A talk with Graham Pullin

Why prosthetics should be beautiful

By Francie Latour
March 15, 2009
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A WHEELCHAIR CAPE is a large, tent-like piece of waterproof clothing used by the wheelchair-bound to keep dry in the rain. A cross between a giant bib and a barber's smock, it's functional, but not much else. In some ways, says designer and researcher Graham Pullin, it further reinforces the disability of its wearer.

"It's certainly not streetwear," he says.

But what would happen if, say, an underground fashion company for bike messengers took on such a design? And what if the result not only lent some mainstream cool to the person using it, but sparked new ways of thinking about waterproof design and technology? Those unlikely marriages are the kind Pullin wants to inspire with his new book, "Design Meets Disability." Pullin, a lecturer in interactive media design at the University of Dundee in Scotland who trained as a medical engineer, makes a strong case that better design for disabled people could pay off in unexpected and important ways, not only for users but for society overall.

For too long, Pullin says, the medical and design worlds have been strangers, and Exhibit A for their potential together is undeniably compelling: The iconic, curved-wood furniture of American midcentury designers Charles and Ray Eames, which evolved directly from their design of a leg splint for wounded service members in WWII.

Since then, Pullin says, bold examples of design for disability have been too few and far between. His book highlights many that do exist, from watches that can be read by touch and vibration to a pair of gorgeously intricate, hand-carved wooden legs worn by fashion model and double amputee Aimee Mullins. As for possible implications for the wider world, well, there's the small matter of the iPod, whose designer, Jonathan Ive, started out as a young student making white plastic hearing aids for the deaf.

Other than wearing glasses Pullin is not disabled himself, and he doesn't claim to speak for the disabled. "The issues around disability are very political and complex and loaded, and I'm not trying to make any statements about disability per se," says Pullin. "The message I'm simply trying to get across is that by actually embracing disability, and the issues disability puts to the forefront, it can unlock ideas about universal design."

Pullin spoke to Ideas from his home in Scotland.

IDEAS: How did you get interested in bringing aesthetically-minded design to devices for disabilities?

PULLIN: I was designing a robot arm for people who had high spinal injuries. So, paralysis from the neck down . . . I became increasingly aware that what we were doing, apart from being clinically and technically demanding, was incredibly intimate and culturally sensitive, and emotionally sensitive. Because these very high-tech devices we were designing for people inevitably became extensions of them in the eyes of other people. So they really did change not only people's perception of the person using them, but also the person's self-perception as well. And yet, none of us had training in any of that stuff. I was sensitive enough to know those issues were there, but my own training was entirely technical. So I took myself off to the Royal College of Art . . . and I've been looking for ways of combining the two ever since, which hasn't always been easy.

IDEAS: Why is that?

PULLIN: It's not universally acknowledged by any means that design actually has a role to play in anything quite as serious as products for people with profound disability. Which seems very strange to me, when I know how important those skills are when anything is being designed, from buildings to surgical equipment.

IDEAS: How do you square the idea of making a hearing aid or a prosthesis beautiful, and even visually noticeable, with the seemingly reasonable goal of making them as inconspicuous as possible?

PULLIN: I'm not trying to negate that as a valid priority. I think the trouble is, once it's adopted as a priority, it can preclude some other good qualities. . . . I designed a prosthetic hand for amputees, and I spoke to a lot of amputees. Many of them had some very surprising views about the prostheses being prescribed to them.

IDEAS: Such as?

PULLIN: I heard amputees talk about the fact that they didn't like the feel of their prosthetic hand in their other hand. That's something that's wrapped up in what you put in the list of priorities. If the surface of a hand is designed predominantly to look like human skin . . . then that leads you down the path of silicone gloves and a sort of rubbery feel, because of the visual qualities that you want.

IDEAS: What else surprised you?

PULLIN: I heard amputees say they sometimes didn't wear a prosthetic hand at all, because what they feared when they did wear one - one that was a very good disguise - was that moment when the people they were speaking to for the first time realized that it was artificial. Some of them said they'd actually like to get that moment over and done with at the very beginning, and would welcome a hand that was obviously not a human hand, but had other good qualities.

IDEAS: Are there models for how good design and disability can inspire each other?

PULLIN: I think eyeglasses are really interesting, in that they're so successful as exemplars in this area that we cease to think of them as design for disability. We don't think of them as the same as hearing aids or prosthetic hands. . . . I mean, there are statistics available for how many eyeglass frames are actually bought with just plain glass in them, with no prescription, for purely aesthetic and fashion and cultural reasons, which I think is remarkable.

IDEAS: You argue that, just as the disabled suffer from medical engineering that ignores good design, the broader design world suffers for ignoring disability. How so?

PULLIN: Disability could actually be a source of incredible inspiration for design, not just the looming legal obligation the design industry is bracing itself for. . . . Disability can force some new questions onto the agenda that can actually open up new ways of thinking, and not just in terms of better accessibility.

IDEAS: What kinds of inspired design for the general public could you envision coming out of an explicit effort by designers to address disability?

PULLIN: Who would have thought that Charles and Ray Eames would develop an entirely new language of furniture design by designing a leg splint for the US Navy? You could not have predicted that path. It was a byproduct of being forced to think in new ways. I think that's what's so genuinely inspiring about it. It's not a linear process, with a particular issue for a particular disabled group, where you can anticipate how it's going to be relevant to the rest of us, and anticipate what that influence will be. It's far more beautifully random than that.

Francie Latour, a former Globe reporter, is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine.

Graham Pullin (Andrew Cook) "Disability could actually be a source of incredible inspiration for design."
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