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Designer Sketches Podcast

Pilot: Henry Dreyfuss, founding father of American industrial design

Black-and-white photo of streamlined steam train from the late 1930s
Hudson locomotive for the New York Central. Robert Yarnall Richie, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

My notes, quotes, and takeaways from reading Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit by Russell Flinchum

Henry Dreyfuss was a leader of the first generation of industrial designers. He and his team were responsible for the design of some of most ubiquitous and iconic products of the mid-twentieth century: the Bell Model 500 telephone, the Honeywell Round thermostat, and the Polaroid Automatic 100 Land Camera, among many other products and services.


Similar to how George Washington established precedents for the American presidency, Dreyfuss was a founding father of American industrial design. He defined expectations for the role of designer and their relationship to engineering and marketing; the balance between commercial objectives and human needs; and the philosophy of design not as a stylistic afterthought, but as an integral part of creating “classic” products that stand the test of time.

In his book, The Man in the Brown Suit, Russell Flinchum draws on a wealth of primary sources to explore how Dreyfuss transitioned from a theater designer in the 1920s to one of the “big four” industrial designers during the so-called golden age of industrial design. This monograph (a detailed study on a specialized subject) accompanied a 1997 exhibition of Dreyfuss’s work at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, where Flinchum was a fellow. From the 1920s through the 60s, Flinchum covers how Dreyfuss’s work evolved and his influence grew while staying committed to the Five Points that outlined his design philosophy: safety and convenience of use, ease of maintenance, cost, appeal, and appearance — importantly, in that order.

Referred to as both the “dean” and the “conscience” of the field, he was considered by his friends, family, and colleagues, above all, a person of integrity. As a user experience designer working on enterprise software products today, I think we can learn from how Dreyfuss championed human values during a period of tremendous technological advancement. At the time, it was unprecedented for a designer and his team to have such a widespread impact on the public consumer. He took a principled, considered approach to design that we apparently had to relearn in the twenty-first century with the advent of the internet and the digital age. I first read this book about ten years ago, and as I’ve gone back through it, taking copious notes and capturing inspiring quotes, I’ve regained an appreciation for some of the practical insights and creative mindsets that have influenced me over the years, and reconsidered how I can apply Dreyfuss’s knowledge, experience, and spirit to my own work.

About Designer Sketches podcast

Learn from history’s most influential designers. Each episode, I will delve into the work of an impactful product designer and share insights to inspire our work.

Design is the fascinating intersection of productive function and emotional form. As thinking beings, we use products to get things done, but as feeling humans, we want to enjoy doing it. This podcast is about the designers who have come before us and wrangled form and function into something that is the essence of beauty.

If you make things, this is for you. Even if you’re not a trained designer, you design something: a business, a service, an event, a message — something that can benefit from the accrued knowledge and experience of the history of design.

As we embark on a new era in technology that will challenge our very notion of humanity, it is more important than ever to learn from the mistakes and mastery of previous designers.

Here are just some of the interesting people we can learn about together. They’ve created some of the most loved brands and products of the last century:

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