On Design Meets Disability

In his book, Pullin raises several interesting points regarding medical design, some of which I found to be very relevant to general design problems as well. What I also realized is they are mostly very dilemmatic – there often exists two contradictory extremes to a single problem.

The single biggest concern, at least in this particular field of design, seems to be the integration to the mainstream. Its priority has always been discretion via miniaturization or camouflage, which is a questionable consensus. Clearly in the case of spectacles, its design has managed to steer away from the alien image associated with disability – to the extent that most people today don’t view low vision as one. It has instead settled as a fashionable accessory, where non-medical elements such as trends and cultures also become relevant. I think this is a great example that highlights the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration in solving a real-life problem.

Spectacles evolved through the coexistence of functionality and aesthetics in “healthy tension”. I fully agree with Pullin that as much design elements as mere practicality should be considered in designing disability aids, especially when it comes to making them more mainstream. In fact why not both? Technology could enable to do so much more than restore, but surpass human abilities, which could not only help them become socially accepted but gain wider popularity in a larger market. Furthermore, an original design built within the “constraint” of disability could influence the mainstream in return – such as in the case of curved plywood furniture.

Another common tension in design is universality vs simplicity: attempting to incorporate too many “desirable” features in a single design may end up compromising the overall user experience and even the purpose of the design. It is questionable whether universality is attainable at all; the iPod is a rare design feat that beautifully balances all accessibility, functionality and simplicity, but it still has limits. Different people inevitably have different tastes and needs, some of which may be contradictory. This is something that has to be addressed with care especially in medical design, where products aren’t simply accessories, but an integral part of the users’ lives. In this case, introducing a diversity of alternatives seems the most logical (although this may be unfavorable from the business point of view).

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