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Graham Pullin is a researcher in interaction and product design at the University of Dundee. Calum Wiggins asks what 20 years of experience has taught him about the design of prostheses.

How did you get into designing prosthetics?

I originally studied engineering at the University of Oxford. After time working in industry, I ended up working at the Bath Institute for Medical Engineering designing a robotic arm for people who had tetraplegia (paralysis causing a total or partial loss of function in all their limbs and their torso).

While I was doing that work, as a ‘sensitive engineer’ – that’s maybe how I’d describe myself at the time – I could see all kinds of emotional and cultural issues. These devices would play a profound role in their users’ lives, but they would also affect the users’ interactions with other people – particularly strangers who met them for the first time in the presence of all the technology. How [the device] looked would be part of how someone perceived them and part of how the person perceived themselves; part of their identity, in some ways. Yet as engineers and clinicians, the people working on the project, we didn’t have any way of addressing those issues or even thinking about them very deeply.

I then went to the Royal College of Art to study Industrial Design Engineering. For my main project, I decided I wanted to design prosthetic hands. I met one amputee who, when she first met me, didn’t wear a prosthesis – she never did when she first met someone, to avoid the moment when they would realise that her arm wasn’t her arm at all and she was wearing a prosthetic hand. The realisation would register on their face, then she’d pick up on that and they’d notice her picking up on it, creating mutual embarrassment and awkwardness. Other amputees didn’t like the feel, smell, size or proportions of their prosthesis, which also affected the way they thought about it.

Where that led to is very much the focus I’ve returned to 20 years on – the materials for prosthetics that you would pick for their tactile properties and cultural references, rather than their visual proximity to human skin.

What does a designer bring to prosthetics?

Something designers spend a long time talking about is the quality of looking ‘undesigned’, in a good way. One phrase (that may feel ironic in this context) is ‘super normal’, coined by the Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa and the British designer Jasper Morrison. It describes something so skilfully designed as to almost look inevitable, but inevitable in an understated way…that is deceptively difficult.

My goal with our current project is to employ everyday and mundane materials that we might already come into contact with through clothing or domestic products, and bring them to something equally domestic and everyday – a prosthetic hand. The role of the designer is to help navigate the choice.

A lot of amputees aren’t happy with the choices presented to them. Amputees who use very complex, computer-controlled prosthetics can either wear a glove, designed to make the prosthesis look like a natural hand, or the naked robotic hand, in which you see the materials such as carbon fibre and titanium. Amputees and companies marketing the prostheses often refer to the naked robotic hand as ‘cyborg-like’ and even use the term ‘Terminator’. This is a very particular image for a prosthesis and one’s relationship to it, and it doesn’t resonate with a lot of amputees.

I’m interested in designing with and for those people who aren’t comfortable with the current choices or are intrigued by possible alternatives. I’m also excited to work with amputees who don’t think they’ll ever want to wear a prosthesis, because their perspective is really enlightening.

In your book, Design Meets Disability, you discuss what can be learned from the design of prosthetics that might be useful for a wider range of applications.

Prosthetics offer a very interesting lens through which to look at manufacturing. I believe we’re in a state of transition where a whole bunch of really exciting production techniques are at our disposal, and a lot of these techniques – such as 3D printing – are blurring the boundaries between prototyping (making one-offs) and what we used to call mass production. The techniques are very flexible, but automated and digitally driven. At the same time, for techniques like 3D printing, which are so prevalent in that space, the palette of materials that can be used is quite restricted.

This is a strange position to be in and something we’re trying to challenge with the project I’m currently working on. The Institute of Making at UCL and MAKLab in Scotland are really interested in techniques that use digital fabrication in combination with additional stages – for example, 3D printing something you could cast a mould from and using the mould to form the object in a different material. Because it’s so clear that the issue of materials in prosthetics is important, there’s even more onus on taking the material choice seriously in this application than in most others. We hope pursuing the design of prosthetic hands will actually unlock materials and guidelines that could be employed across lots of different manufacturing sectors.

My favourite example relates to the leg splints designed in the 1940s by Charles and Ray Eames. They designed leg splints for the US Navy to get injured service personnel away from the battlefield and to field hospitals during World War II. The splints were made out of plywood, instead of the metal used in previous designs, but to manufacture the splints they had to perfect a technique of bending plywood in complex curves to give it the rigidity needed. The design solved the medical and military brief, but after the war the same technique underpinned iconic mainstream furniture manufacture; that, arguably, revolutionised domestic furniture and product design for the 1940s and 1950s, making Charles and Ray Eames household names.

I’m not suggesting such examples aren’t few and far between, but the fact they exist at all shows the potential in this niche, overlooked and underfunded market field to catalyse much bigger thinking that affects all kinds of mainstream applications using the same technologies.

How do you see the future of prosthetic design progressing?

It’s not about how we can design a prosthetic using a new material, but instead how we can support a design that gives amputees a choice among a palette of materials.

There will always be a deep element of clinical prescription to prosthetics, but maybe there’s another part of it that has nothing to do with that experience, even though the two have to be linked. This other part is about you, the consumer, conceiving your own prosthesis for yourself, looking at alternatives and trying out different combinations of materials. The experience of choosing and fitting a prosthetic could be more akin to visiting a bespoke tailor or custom bicycle shop, where you can specify the materials and accessories. It would still be a mass-produced product in some ways, but through ownership of the design process, the prosthetic would feel as though it were yours before you even wore it.

If you’re interested in participating in Graham’s project, you can contact him at [email protected].

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