Tour + Workshop = DESIGN: Form Follows Function

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, September 22, 2009

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Furniture Design

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Technology

Lesson Time

45 - 90 minutes


We all sit in chairs every day. A good chair is designed so that form follows function, and is comfortable and functional with a simple, user-friendly design. Task chairs, like the ones you see in the exhibition Design USA: Contemporary Innovation, are designed with the human shape in mind. For examples, a chair can be designed to support our frames for a given task such as working at a desk or typing at a computer.  To come up with the designs for the chairs you see in the exhibit, the designers spent time trying out different shapes, materials, and forms. In this lesson, students will be challenged to design a chair for a client – the peanut ball – using newspapers.

National Standards

Common Core English Language Arts College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards Strand Speaking and Listening SL.2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. SL.4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. Common Core Mathematics 9-12 Cluster Make geometric constructions G.CO.12. Make formal geometric constructions with a variety of tools and methods (compass and straightedge, string, reflective devices, paper folding, dynamic geometric software, etc.) Cluster Apply geometric concepts in modeling situations G.MG.3. Apply geometric methods to solve design problems (e.g., designing an object or structure to satisfy physical constraints or minimize cost; working with typographic grid systems based on ratios). Arts and Communication Level IV (Grade 9-12) Standard 2. Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products Benchmark 5. Knows and applies criteria to evaluate industrial arts products (e.g., design craftsmanship, function, and aesthetic qualities) Standard 3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings Benchmark  1. Understands specific principles and techniques used to solve problems in various art forms (e.g., using the elements of art and principles of design to solve specific art problems; using the design process to address design problems; using the elements of music and theory to resolve problems associated with music composition) Benchmark 5. Understands the role of criticism and revision in the arts and communication Technology Standard 4. Understands the nature of technological design Level IV (Grades 9-12) Benchmark 1: Knows that an optimal solution to a design problem is more likely to be found when the process followed is systematic and repetitive Benchmark 2: Proposes designs and uses models, simulations, and other tests to choose an optimal solution Benchmark 3: Implements a proposed solution (e.g., constructs artifacts for intended users or beneficiaries) Benchmark 4: Evaluates a designed solution and its consequences based on the needs or criteria the solution was designed to meet Benchmark 5: Knows that since there is no such thing as a perfect design, trade-offs of one criterion for another must occur to find an optimized solution Benchmark 6: Knows that a design involves different design factors (e.g., ergonomics, maintenance and repair, environmental concerns) and design principles (e.g., flexibility, proportion, function) Thinking and Reasoning Standard 5. Applies basic trouble-shooting and problem-solving techniques  Level IV (Grades 9-12) Benchmark 1: Applies trouble shooting strategies to complex real world situations (e.g., workplace situations, family concerns) Benchmark 2: Understands that trouble-shooting almost anything may require many-step branching logic Benchmark 6: Represents a problem accurately in terms of resources, constraints, and objectives Benchmark 7: Evaluates the effectiveness of problem-solving techniques Benchmark 8: Reframes problems when alternative solutions are exhausted Benchmark 10: Evaluates the feasibility of various solutions to problems; recommends and defends a solution  

Common Core Standards

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will:
  • understand that chairs and other designed products are designed with a user in mind
  • work with simple materials, to experiment with shape and form and find value in trial-and-error design
  • understand that even ubiquitous office chairs are designed with not only aesthetic considerations, but also with human comfort in mind



  • one roll of masking tape per team
  • newspaper or newsprint paper
  • one piece of cardboard or chipboard (8.5” by 11”)
  • “peanut ball” (any object will work as long as it can approximate designing for a human form but be light weight enough so as not to overwhelm the materials being used – in this case, newspaper)
  • one ruler per team


Ergonomics is the science of designing the job, equipment, and workplace to fit the worker. A task chair (also called an office or desk chair) is a type of chair that is designed for use at a desk in an office. It is generally comfortable and adjustable and can swivel 360 degrees.  


1. Review the Challenge: In groups of three or four students, design and build a chair out of newspaper.  The seat needs to be at least eight inches from the ground (or surface of the table) and strong and supportive enough to hold the client – the peanut ball – upright in the chair. 2. Investigate the Problem: Review examples of task chairs from the exhibition Design USA: Contemporary Innovation: Use the following prompts for a class discussion. How would using these chairs, as opposed to a traditional chair, affect a person physically? Compare these chairs with the chairs in your classroom. How are they similar/different? What makes one chair "good design" and not another? What ideas can you use in your own chair design? 3. Frame/Reframe the Problem: Look at the materials and your client – the peanut ball – and think about the following questions:
  • What ways can you roll, bend, or fold the newspaper to make it stronger?
  • What are the parts of a chair that you will need to include?
  • How can you support the peanut ball so it doesn’t fall over or roll off the chair?
  • Does the seat need to be flat or curved to support the peanut ball?
  • How can you support the chair legs so they don’t tilt or twist?
  • Can you make a chair without legs?
4. Generate Possible Solutions: With your group, brainstorm as many possible design solutions as you can in 5 minutes. Think of wild and innovative ideas and defer judgement. Quickly jot down your ideas or sketch them on a separate piece of paper. 5. Edit and Develop Ideas: Choose the idea that seems most promising from your brainstorm session. Use the available materials to build a chair prototype. Then test it by carefully setting the peanut ball on it. 6. Evaluate: Remind students that, when you test, your design may not work as planned. If things don’t work out, it’s an opportunity – not a mistake! When designers solve a problem, they try different ideas, learn from mistakes, and try again. Study the problem and then redesign. For example:
  • If you have used tubes in your construction and the tubes start to unroll, re-roll them so they are tighter. A tube shape lets the load (i.e. the peanut ball) push on every part of the paper, not just one section of it. Whether they’re building tables, buildings, or bridges, load distribution is a feature designers think carefully about.
  • If the chair legs twist or tilt, find a way to stabilize and support them. Also check if the chair is lopsided, too high, or has legs that are damaged or not well braced.
  • If the chair buckles, add support or reinforce the weak area, use a wider or thicker walled tube or replace the tube if it has been damaged. Changing the shape of a material affects its strength. Shapes that spread a load well are strong.
  • If the chair collapses, make its legs as sturdy as possible. A chair, or any four legged object, is stronger with triangular supports.
7. Finalize the Solution: Use what you have learned about newspaper construction to strengthen your final design. Add design details. 8. Articulate the Solution: Groups can share their designs with the class, articulating their learning process during their presentations. What did they try first? How did their design develop over the course of the design process? Did they have any AHA moments?


Students should be assessed by their involvement in the entire process:
  • Did the student try many different techniques for creating their newspaper chair?
  • Did they help their fellow classmates by participating in discussion and problem solving? Did they provide thoughtful feedback?
  • Were they open to changing and developing their ideas?
  • Did their design meet the height requirement and function according to the challenge?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Chairs are a great starting point for design challenges and can be made out many different materials. A classic design challenge that works great in school settings is to have students design a chair using only cardboard that can support human weight. In you are in New York City, a great place to see many chairs from different eras, including a cardboard chair by Frank Gehry, is the Visible Collection at the Brooklyn Museum. You can also see their collection of chairs online by visiting and typing “chair” into the search field. Differentiation for Middle and Elementary School:
  • Do a quick demo for the class on different ways to fold, roll and tape the newspaper to create 3D structures.
  • As a class prior to beginning the design challenge, build a structure together with rolled newspapers using only triangular-shaped supports. Build another structure using only square-shaped sides. Test which structure can hold more weight by putting a load on top, such as a stack of books.

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