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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Professor Emeritus learned design by doing

Checking out textiles of hunting tribes in Borneo, giving talks about design in Taiwan and owning "quite a collection" of Native American pottery and baskets, John Kreifeldt makes the retired life of a toothbrush engineer sound pretty enticing.

Professor Emeritus Kreifeldt, who was the founder of the Engineering Psychology program at Tufts, claims bragging rights not only for engineering the Reach toothbrush for DuPont and Johnson and Johnson, but also for Gillette razors, NASA air traffic control systems and devices for emergency medical care, just to name a few.

"But most people know the toothbrush," Kreifeldt said. "That's the easiest to point out to people and explain what this business is about."

After receiving his Master of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1964, Kreifeldt went on to Case Western Reserve of Technology, where he got involved in a project to "build some sort of an exoskeleton for people who are severely paralyzed [and see] if they could be put in there somehow and connected to computers and with their muscle actions see if they can move."

Although he had gone to MIT as an electrical engineer, that project propelled Kreifeldt to pursue similar ones that combine engineering and psychology.

"[I was] interested in, ‘How can I apply mathematics to things that I like to do?' I do problems in sort of an engineering way and with this interest on people," he said. "I'm also interested in design, from the aesthetics to the mechanical sorts of things."

Since he began teaching at Tufts in 1969, Kreifeldt passed this mentality of flexibility on to his students, stressing the importance of all kinds of academic subjects.

"That's why I tell [them], whatever they're learning, it's going to be useful somehow. Don't think, ‘Gee, this is of no use, this is of no use.' My ideas came from philosophy, mathematics, psychology and from engineering," Kreifeldt said.

As former head of the engineering psychology program, Kreifeldt said he taught a number of courses on design.

"One of the courses was called Consumer Product Design … I would show students what I had learned and how to do that work," he said. "I would give them projects to help them do their work, and in their senior year they would get projects from industries that would come in, like Kodak, and bring problems to their students and say, ‘This is our product, help us with that,' so that by their senior year they were pretty good at doing that kind of work."

These courses, just like many of the products Kreifeldt designed, were very much his own creation.

"Design is a very personal thing; it's hard to write a book about design because it's so hands-on [and] one-on-one," Kreifeldt said. "The program really reflects who is running the program."

Kreifeldt described this type of engineering as a skill that comes with experience.

"There was no background to doing this. I think the first design problem my partner Percy Hill and I had was to work with the Gillette company. So we started at that time applying what we knew on how to study things, and I began to understand a little bit about people, [their] reactions to products, what's important to look at and how you go about it," he said. "I learned a lot from working on these designs for Gillette, and then later DuPont came … and I had this background from razors and [thought that] maybe I can use that kind of way of approaching problems to toothbrushes."

By creating his own methodology, Kreifeldt acknowledged that he wasn't concerned about taking the easy route.

"[I] learned the hard way, but I tried to give that to my students," he said. "I think a lot of them have learned from these techniques that I've developed, and they went on and they taught their students and so on."

These days, Kreifeldt devotes much of his free time to collecting.

"For a number of years, I've actually been collecting materials from the American Indians, particularly pottery and basketry, and somewhere along in the late 1900s, I took a sabbatical in Borneo," he said. "I saw textiles that were woven by the women of the head hunting tribe, and I really got interested in those. Since then, I've been collecting these textiles, and I have a large collection, so most of my time now is spent writing articles about them and I give talks on them."

With such an impressive résumé, it's not a surprise that Kreifeldt applies the techniques of engineering to many aspects of his life.

"I like to collect and try to organize. Well, maybe that's engineering," he said. "I liked teaching because I could take materials and try to form it and give it some shape and beginnings and ends, so maybe that's engineering too."