Tag Archives: design

What Drives Good Design? Breast Pumps, Oxygen Tanks and More

Debbie says:

Courtney E. Martin and John Cary have some things to say about breast pump design.

The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful.

No doubt inspired by the ubiquitous public service announcements about how healthy breastfeeding is for mother and baby, 77 percent of new mothers do it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card.

… the modern pump remains largely unchanged since it was first invented. Edward Lasker, an engineer, produced the first mechanical breast pump and secured the patent in the 1920s. In 1956, Einar Egnell created the Egnell SMB breast pump, a more efficient answer to Lasker’s original design. Nearly 60 years later, little has changed about the fundamental design of the mechanical pump. …

We believe that all mothers deserve a better, more dignifying breast pump. It’s a critical, daily tool for the working mother and a no brainer investment for early childhood health (thus, the federal government subsidizing its use at such a significant level).

And beyond the health benefits of a better breast pump, there is a lot of money to be made by the company that attempts to really understand what would make the lives of working mothers easier and more pleasant. One pregnant friend put it in stark relief, “There were approximately one zillion different kinds of baby carriers to choose from when I was registering, but breast pumps? About three, and none of them looked significantly different from one another.”

Their article makes me think of my mother, before she died almost ten years ago, struggling to get her arthritic hands to work the clasp on her oxygen tank while having to conserve her breath, and saying almost the same things, once the oxygen was flowing. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is hard enough; can’t we have decent tools to cope with it? 77% of nursing mothers pump; close to 100% of people with COPD use supplemental oxygen.

Martin and Cory attribute the problem to sexism, and to designers who have never lactated, and they are not wrong, but the issue goes deeper than that, because plenty of (mostly old) men have COPD. Breast pumps and oxygen tank apparatus (and crutches and wheelchairs and other durable medical goods) are things that economists call “low elasticity.” In other words, people who need them will buy them, whether they are any good or not. Strollers and other baby equipment are also “low elasticity,” but they are also consumer goods–you see them in stores, you comparison shop, sometimes you get them as presents. You have an opportunity to think about “is this one prettier? is this one better designed? will this one last longer?” You can buy them for a wide variety of prices with a wide variety of designs and options.

Durable medical goods don’t show up in stores much. What comparison shopping you can do is generally done on line, or you order the one your doctor recommends, or the only one your health insurance plan will pay for. Maybe there is some consideration of fit, and maybe not.

I’ve seen friends light up because they found colorful crutches, or ways to bling up their wheelchairs. More and more, I see decorated canes on the street. All of these could use more variety and more style, and some of them would benefit from more efficient basic design. But at least these are things we see in the world. Breast pumps are not only sold in low-profile venues, they are used in low-profile venues. No one ever sees them except the new parents and an occasional visitor. And while you may see oxygen tanks on the street and users with cannulas in their noses, you don’t see how they work; you only see them working.

Design improvements generally stem from two sources: competition and visibility. The items that have neither–no matter how much they might benefit from design attention–languish in the land of unmanageable connectors and ridiculously loud motors.

Sometimes, however, an enterprising designer/entrepreneur sees a need and fills it. Let’s hope several of them read Martin and Cory’s article.

Design, Dignity, and Community

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were struck by this short piece by Courtney at Feministing about the new offices of GEMS, a nonprofit organization serving girls and young women who have been in the world of domestic trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Basically, GEMS worked with a local architecture firm who designed their space as a charitable donation.

Courtney is responding to the way many people involved in social change “initially dismiss such efforts as nice window-dressing in comparison to the “real issues” that we must tackle as feminist activists.”

That kind of dismissal is understandable: effectively all nonprofits want to do more than they can do, and the more that they are attempting to serve an under-resourced and under-protected population, the harder it is to put either money or energy into the design of their own space.

Nonetheless, Courtney is also right when she says (quoting herself in an earlier post at The American Prospect):

Suddenly, I realized how deeply I was affected, how deeply all human beings are affected, by the spaces we inhabit. All of these profound, if unconscious, messages are spoken to us through color, shape, space, air, light, or lack thereof.

If an organization is working in a space where the people they serve spend time, it’s really important to make that space respectful, and welcoming. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean spending money: we’ve all seen beautiful apartments (and even the occasional beautiful office) put together from Salvation Army and craigslist bits and pieces by someone with a good eye. It also doesn’t necessarily mean finding architects who will design your space for you, which might be “free” design in money, but takes energy, time management, and finding the money to make the design a reality.

What it does mean is finding out from the people you work with what makes them comfortable as a group. Individuals have different tastes, but ethnicity, age and class (among other things) all affect patterns of expectation and comfort levels. What feels respectful and easy to the people who come in and out? What feels off-putting or makes them feel like they “don’t belong”? What free or inexpensive sources can they identify for items that enhance comfort and livability? Which of those choices also work for the staff and volunteers? Where are the compromises and when is it important not to compromise? This process also takes energy and time management–and helps the organization create a community of staff, volunteers, and the people for whom the organization exists. And it will also result in choices that surprise almost everyone–usually in really helpful ways.

For organizations that don’t have people coming in and out, the same community process will work with the staff and volunteers as community–and again pay back the energy it takes to get through the process.

Resources are always limited: you will never have enough money, time, and energy. Sometimes you really don’t have the resources to contend with this issue at all. Sometimes the space seems intractable (and sometimes it is). But this is a process where, if you can get it going, the process will greatly benefit your organization and your community.