Spanish magazine Graffica recently showcased Facett in a Q&A with designer Leah Heiss that offers a wonderful insight into her inspiration. Here’s the translation, for those of you who don’t speak Spanish!
- What is your professional background?
I did two undergraduate degrees – one in Interior Design and one in Communication theory. My Masters was in wearable technology through the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at RMIT. Through this I designed garments to sense and transmit heartbeat over distance, to increase empathy between people who were separated. This was the first time I worked across design, garments and engineering. One of my big career highlights, post-Masters, was my residency with Nanotechnology Victoria where I designed Diabetes Jewellery to administer insulin through the skin for diabetics and Arsenic – jewellery and vessels to remove arsenic from drinking water. My recently completed PhD focuses on humanising wearable health technologies through thoughtful design.
- Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to the nexus of design, health and technology?
I am particularly focused on humanising wearable health technologies and this requires that I work in a very interdisciplinary way across design, health and technology. At the core of my practice is collaboration and the challenge to create communication between disciplines who do not have a shared language. For instance when I was designing Smart Heart I was working between a team of weavers and a team of engineers. As a designer it was critical that I be able to speak enough of both languages to translate between these two disciplines. In order to achieve this I developed specific diagrams to convert weaving specifications into engineering constraints and vice versa.
I think that by working laterally across design, health and technology we can start to address the complex needs of people in the healthcare system. A technology-only approach is not sufficient neither is a design-only approach.
- Why through jewellery and no other objects?
My practice traverses jewellery but also artefacts and experience. I use jewellery as a site as it is close to the body and people often have strong emotional feelings about their jewellery. This makes it an excellent place to embed therapeutic functionality.
- Your process is deeply collaborative, and you work with experts. How do these collaborations run? How you deal with them?
Central to my practice is embedding design within scientific or engineering contexts. Through my practice I have been embedded within three contexts: within a nanotechnology laboratory to design Diabetes Jewellery; in an advanced textiles lab to design Smart Heart; and most recently in Blamey Saunders hears to design Facett, the world’s first self-fit modular hearing aid. Being embedded in the project over a longer time frame means that design has a seat at the table throughout the whole development process. The impact of this is that engineering decisions are cross-checked with human experience considerations throughout the design process.
Collaborations can be tricky and over the past decade I’ve developed a few approaches to keeping the design process moving though conflict. One of these is to use “the power of prototyping” in these collaborative projects to build trust with team members and keep projects in motion while engaging deeply with the lived experience of technology users.
- Do you have client’s commissions as well?
Facett was an example where I was brought in to design the form and user experience of a technology. I designed Facett for profit-for-purpose company Blamey Saunders hears. Their founder Professor Peter Blamey had invented this really unique way to make a modular hearing aid and I was lucky enough to be part of the team and worked to design the look and feel and user experience of the device. This is really human centred design, the magnetic connector that the team developed enables people with arthritis or vision impairment to change their own batteries.
- What is the creative process you do to create a new piece? Do you look for a real problem you can solve through your work? What inspires you to design?
In the projects that I have developed I seek inspiration in the technology that has been developed and try to work with its strengths. For instance, when designing Diabetes Jewellery with NanoVic I was inspired by the tiny beautiful patch that they had developed to deliver insulin through the skin and into the blood stream. I wanted to design an equally refined way of administering the patch to the skin and so focused on creating a piece of jewellery that could be a drug delivery device.
Within my projects I look for precedents outside the field in order to disassociate wearable health technologies from existing languages of disability or impairment. For instance Smart Heart and Facett were inspired by the crystalline forms in the Melbourne Museum mineralogy collection while some of my other projects have been inspired by beans, seeds and the muscles and bones in anatomy drawings.
- In this sense, there are many problems to solve today. Should designers play an active role rather than waiting for a client to order them a job to solve those problems?
There is great freedom in working on speculative projects as well as commercial projects. This is where designers work on future-focused technologies and try to anticipate what technology will be able to do. An example of this is the Seed Sensor that I designed with Paul Beckett in 2013. This was a swallowable gas sensor to detect particles of gas that may be an early indicator of disease. It looked like a seed but unravelled like a flower in the digestive tract and moved like a jellyfish. While it was not ultimately commercialised it enabled us to prototype and research this area and create a prototype technology. These prototypes now travel in exhibitions and encourage people to question that status quo in healthcare devices.
- Is it possible to do great and useful product design without clients? That is to say, do you need a client or sponsor to develop your work or are other ways to do that? If so, which ones?
See above regarding speculative design
- Your projects have an undoubted social aspect. Why do you think it’s interesting that design has a social purpose or goal? How could we encourage designers to do more social projects?
My work is focused on designing to improve or save life. Many companies have a very technology-first approach that is focused on fast turnaround pitches, investment, getting things to market very quickly. This does not allow for meaningful engagement with the people who we hope will actually wear our technologies. If we are going to design devices that will change people’s lives we need to make sure that the devices are integrated into those lives.
So many resources are put towards the aesthetics of devices to count the steps of healthy people yet so few resources are allocated to improving devices for people who are really unwell. The attitude seems to be that if you have a disability you suddenly have no interest in aesthetics. This is crazy.
That is why I focus on creating wearable health technologies that resonate with us emotionally but also keep us healthy. I call these emotional technologies. Central to creating emotional technologies is engaging deeply with the people who are going to use the device – understanding what they would really like in their lives, and tailoring the technology around that. While smart watches are fine, many wearable health technologies such as cardiac Holter technology or falls monitors are created with efficiency and hygiene as paramount concerns, with little regard for how the wearer will feel using it. This leads to devices that have little resonance with the emotional experience of users.
I hope that by communicating the value of designing to improve life that younger designers might be inspired to pursue a more socially engaged pathway.
- Is there a niche market in social design? Is it possible to live by this specific sector?
Yes definitely! We can be good designers and also be engaged with social, environmental and political issues. Furthermore, I think it’s definitely possible to do ‘good work’ while staying true to our values. It’s as much about why we do things as what we do.
- Regarding Facett, you said that it aims to shift talk “from disability to desirability”. Why should this kind of objects be desirable?
When I designed Facett for Blamey Saunders hears I was interested in decoupling this technology from the existing aesthetic languages of hearing aids. To do this I spent a lot of time in the Museums Victoria mineralogy collection, seeking inspiration for the form, texture and clustering approaches. Rather than designing to “stand out” I was interested in lowering the barriers to entry to new users – to overcome the instinctual fear response we have when confronted with something frightening. The design intent is to shift hearing aids from the medical to the precious, or put another way – from disability to desirability. Untreated hearing loss has been clinically correlated with Alzheimer’s disease. Yet people still do not adopt hearing aids, one of the primary reasons being that they are stigmatised. If design can help to destigmatise hearing aids then hopefully people will adopt them earlier, and this will have an impact on overall health and wellbeing.