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Two things we can learn from Henry Dreyfuss about making high-quality design decisions
Timeless takeaways from the book “Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit” that didn’t make it into my podcast episode
After recording my first podcast episode on Henry Dreyfuss, I realized there were a few more great stories and takeaways that didn’t quite fit into the show themes, so I’m sharing them here in a post. First, we learn about the inspiration behind the title, The Man in the Brown Suit. Then, we see how Dreyfuss employed the design research method of contextual inquiry long before this term was coined.
Reduce decision fatigue with a personal uniform
In terms of clothing, what comes to mind when you think of these people? Steve Jobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Mark Zuckerberg, and Hillary Clinton. It’s not a hard question because they each cultivated a personal style they became well-known for:
Steve Jobs: black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers
Karl Lagerfeld: black suit, leather gloves, and sunglasses
Mark Zuckerberg: grey t-shirts and hoodies
Hillary Clinton: pantsuits
For Henry Dreyfuss, as the title of the book alludes to, his personal uniform was a brown suit. From Stanley Marcus, one of Dreyfuss’s clients, talking about this ability to reduce his choices:
Henry had the ability to simplify his life in small ways. He never experimented with hotels, satisfied as he was with the Plaza; he wore only one color in suits — brown. That meant he never had to make a decision as to what color suit or shoes to put on or which tie to select, for the answer was always brown.
Aside from being convenient and boosting your personal brand awareness, severely limiting wardrobe decisions has the added benefit of reducing the number of things you have to expend mental energy on. The American Medical Association explains that the more decisions you have to make, the more drained and stressed you can become — and the more the quality of your decision-making suffers. By spending less effort on less important decisions, you reserve more capacity for creative thinking and the things that matter.
In a Q&A session back in 2014, Zuckerberg explained the rationale for his approach:
I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.
What’s interesting is most of the discussion around decision fatigue has occurred over the past couple decades. But Dreyfuss seems to have figured this out intuitively much earlier. While he was comfortable delegating work, whether it was design work to colleagues within the firm or business affairs to his wife, Doris, he was still called on to make a wide range of decisions, including what clients to go after or whether a proposed design was up to the standards of the firm. His plain taste in fashion ensured he had the bandwidth to make high-quality decisions when it mattered most.
While my own style tends towards the Mark Zuckerberg uniform, as I dig deeper in my closet, it occurs to me I have more variety in clothing than I probably need. In Goodbye, Things, Japanese minimalist Fumio Sasaki encourages us to “find your unique uniform.” While many will chaff at the idea, I like the rationale, and I like the idea of more intentionally curating my own personal style and wardrobe.
You don’t really know what people are going to do until you see them do it
Early in Dreyfuss’s career, when he was still primarily known as a stage designer, he did some consulting work for the RKO theater company. His stage work boosted his reputation as an astute problem-solver, so they gave him a tougher, more business-oriented challenge. After building a brand-new, gorgeous movie theater in Sioux City, Iowa, they wanted to know why no one was showing up. Dreyfuss went to Iowa and tried some obvious marketing ploys like lowering prices, running features, and hosting giveaways. None of it worked. People still went to the “unventilated flea-bag movie house” nearby instead. It wasn’t until he used the simple but effective method of human observation that the solution became blatantly obvious.
For three days he stood outside his theater and watched the reactions of the people walking by. Then he ordered his staff to remove the expensive, deep-pile scarlet carpet from the lobby, and replace it with a plain rubber mat. Almost miraculously, and from that time forth, the RKO theater was jammed.
Dreyfuss had simply discovered that the farmers and the townsfolk had been ashamed of messing up that gorgeous carpet with their muddy boots and galoshes.
This is an entertaining, almost comical, example of how metrics can tell you what people are doing but not why they are doing it. The ticket sales told them no one was going. But without seeing people walk up to the theater doors in their muddy boots, stare longingly inside, and then move on to the dump down the street — and maybe asking them in person about their choice — they were clueless as to what was going on. Even Dreyfuss tried discounts and free stuff before he just sat and watched.
In his later work on John Deere tractors, there were further examples of how Dreyfuss relied on direct observation to inform design decisions:
Dreyfuss noted that operators tended to remove the metal panels that covered the engine compartments the first time they had to work under the hood and leave them essentially discarded in barns or garages.
This idea [of a vertical radiator grille, perforated to increase surface area] came from Dreyfuss’s observation that farmers often had to rake chaff from the radiator grilles with their gloved hands.
From theater interiors to tractor engine bays, these anecdotes give us a timeless takeaway for those of us working in the field of product design (whether digital or physical). While we can rely on heuristics, convention, and intuition for many things, but nothing beats the simple act of people-watching when you really need to understand the why behind the ways customers are interacting with your product.