Herman Miller Sitting Pretty

Herman Miller's pricey Aeron chairs epitomized the excesses of the dot-com boom. At that heady time, one could wait for months to get a chic chair from the furniture maker. But what a difference every part of your body (including your ego) could feel once you traded the old executive chair for the ergonomic Aeron! Its splendid and functional design fit the needs of a new generation coming of age. The resonating impact of Herman Miller's Aerons was worth the wait and the arguments with your accountant.

Herman Miller started up in the American Midwest between the two World Wars, and quickly focused on contemporary furniture designs. In recent years, the company has positioned itself as a main player in environment branding. "While many companies look at brand building as a marketing challenge alone," the website copy tells us, "others realize they have to live their brand, not just promote it. And the surest way to do that is by weaving brand building throughout the entire organization -- even the office environment." And you thought the company just made a great chair.

The company's global website has a whole series of attractive web pages for the United States, Europe and other regions of the world. As such, those websites are very centralized, which provides a great deal of homogeneity and coordination between the regional pages. The Japanese and Canadian site, for instance, gives a casual browser same feel. For those fluent in English, in particular, the website is an endless mine of information on design and Herman Miller products and concepts. It is, however, little more than an online brochure.

That said, the Herman Miller website is well aligned with the brand. It conveys the depth of attention to the functional as well as aesthetic benefits of the product. Although the weaving of international pages within the global site can at times be confusing, there are clear benefits for corporations to choose to go down that path, not the least of which because it provides a higher level of control over the brand. Paradoxically, the site's design is too conventional to get much emotion out of the visitor. It misses the opportunity to involve the visitor or at least to wrap her mind around the Herman Miller story.

Looking a little deeper, we delved into the web presence of Herman Miller Japan, Ltd. This wholly-owned subsidiary was set up almost 20 years ago, in 1988, and quickly merged with earlier sales operations that Isetan, a large Japanese retailer, had launched to distribute Herman Miller furniture in Japan.

The Japanese website is rather basic -- again, this is just a succinct online brochure -- but the home page gives prominence to Herman Miller's star designers. A largely red color banner introduces George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, and Bill Stumpf, and rolls over to display the graphite Mirra chair. Interestingly, a click on the banner -- whether depicting the chair or the designers -- leads to an e-commerce: the Mirra Chair Shopping Site. We had expected to learn more about those designers. They do have online bios, but those bios are not accessible from clicking through the front-page image.

Apart from this disconnect between the user's expectations and the site architect's navigational path, we applaud Herman Miller's decision to celebrate its designers. This speaks to the goal of Herman Miller to position itself as a suite of products that lend toward a complete environmental solution as opposed to just selling the one-off chair.