Institute of Design alumnus Robert A. Skyer (1931–2017) received a bachelor’s degree in design in 1958. He served as chief of industrial design for International Harvester (today Navistar International) from 1967 to the 1980s, during which time the company was one of the world’s leading producers of farm tractors.
The tractor had already started changing American agriculture in the 1910s and 1920s. But farmers themselves hadn’t been the focus of tractor design. Before the 1960s, farm tractors were largely utilitarian, with exposed cockpits and uncomfortable seats. But during World War II, when machinery was becoming more complex and the need for better interaction between the user and the device was essential, engineers and designers came to recognize the importance of ergonomics in their products. Ergonomics were thus increasingly emphasized in the following decades. It was during this time that Skyer transformed the humble tractor into a more comfortable, user-friendly machine at International Harvester.
During his tenure as chief of industrial design, Skyer and his team created thoughtful designs based on planning reports from product specialists and engineers. The result was both better aesthetics and enhanced user comfort—important for farmers who were spending long hours out in the field. As covered and enclosed cabs became more commonplace, steering wheels and seats became more ergonomically comfortable, and control panels and user interfaces became more comprehensive, user-friendly, and feature-rich.
The work coming out of Skyer’s department led to some of International Harvester’s most successful designs, including the Model 1066, one of the best-selling tractors of the 1970s. Most notably, his team added a black graphic stripe to the design, a seemingly simple intervention that became iconic and part of the company’s brand identity.
Design and art were everything he was, and that happened at ID. He came out of the program with this great appreciation for and knowledge of design. Going to ID was life-changing for him, and so our family wants to increase access for people going into this amazing program.
—Susannah Skyer Gupta
The Robert Skyer Fellowship was created by Skyer’s daughter, Susannah Skyer Gupta, and her family. The fellowship provides financial support to an ID student, with a preference for students who are underrepresented in the design community.