In 1999, when D.J. Todd graduated from ASU with bachelor's degrees in industrial design and in management, he embarked on a career path that would circle the American West, from design firms in Boise, Idaho and San Diego, Calif., to graduate school to earn an MBA at San Diego State University. Little did he know then that he would double back to his hometown of Phoenix, to take a job as vice president of marketing at Vantage Mobility International (VMI), located just 10 minutes from his alma mater.
In fall 2012, Todd made a second homecoming. He returned to ASU, not as a student, but as a consultant to InnovationSpace, a sustainable product-development program for undergraduate seniors in design, business and engineering. VMI specializes in converting minivans for use by people with mobility impairments. The company, however, is exploring new concepts for wheelchair users on the go that dramatically diverge from the standard product line.
To help VMI probe the possibilities, Todd reached out to InnovationSpace, whose mission is to teach students how to develop products that create market value and serve real societal needs with minimal impact on the environment. Together with volunteers from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), he has helped guide three student teams to develop product concepts that enhance independence, mobility and access for individuals in wheelchairs.
“I initially contacted InnovationSpace because VMI was looking for potential sources of disruptive thinking,” Todd said. “Because InnovationSpace students are not familiar with the restrictions, limitations and biases of our company and industry, they are able to think more freely about solving key customer problems. Their fresh perspective has the potential to unlock truly disruptive innovation.”
As the InnovationSpace students discovered, the field is flush with opportunity. Take wheelchairs, for example, which are largely considered a medical device rather than a personal means of locomotion. Despite the invention of new, lightweight materials, many wheelchairs still are clunky and institutional looking. And few of them fully serve the needs of their users, whether it’s incorporating new technologies for personal communication or health monitoring, providing handy storage options or expressing something as simple as a customized stylistic flair.
The three VMI-sponsored teams spent fall semester combing the internet for relevant books and journal articles and interviewing wheelchair users. And they conducted their own firsthand research. Some volunteered for the Phoenix-based organization River of Dreams that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. In one activity, they rolled up their sleeves and headed to an ice arena to play a punishing round of sled hockey.
Others like Kim Salem, a visual communication design student and member of Team Link, logged long hours on campus in a wheelchair on loan from the PVA.
“I was in it quite a bit because I liked going on adventures,” Salem says – and on some misadventures. Were it not for a helping hand from her teammate, electrical engineering student Alban Shemsedini, she may not have made it to the top of the steep ramp that separates the Design North and South Buildings on her maiden voyage in the chair.
Later, she was nearly trapped in one of the buildings’ bathrooms while trying to execute a tricky three-point turn to escape. And she got a painful lesson about inadequate storage in wheelchairs after her mobile phone slipped from her lap and fell to the ground. While trying to retrieve it, she rode over the device with one of the chair’s wheels. The phone survived but “it opened my eyes to what people in wheelchairs have to go through every day,” she observes with undisguised admiration.
After intensive research and ideation, each team exhibited three preliminary design concepts in an exhibition at the end of the fall 2012 semester. The students came up with a wide range of ideas from a sensor ring on shower heads that deflects water when temperatures become dangerously hot and smart cushions that incorporate programmed flexing throughout the day to prevent pressure sores to wheelchairs that “stand up” when users need to retrieve items out of easy reach.
Team PACR even designed a concept for a chair that’s made out of recycled cardboard fibers. Strong, lightweight and ultra affordable, the chair folds to the size of a small suitcase when not in use, minimizing precious storage space in cars and vans. This spring semester each team is tasked with developing one of these product concepts in depth complete with a detailed product design, engineering prototype, business model and brand strategy.
If they’re successful, some designs won’t be visible at all. Team Link, for example, focused on the challenge of empowering the independence of wheelchair users. In the process, they entertained hundreds of ideas, most of them related to physical rehabilitation, wheelchair storage solutions and personal care. They finally settled on designing a healthier, more discreet and user-friendly catheter system.
“One of the things associated with independence is having a job,” says engineering student Shemsedini. “If you need help going to the bathroom, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to find a job. So we thought that the catheter system would have the biggest impact on increasing independence.”
And as the team discovered, it’s also an area with tremendous room for improvement. As undergraduate business student Jen Zielinski points out, people who use intermittent catheters empty their bladders about six times each day. The one-time-use devices – and their packaging – are bulky and create lots of waste.
For Eddie Urcadez, an industrial design student, the project poses an interesting design challenge. “Most things are made to be seen,” he points out. “But we’re designing an object that needs to be discreet.”
Team Link has passed many long nights in the InnovationSpace studio combing the medical literature, studying human anatomy and discussing the pros and cons of hundreds of potential solutions. But for Urcadez, who wants to work in health care design after graduation, the late nights working with his team on the thorny problems have been worth it.
“I see a lot of students nowadays who want to design electronic products that are meant to be mass consumed, like really hip, hot cellphones and TVs, things that get used and thrown away eventually," he says. "I’ve always thought that it would be really interesting to use industrial design for things that are usually glossed over.”
Shemsedini agrees: “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted my input in the world to be about making products that help people. The good thing about this group is that we all have, if not the same, then very similar goals. At the beginning of the year, we all said, ‘This is not just a class. We want to learn the process of making something that will help people.’”
Todd praises not only the students’ creative ideas but also the tenacity and thoroughness with which they approached the task of understanding the needs of people with physical disabilities. He first learned the importance of design research as an industrial design student at ASU and continues to devote long hours at his job to conducting surveys, focus groups and ethnographic research with customers and VMI dealers.
“Wheelchair users have unique challenges and problems that 98 percent of the population cannot even fathom,” Todd observes. “I applaud the InnovationSpace students for identifying and tackling their critical issues.”
InnovationSpace, in turn, welcomes the invaluable contributions of boomerang alums like Todd. “It was a pleasure to welcome D.J. back to ASU,” says InnovationSpace Director Prasad Boradkar. “InnovationSpace students take on tough, complicated problems, and returning professionals like D.J. help them to navigate the complexity by generously sharing their years of knowledge and expertise. At the same time, they help us to field test our program to make sure it’s as close to a real-world experience as possible for our students.”
Adelheid Fisher, email@example.com