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Answer Box: Setting Standards For Accuracy and Ergonomics

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxNovember 2020 • November 4, 2020

I was watching a mother/daughter home flipping show. They had repurposed the under cabinets from the old kitchen to make an office space just off the new kitchen space. When they capped the renovation off and put the chair in place, this ‘workspace’ was almost as high as the back top of the chair. Way too high to work at comfortably from the chair they had chosen. I just thought as a professional why would they consciously make such a wrong design choice.

Universal Design
There are standards out there, I mean scientifically-studied and peer-reviewed papers focusing on user-centered approach of human behavior and anatomy as a key to industrial design. Here is a simple example: No doubt you have seen a smart thermostat advertised, like the Nest. It’s a round device with a number showing the temperature in the center. Simple, clean, and easy to function right? That design emulates the classic Honeywell T-86 round thermostat that was designed just after World War II. It’s such a classic that it’s in the Smithsonian. Before that time, the thermostats were rectangular with toggles on top. There was a tendency for the boxes to be mounted crooked. Henry Dreyfuss designed the round one so it would always hang correctly and used a clock-like interface where you dialed one way to get cooler and the other to warm up a room. When a design works so universally well and its user experience comes naturally it becomes a standard practice.

The classic round Honeywell T-86 thermostat and the NEST thermostat

Standards in Theater Practice
By making things interface with people easier they adapt to their environment quicker. Rehearsal cubes are universal 18-inches x 18-inches because the standard seat is 18-inches high. One cube could be a chair, two cubes stacked side-by-side together could be a loveseat, and three cubes side-by-side could be a couch. Let say you get a rehearsal report asking to add a table. You need to ask what type of table. There is a big difference between a coffee table and a cafe table. A coffee table is 16-inches high, which you can remember because it’s two standard steps high, with a step height being 8-inches high. A standard table height is 30-inches high and is ergonomically practical for people from 5’ 2” to 6’ 4” tall. A standard work surface countertop is 34- to 36-inches high; and a standard bar height is 42-inches high.

Not surprisingly there are also proper cabinet heights. So, if for some reason the designer’s drawings get to you without designated heights, you will need to know them or find them.

‘Wait’, you ask, ‘do people really send out drawings without measurements?’ Of course, they do. This is one of the main reasons you need to have mockups in rehearsal from day one. Not only does this help out the director and actors understand how to move within the space, but problems are discovered and solved early. Once the actors are on their feet for rehearsal, they will notice that a tabletop may be too big, or too small. Maybe the director will need more space for a fight and want to cut a piece of furniture. An inexperienced director will sometimes ask for lots of ‘places to land’ for theater-in-the-round adding more furniture than they need only to have pieces cut once they see that there is no acting space. Our understanding of how people move through a space is as important as knowing what to put in that space.

Stumble steps at the 12th century Maynooth Castle, County Kildare, Ireland

Exception to the Rule
One last thing, there is one exception to the rule that not too many people know about—and were not meant to know about it. The standard was to build all castle tower steps clockwise, that way you had more room and it was easier to defend yourself with a sword from higher ground. However, the sneaky standard secret bit was what is called a stumble step. Constructed into the stairs in medieval castles, stumble steps were steps that had a different rise height or tread depth from the rest of the steps and so would cause an unfamiliar attacker to stumble and fall giving the advantage to the resident of the castle. Of course, though a standard of medieval castle design, this is one standard I suggest be avoided when building steps and stairs for actors on sets.

Standard Research
One standard that YOU will be measured by however, is how well you do your research. Be sure you are building to the accepted and expected standards so that actors, directors and designers get what they need to tell the story.

Book recommendation: Beautiful Users: Designing for People, Edited by Ellen Lupton
Website for dimensions and ergonomics:

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