Professor Bruce Archer CBE


Professor Bruce Archer was born in 1922. His father was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Guards and his mother a dress maker and a trained amateur artist. During his schooldays, he wanted to be a painter, but he was academically bright and not allowed to continue with art beyond fifteen; his school certificates were in entirely scientific subjects. The Second World War intervened before he could go to art school or university and he joined the army, but later left and was given an aptitude test by the Ministry of Labour who said to him:

You seem to be a bit of an artist at heart. You can become an engineering draughtsman.

And he did. He worked as an engineering designer in manufacturing, and attended evening classes, eventually gaining his Higher National Certificate in mechanical engineering, and becoming a member of the Institute of Engineering Designers in 1950 and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in 1951. During this period, the Festival of Britain took place and Bruce has said:

‘I was saved. I heard of industrial design. I could be an artist and an engineer at one and the same time.’

He started teaching evening classes at the Central School of Art and Design, becoming a full time lecturer there in 1957. He wrote articles for Design and came to the notice of Tomas Maldonado, Director of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm, who offered him a post as guest professor. Two different belief systems had emerged at the college, the ‘artists’ and the ‘scientists’ and it was his task to act as a bridge between the two. He has later said this was a formative experience.

In 1961 Misha Black was appointed head of industrial design at the Royal College of Art and asked him to return and lead a research project called Studies in the function and design of non-surgical hospital equipment , being funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Bruce returned in the summer of 1962 and, with a small multi-disciplinary team, identified four urgent design problems: a receptacle for soiled dressings, a means of reducing incorrect dispensing of medicines to ward patients, the need for a standard design for hospital beds, and a way to prevent smoke control doors being routinely propped open. They presented their report at the end of the first year to the Nuffield Foundation.


‘They hated it. They’d expected beautifully presented designs for funny looking cutlery for hospital patients to use in bed. That was what art schools did.’

Nuffield refused to fund a second year, leaving Bruce and Misha Black stunned. Undaunted, Bruce took a job loading ice cream into refrigerated vans at night and working at the College unpaid during the day. Eventually support was obtained from the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London to study the medicine-dispensing problem and the team devised a medicine trolley on wheels which could be securely padlocked to a wall when not in use. The hospital bed problem was also re-examined. The King Edward’s Hospital Fund became the King’s Fund and was seeking a major exercise to promote its new nationwide role. It took on the standardisation of the hospital bed. Bruce was appointed to the Working Party, and a contract for a standard specification and a prototype design was let to the College under his direction. After widespread consultation, evidence gathering through direct observations, and extensive field trials using mock-ups and test devices, the specification was adopted by the Kings Fund and became a British Standard. A successful prototype was also developed for a commercial bed manufacturer. The receptacle for dressings was designed, and the fire door problem was solved by the use of door-holders wired to the fire alarm which released the doors when the alarm was triggered. So solutions to all four of the original projects were delivered. In the process, Bruce demonstrated that work study methods, systems analysis and ergonomics were proper tools for use by designers, and that systematic methods were not inimical to creativity in design, but essential contributors to it.

Other design projects were taken on by what became the Industrial Design (Engineering) Research Unit at the College, including a series of Command and Control Rooms for the Police Scientific Development Branch of the Home Office. Though successful, the work was sensitive particularly in an art college in the 1960s, most of it was done off-site and remained unpublished.

Bruce reflected on various projects in order to publish papers on ‘systematic method for designers’, and ‘the structure of the design process’. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the College in 1968 for his work. Bruce was instrumental in setting up the Design Research Society, following the 1965 Design Methods conference.

In 1971 the Rector of the College, Sir Robin Darwin, called him into his office and as Bruce said later:

‘gruffly told me I was to become a professor in my own right independent from Sir Misha Black and with my own Department.’

The Department of Design Research, as it was called, was eventually responsible for 200 projects and during this period of contract research had a staff of more than 30. As they marched daily into the Senior Common Room they represented quite a large body of people, and were not entirely welcomed by staff from other Departments. Bruce has said that he himself reluctantly became a travelling salesman to ensure a steady flow of research contracts.

Then came a change of direction with a College decision to turn the Department of Design Research into a post-graduate teaching department like every other. Funding was won from the Science Research Council to study design processes, and postgraduates were recruited to undertake masters and doctoral studies. Bruce’s own lectures ranged widely across the philosophy of science, ethics, aesthetics, economics and value theory, and were delivered with directness and enthusiasm. He defined research as ‘a systematic enquiry whose goal is a contribution to knowledge’ and, in the best scholarly tradition, examined each of those terms to explore their implications. The Department itself was organised highly systematically, with procedural memoranda setting out agendas for every type of meeting including formally structured progress reviews for students.

From his belief that design was just as important a topic as the arts, the humanities and the sciences, Bruce was instrumental in the move to see it taught as part of the school curriculum. He campaigned to influence the Department for Education and Science, and ran short courses at the College for school teachers. He launched a Department for Design Education at the College, giving teachers the opportunity to undertake masters level research into design. He was awarded the CBE in 1976.

In 1984, Jocelyn Stevens was appointed as Rector of the Royal College and he peremptorily closed the Department of Design Research in 1986. It had operated successfully for 25 years. Bruce himself was made Director of Research with College-wide responsibilities. His knowledge of the workings of the College and his academic credentials placed him in great demand, and Stevens thought nothing of contacting him at any time of day or night for advice. Since retiring from the College in 1988, Bruce has run in-service training courses about research for a number of art and design institutes, and contributed to many design conferences. He was appointed the first President of the Design Research Society.

Bruce largely invented the discipline of design research, and has made a number of vital contributions to its establishment. He demonstrated that evidence-gathering, systems-level analysis, and field testing were necessary in industrial design, and argued for greater rigour in design practice to ensure decisions are well-founded, recorded and explicable so they can, if necessary be defended. He reflected on his experiences and captured their essence in seminal papers about systematic methods and the design process. He identified the making and doing culture of design as a fourth area of human activity, equivalent to, but distinct from, the arts, the humanities and the sciences, and demonstrated that it deserved its own body of scholarship and knowledge no less than conventional academic disciplines. He trained a generation of design researchers, introducing us to the principles and practice of scholarly enquiry. He foresaw the need for us to become a community to share our knowledge and experience – and helped to found the Design Research Society. And, in making each of these contributions, he did so with exemplary clarity, conviction and vision. It is therefore with great pleasure that the Design Research Society presents Bruce Archer with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

To Speech of Bruce Archer.

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