn't allow the toothbrush head to dry sufficiently, and is nearly impossible to clean. Never fear — the latest model has a UV sanitizer.


Demonstrates how far humans have moved away from the twigs used to clean our teeth. With sonic heads that can vibrate over 30,000 strokes per minute, the Sonicare Toothbrush clearly outpaces the human arm in brushing teeth.


Marketing seems to have a notoriously difficult time dealing with technological advances; while the Sonicare may actually produce better brushing through 30,000 brush strokes per minute, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the Sonicare Advance 4100 with Easy-Start, Smart-timer, Programmable Quadpacer, and a Deluxe Recharge Gauge. It feels absolutely smarmy to stick such a branded computing experience in such an intimate spot of the body, and while I may be getting only 2,000 brush strokes per minute, I'll continue to enjoy the approachability and simplicity of my plain old toothbrush.