Designer Profile

Niels Diffrient

"The best way to know what people want and need is not by asking them, but by understanding them."


With a career spanning more than 50 years, industrial designer Niels Diffrient revolutionized the world of design by focusing on the human experience. Diffrient was known for creating products that clearly embodied his beliefs of solving functional problems as simply and elegantly as possible, resulting in honest, timeless forms.

Throughout his life, Diffrient was instrumental in the mid-century modern design movement, working with revered designers whom he considered colleagues and friends including Eero Saarinen, Ettore Sottsass, Charles Eames, Marco Zanuso and Henry Dreyfuss. Diffrient had more than 50 patents and 75 awards, including the 2002 National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the 1996 Chrysler Design Award. Diffrient was also recognized as a Royal Designer for Industry (Hon RDI) by the British Royal Society of Arts in 1987. His vast industrial design portfolio included work with AT & T, Honeywell, John Deere, Knoll and American Airlines.

His partnership with Humanscale began in 1998, with the development of the Freedom chair. Setting a new standard for ergonomic task chairs, Freedom changed the way people sit. Always true to his core values on design, Diffrient said in a New York Times article, “Why would you design something if it didn’t improve the human condition?” Diffrient believed that chairs should adjust to the user, not the other way around—and this was evident in all of his designs including the Liberty, Diffrient World and his latest chair, Diffrient Smart. Founder and CEO of Humanscale Robert King said, “Niels believed in the importance of function and knew that great design must be driven by it. This is why his products often transcend any specific time or place.”

His industrial design career began with an early interest in architecture and design, which he studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art. He later earned a Fulbright to study design in Milan with Marco Zanusso, with whom he worked to design the award winning Borletti sewing machine. Following his return to the United States, Diffrient worked as an industrial designer with Henry Dreyfuss at his firm, which Diffrient later led until 1980.

Diffrient’s designs focused on human factors through a deep understanding of how people live, work and interact with their environments. He co-authored a three-volume publication called “Humanscale,” which outlines human factors and design principles. Of similar tomes, he said, “Reference books on human factors (ergonomics) are thick, dense and filled with jargon, as though the authors had forgotten to apply the objectives of the subject to their own work. My publication ‘Humanscale’ reversed that.”

Diffrient was devoted to designs that were simple and effortless to use. Through minimizing complexity in his designs, Diffrient was able to make his products sustainable by using less material and parts. Diffrient consistently considered the environmental impact of his products, stating, “The key to sustainability is efficiency. A design should use less material and energy for the most useful result … No amount of recycling will equal using less in the first place.”

As well as his career as an industrial design practitioner, he taught the discipline at the University of California, Los Angeles and Yale University. He recently released a self-published autobiography titled “Confessions of a Generalist.” It chronicles the many chapters of Diffrient’s life and designs, from his time as a child on a Mississippi farm during the Great Depression to working with Eero Saarinen to developing designs for Humanscale.

Above all, Diffrient put the user first. As he once stated, ‘‘The best way to know what people want and need is not by asking them, but by understanding them.”

Diffrient’s extensive body of work is a true reflection of his approach and values. As Diffrient’s beliefs are so evident in his work, his legacy will live on through his designs.