American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’ AT&T Model 500 phone is one of the most iconic and recognizable products of the 20th century. The phone – together with its design process – was a harbinger of many design principles used today.
Rotary phones – which feature a round dial with finger holes – first emerged in the early 20th century. But many of these were bolted to the walls or required two separate devices for speaking and listening.
In addition, early telephone users would call into operators, who would use a switchboard to connect callers. When this process became automated, designers needed to figure out a way to offer an intuitive interface, since callers would be dialing more complicated number sequences (essentially doing the “switching” on their own).
Though earlier models came close to addressing these needs, the 500 model elevated the design, adding several functions that forever changed the way phones would be used.
AT&T’s first rotary phone in 1927 (dubbed “the French Phone”) had an integrated handset for both the loudspeaker and the microphone, but it was cumbersome to use. Meanwhile, Dreyfuss’ earlier model from 1936, the 302, was made out of metal and also had an awkwardly shaped handset.
Then, in 1949, his Model 500 came along.
Employing new plastic technology, the phone’s handset was smooth, rounded and proportional, an improvement on unwieldy earlier versions. It was the first to use letters below the numbers in the rotary – a boon for businesses, since phone numbers could now be advertised (and remembered) as mnemonic phrases (think American Express’ “1-800-THE-CARD”).
The 500 phone was also the first to undergo a design process that used ergonomic (comfort) and cognitive experts. AT&T and Dreyfuss hired John Karlin, the first industrial psychologist in the world, to conduct experiments to evaluate aspects of the design. Through extensive consumer testing, the designers were able to tweak all minutiae of the product – even minor details like placing white dots beneath the holes in the finger wheel and the length of the cord.
Including its later incarnations, the phone would go on to sell nearly 162 million units – around one per American household – and become a presence in living rooms, kitchens and offices for decades to come.
Courtsey: Kalle Lyytinen, Case Western Reserve University