How Herman Miller designs with heritage in mind

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  May 16, 2018
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Herman Miller is a design company through and through. Founded in 1905, Herman Miller is known around the world for iconic designs, like the Eames, Aeron, and Mirra chairs, Nelson Bubble Lamps, and many more. Like its analog predecessor, digital design at Herman Miller draws from a strong design tradition—craft, style, logistical prowess—that have made its furniture offerings such timeless classics.

Design like this doesn’t come easily, and it certainly didn’t happen overnight. We spoke with Amy Auscherman, corporate archivist at Herman Miller, about how the company’s long and storied design history has shaped and influenced how the company approaches digital design.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller


Embracing the shift to digital design

Herman Miller has always been a trendsetter in design. “Herman Miller was inventive from a ‘UX’ standpoint starting in 1948 when we published a catalog of our furniture edited by George Nelson,” said Auscherman. “The catalog went far beyond showing an image of product and giving the price. Not only is it beautifully illustrated with photography by Ezra Stoller, Nelson used it to teach consumers how to use and live with this new and modern furniture.”

Nelson wasn’t the only forward-thinking designer at Herman Miller. In 1994, Clement Mok designed a sales tool for the launch of Aeron that used a CD-ROM drive. It was the first of its kind to take advantage of the “new” technology.

Related: How Slack designs for delight

Herman Miller is a company that is more than 100 years old, but the digital aspects of the business and brand continue to grow and evolve. Unless someone is visiting our flagship store, a Design Within Reach studio, a dealer, a museum, or an antique store, the first place a Herman Miller customer or fan likely encounters the brand is online. That introduction presents endless opportunities as a digital approach allows Herman Miller to connect with those people in unique and strategic ways.

Herman Miller’s brand and product teams are tightly integrated, and they produce big results within those small teams. The design team’s emphasis on collaboration and respect for the company’s design heritage also helps ensure a strong, unified brand vision.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

“The design team’s respect for their design heritage helps ensure a strong, unified brand vision.”

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How to design like Herman Miller

Herman Miller is constantly striving to connect their designers with the great and varied work from our past as they work to create things that are new and exciting. Try out these tips to design like the folks at Herman Miller:

  • Learn from your past. Herman Miller’s designers have been known to reference pieces from the corporate archive to inform their work from an aesthetic standpoint. Don’t forget where you came from and what’s worked up to now.
  • Don’t be afraid to break new ground. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to strike out and try something new. From the catalog to the CD-ROM to whatever’s next, the digital aspects of the Herman Miller brand continue to evolve. Embrace that change and look for what’s next.
  • Always be moving forward. It would be easy for Herman Miller to embrace the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” But where’s the fun (and growth) in that? Auscherman said, “With digital design becoming such a huge part of our output, it’s exciting to think about the new ways our brand stories can be communicated on a digital plane.” Learn from your mistakes, embrace your successes, and move forward to something new and exciting.

The Design Genome Project, which explores the DNA of the world’s best design teams, gives you concrete examples of what drives the success of the companies you admire and helps you build a body of evidence for investing in design. Check it out!


Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard