Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do
Brad Augustine: I am the design engineering director at Humanscale, the leading manufacturer of ergonomic products for the workplace. Best known for our award-winning line of Niels Diffrient chairs, we also manufacture healthcare products, office lighting, monitor arm support systems, and height-adjustable tables. I started at Humanscale 8 years ago as a senior engineer focusing on developing new monitor arm solutions. However, in my current role, I lead a team of 20 design engineers who are involved in new product development across all divisions. Spanning ideation to mass production, we are involved in conceptualization, engineering refinement, testing, design for manufacturing, vendor management, and product launches. It’s immensely challenging, but gratifying, too, as the fruits of our labor are real products.
Novedge: What matters most to you in design?
Brad Augustine: A focused idea of what a product should be that lacks unnecessary features. In other words, simplicity. My favorite moment in the design process is arriving at the point where everything makes sense logically. A place for everything, and everything in its place. At that point, the solution seems obvious, but it’s only achieved by continued ideation, critique, and refinement. Niels Diffrient was truly inspiring in this regard. His design philosophy was to make usability and functionality, in combination with aesthetic refinement, the primary objective. Each of his chairs is the product of years of work, during which he passionately defended the early release of – what he knew – were unfinished designs. The products of this philosophy are simple and elegant chairs.
Novedge: What kind of wider impact can ergonomic design have in society?
Brad Augustine: Unfortunately, too often ergonomic design is categorized as a subset that is considered good for you, but not necessarily enjoyable—like eating your vegetables or working out. The “ergonomic chair” is often placed here, with the connotation that it is for users with back issues. However, when you allow the definition of ergonomics to take on a more holistic approach, it quickly encompasses products that were designed with user experience in mind, specifically one’s physical interaction with a product. In fact, the best designers create ergonomic designs almost effortlessly – it’s simply built into their standard process.
That said, as the digital world becomes a larger part of almost everyday activity in our lives, there’s a heightened awareness of how we are interacting with it. We primarily think of mobility and efficiency when evaluating devices, but with new technological solutions every day, people are starting to evaluate usability more and more. The products that are designed with ergonomics in mind will stand out in terms of ease of use, minimal repetitive health issues, and hopefully enjoyment.
Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?
Brad Augustine: Last year, Humanscale entered the market of height-adjustable tables with our award-winning Float table. This product complements our product offering by offering an easy-to-use sit/stand solution that addresses health concerns surrounding long periods of continuous sitting. For offices in need of a full makeover, we can now provide a complete ergonomic solution that combines the Float table with our chairs, monitor adjustments tools, and keyboard trays. However, for offices looking to add height adjustability into an existing office environment, we have developed the Rise sit/stand solution.
The Rise clamps to the top of any work surface and allows the user to adjust a carriage that incorporates both monitor support (single or dual) and a keyboard platform. With 18” of adjustability, it provides an ideal ergonomic alternative to our Float table. The major developmental challenge here was navigating the conflicting requirements of effortless movement when adjustability is desired, and stability during normal computer use. We iterated through multiple design concepts in our prototype shop to dial in this usability. Additionally, we focused on internal cable management that allowed for easy monitor installation and a clean aesthetic.
Novedge: What software do you use?
Brad Augustine: Our team predominantly uses Solidworks for 3D CAD design. However, we do turn to Alias for more advanced surface modeling. In this case, to keep things as parametric as possible, we’ll import the Alias surfaces into Solidworks where the engineering features are added. Additionally, when we’re evaluating product strength and reliability concerns we use the Solidworks Simulation finite element analysis (FEA) tool to calculate displacements, strains, and stresses under external loads. This is great for comparative analysis of design alternatives, and even better when coupled with real-life prototype testing to achieve a high level of confidence.
Novedge: When working with large teams, how do you handle coordinating and supervising everybody's work?
Brad Augustine: At the onset of every project, it is essential for the team to collectively define project expectations including product requirements, schedules, and budgets. The objective is to identify goals that are aggressive, but achievable in the eyes of the engineers. Achieving buy-in leads to a situation where the engineers are sufficiently challenged, and invested enough to push to meet the project goals. We combine this with our standard product development process, which further breaks down projects into defined deliverables that we can track.
I hold weekly reviews with my lead engineers in which we discuss the past week’s accomplishments, open issues, project risks, development strategies, and progress toward upcoming deliverables. This is their main channel for providing necessary information to me as I actively ask to be left off daily email chains. During the reviews, I don’t look to solve their problems for them, but rather provide guidance, refine strategy, and, if necessary, add resources to meet at-risk goals. Finally, to provide one more piece of feedback, I constantly query my contemporaries in other departments about my team and their inter-departmental interactions.
Novedge: What makes a leader effective?
Brad Augustine: It’s all about understanding your role as a leader. Often, people are promoted to a position of leadership based on mastery of a skill. Unfortunately, too often this results in a condition where the leader micromanages by funneling all decision making through them. Unfortunately, productivity is choked, but, worse, morale suffers severely when employees are not trusted to do the job they’ve been hired for. Effective managers are able to avoid this by empowering their employees, but effective leaders are something else entirely.
Effective leaders understand that their role is more intangible. It’s about creating a fertile environment for creativity, providing a clear vision, connecting employees to larger goals, evoking passion, and setting clear expectations. It’s very nebulous, but if done well, an effective leader has the power to influence a great many without directly telling employees how to do their job.