Bruce Archer, Hospital Equipment and the Origins of Design Research

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in August 2009

Bruce Archer is widely recognised as one of the founding fathers of Design Research. It’s worth reading his wikipedia entry. Here’s a fascinating excerpt about his initial experiences in using research to improve the design of hospital equipment. You’ll notice that although his design recommendations were at first rejected by the funding body (who couldn’t understand his unconventional approach), today they are familiar features in hospitals all over the world.

“In 1961 Misha Black was appointed head of industrial design at the Royal College of Art and asked him to lead a research project called Studies in the function and design of non-surgical hospital equipment, being funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Archer returned in the summer of 1962 and, with a small multi-disciplinary team, identified four urgent design problems: a receptacle for soiled dressings, a means of reducing incorrect dispensing of medicines to ward patients, the need for a standard design for hospital beds, and a way to prevent smoke control doors being routinely propped open. They presented their report at the end of the first year to the Nuffield Foundation. Unfortunately:

‘They hated it. They’d expected beautifully presented designs for funny looking cutlery for hospital patients to use in bed. That was what art schools did.’

Nuffield refused to fund a second year, leaving both Archer and Misha Black stunned. Undaunted, he took a job at the Eldorado ice cream factory in Southwark, loading ice cream into refrigerated vans every night and working at the College unpaid during the day. Eventually commercial funding was found for the soiled dressings receptacle, and in 1963 he gave up his evening job when support was obtained from the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London to study the medicine-dispensing problem. A radical solution was devised – a medicine trolley on wheels which could be securely padlocked to a wall when not in use. The hospital bed problem was also re-examined. The King Edward’s Hospital Fund became the King’s Fund and was seeking a major exercise to promote its new nationwide role. It took on the standardisation of the hospital bed. Archer was appointed to a Working Party, and in due course won a contract for a standard specification and a prototype design. After widespread consultation, evidence gathering through direct observations, and extensive field trials using mock-ups and test devices, the specification was adopted by the Kings Fund and became a British Standard; a successful prototype was also developed by Kenneth Agnew at the College for a commercial bed manufacturer. The hospital bed project has been documented by an historian [4][5]. The fire door problem was solved by the use of electro-magnetic door-holders wired to the fire alarm, which released the doors when the alarm was triggered. So solutions to all four of the original projects were delivered. In the process, Archer had demonstrated that work study, systems analysis, and ergonomics, were proper tools for use by designers, and that systematic methods were not inimical to creativity in design, but essential contributors to it.”

If you find this stuff interesting, you might also want to take a look at this article by Bruce Archer: “A place for design in management education“. Considering it was written in 1967, it covers some impressively contemporary topics (and is refreshingly free of iPhone references).

If you want to go even deeper, you might want to take a look at Ghislaine Lawrence’s PhD Thesis (2001), an account of the origins and early years of ‘King’s Fund Beds’ (mentioned in the excerpt above). Unsurprisingly, it’s fairly heavy-going, but worth a read if you dare.

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