HEALTH Conference: Asking the Right Questions in Design

Photos by Mark Gjukich courtesy Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. What is design good for- the individual or the collective? Is design inclusive or does design discriminate? When does design become accessible for the everyday?

These are some of the questions posed in a panel at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning’s HEALTH: Present Predicaments in Architecture and Urban Planning Conference Series. While tough questions, they’re ones that designers and users have to face.

Photos by Mark Gjukich courtesy Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Francesca Lanzavecchia and Hunn Wai talk with Taubman Associate Professor of Architecture Robert Adams prior to the morning panels. Photos by Mark Gjukich courtesy of Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Vito Acconci, a panelist in conversation at the event, posed the question, Are users of design a victim? All designers, whether in fashion, architecture or other design professions, must consider this. The end goal is not to design something for ourselves, but rather for the client. Also important to the process is finding out who that client is. In order to create the optimal design, we have to pay careful attention to the client and the client’s needs.

The panelists also reference the phobia, inhibition and discrimination of design that limits those who are disabled more specifically. How can we turn this around and create spaces and objects that adapt to the individual? Tobin Siebers references ‘hysterical architecture’ that represses those with disabilities. Does the same happen in fashion design?

The second panel focused on the autogenic body and the ability it has to create "a profoundly creative drive that produces unique types of knowledge." Photos by Mark Gjukich courtesy of Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Francesca Lanzavecchia’s work with Proaesthetics challenges this notion and turns these limitations in design into the motivation. Her work creates back braces, canes, neck braces and casts that provide functionality for users with “disability, illness and human frailty”1. They also begin to create design that empowers the individual through aesthetic. By presenting these needs in a new light, the objects that are a part of the everyday for the user begin to “transmit and reflect who we are and our personal needs,” said Lanzavecchia. She proves that design can become something accessible, functional and beautiful.

Expanding on thes idea of fashion design catered to one’s specific needs, Lanzavecchia relates it to tailor-made suits. She references the way “we want bodies that are perfect,” but then turns this into a challenge. The challenge is to de-emphasize  the medical aspect and allow the person to be proud to be different. She quotes Edgar Allan Poe, saying “there is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.” If the stigma of disabilities or illness can be used as an inspiration for designers to create a new look or a new appearance, there is much to be learned.

Without these designs for individuals and their specific needs, there aren’t enough choices. If you were to break your foot tomorrow, you would go to your doctor to find that there is only one type of leg cast. The reason is medical; the doctor knows that it is the best for healing your foot. But, if a designer were to come into this equation, he or she could create something more personalized to match individual needs.  Something beautiful could come from something as simple as a cast. Just imagine what Lanzavecchia could create and what other designers could do. We need designers motivated to pursue this type of emergent design.

Glasses, once seen as an atrophy and a hurdle for one’s style, are now fashionable. With designer frames selling for hundreds of dollars, it shows potential. Is it much harder to convince someone that canes can be stylish? Absolutely. Is there potential in designing them to make them desirable for those who need them? Absolutely. It’s something that needs to be talked about, designed and promoted. Work like Lanzavecchia’s proves that it can be done and that prosthetics can be tailor-made just like a suit.

Hunn Wai, Lanzavecchia’s design partner, challenges us to imagine more inclusive designs like this in the world. He mentions chair design and the efforts that are put into it despite the fact that there are “more pressing issues to attend to."  This type of work is able to show us the importance of empowerment through design and interdisciplinary design to create change. It also engages us in a conversation about  how design can create changes that benefit all types of individuals.