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A Life of Design and Innovation (Book Review)


A review of
The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of the Twentieth-Century America

About this book

by B. Alexandra Szerlip

A good reference for UX Theory

Primary audience: Researchers and designers who have some experience with the topic

Writing style: Matter-of-fact, mostly text

Melville House, 2016, 366 pages, 23 chapters

Learn more about our review guidelines


The house lights dim, the recorded sound effects make the audience quiet, and you’re launched into a spectacle of ideas, passion, and entertainment–just another night at the theater. What has this got to do with user experience? Lots, as it turns out.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) was a major talent in theater, an innovative engineering genius, and arguably the grandfather of today’s user experience practitioners. His biography, The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of the Twentieth-Century America by B. Alexandra Szerlip (Melville House, 2016), traces an unconventional career from theater to technology products, with few or no stops for formal education. He started out designing stage sets and lighting, paying close attention to how they worked for people in the “house,” and gradually transferred his consumer-oriented process to the new field of industrial design.

His biography is a lively history of usable design, in a world mostly devoid of computers, let alone software or websites. Bel Geddes’s career reflects a seamless transition from theater to products that passed or exceeded all prevailing standards for human factors in design. “He planned to approach product design as an organic outgrowth of efficiency and ease of use—a natural evolution, with visual integrity following of its own accord,” Szerlip writes.

In 1928, Bel Geddes took on a commission to redesign the Toledo Scale Company’s cast-iron grocery scale, and it grew into the job of setting up a research and development department as part of redesigning the whole Toledo factory along Bauhaus lines. Another peak experience for Bel Geddes—and for readers of his biography—was the design of General Electric’s ride-through Futurama exhibit in the 1933 World’s Fair.

In the time of World War II and its aftermath, Norman Bel Geddes was hailed as one of the Big Four in industrial design—along with Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy, and Walter Teague. In addition to work for the Department of Defense, Norman re-invented the Ringling Brothers’ traveling circus tent, developed the invention of the first rotating rooftop restaurant, renovated the Hayden Planetarium, and made the notion of aerodynamic “streamlining” accessible in household appliances.

Despite an emphasis on pleasure and entertainment, Bel Geddes’ rigorous development process generally included customer research, prototypes for consumer reaction, and audience or customer surveys—plus close working relationships with the senior management of his clients and prospective clients.

Bel Geddes was there at the birth of milestones in American cinema, partly as a result of friendships that included Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, Max Reinhart, and the witty denizens of New York’s Algonquin Round Table. There’s also an early connection to gaming in the scale-model baseball and football parties that his guests were invited to play—Wii, anyone? The Nutshell Jockey Club, a 28-foot-long racetrack in his basement—with electric starting gates and other innovative but realistically developed features—eventually became a prototype for the real thing.

In defense of what was often perceived as his perfectionist tendencies, he said, “The job is as simple as adding a column of numbers. It adds up correctly or it doesn’t. If it does, you can call it perfectionism. If it doesn’t, call it whatever you like.”


The Patriot

The Patriot, Bell Geddes would later write, “was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” breaking theater’s absolute hold on his attention. A drama about the assassination of Catherine the Great’s son (with John Gielgud in his first stateside role), the play opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater on January 19, 1927, the culmination of difficult work in challenging circumstances.

Bel Geddes had been called in, “after months of worry,” to salvage the production. The play required characters to exit from one of five different locales, mid-speech, and continue, almost interrupted, in another. To meet the challenges of almost instantaneous scene changes, Bel Geddes had designed a series of sliding partitions and interchangeable modules, every piece fitting into every other.

Rather than cutting the floor into a revolving stage—the standard solution, which reduced the performance area by half and accommodated only two scenes at a time—he’d suspended his five sets on cables so they could be stored high up in “the flies,” the space above the stage. Once two half-set platforms pivoted out of the side wings on silent castors to meet center stage, the required “walls” swung into place, and a hinged “ceiling” folded down.

Critics praised Bel Geddes’s “patrician” lighting (when a door opens on a monarch’s dark bedchamber, a scarlet uniform streaks across the lights), his sound effects (a suspenseful pause marked only by the creaking of boots), and especially has eight elaborate, regal sets, which changed noiselessly, in the twinkling of an eye. “Vivid, unforgettable… beyond all praise,” wrote the New York Telegram.

So ingenious was his interchangeable, raised-and-lowered-by-cable-shifting-back-and-forth-between-five-settings approach that Scientific American published a full-page annotated schemata— “How ‘Lighting Stage Changes are Made.” The play itself was less than stellar. “One wishes,” wrote New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “that The Patriot moved as expeditiously as its scenery. It closed after a five-day run.



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