Less Frivolous, More Necessary


25 May 2016

In September 2015, the industrial designer Benjamin Hubert relaunched his eponymous studio as Layer, a design agency specialising in socially-led products. Speaking to Disegno in September, Hubert described the transition as creating “Fewer frivolous objects and more necessary ones.”

Layer’s latest project falls into this latter category. A 3D-printed wheelchair created in collaboration with 3D-printing specialists Materialise, Go presents an alternative to the one-size-fits-all model of NHS prescribed wheelchairs by responding to the individual needs of wheelchair users with a customisable design.

Go features two 3D-printed elements: the seat and the footrest. By opting for a 3D-printing manufacturing process, the two components can be tailored to fit each individual’s specific needs, the exact form of each element deriving from 3D digital data produced by mapping each wheelchair user’s biometric information. Layer has also created an app that encourages personalisation of the chair by allowing users to customise its visual identity, as well as selecting optional elements such as push bars and wheel guards. The wheelchair’s frame is formed out of titanium while the mesh seat is created from translucent resin integrated with thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) that acts as a shock absorber.

The design of the wheelchair is informed by the insights gained from a six-month period of research. During this research, Layer interviewed a selection of approximately 40 wheelchair users and healthcare professionals.

As a prototype of Go is launched at Clerkenwell Design Week (24 to 26 May), Disegno spoke to Hubert about the motivations behind the design of the wheelchair. An edited transcript of the interview is published below.

Anya Lawrence Why look at wheelchairs in particular? Within the sphere of medical aids, there are a great deal of products that could do with being redesigned.

Benjamin Hubert As a category of objects it is quite front of mind. You see people using wheelchairs and having mobility issues on a daily basis, whereas you might only be exposed to some medical equipment when you’ve undergone a procedure or a member of your family is going through an illness. For me it felt quite an obvious choice: partly as an industrial designer, because it is essentially a chair, and partly because it is something that I have always thought could be radically improved. There are two million new wheelchair users every year [worldwide] and so it is sort of joining the dots. Obviously there is demand and a necessity for a product like this and currently there is too much of a one-sided approach. People come in all shapes and sizes, especially when you add injury to that. Everybody is so unique and the only tangible solution is having something that is really tailored to individuals. It is this idea of a second skin: emulating the human skin in a piece of hardware.

Anya What is the value of the product being so heavily research-based?

Benjamin For us, not being wheelchair users, the biggest challenge was getting into the mindset of a wheelchair user and understanding what individuals want, need, hate, like, love. Loads of emotions are caught up in the wheelchair so the research was really about finding out exactly what that means. The subject that we are dealing with is super sensitive and the last thing I want is people to think that we are just styling the wheelchair. Of course it needs style, and that is a whole other conversation, but at the core of the design is all the functional problems that we were trying to solve, driven by the information that we received from professionals and wheelchair users as part of our research.

Anya Did that research bring to the fore problems that you had not previously considered?

Benjamin Yes, I mean the actual design of the wheelchair probably went through about 15 iterations. One thing to come out of the research is that the wheelchair is an extension of the body. The wheelchair users spoke about how the forms look and feel like next to the body and how they should be smooth and flowing and sinuous. Another thing was how can an object be high performance but also cool? How can it have some style but not be over-stylised? The design really shifted around. We also went through a big trawl of different seat solutions: dividing the seat in two, having a folding seat, not having a folded seat, having things that are flexible and having this idea of replaceable components.

Ultimately a lot of this is about confidence and creating a product that is empowering. In a wheelchair you are lower than everyone else, so a lot of the users said that they felt a lack of confidence. A lot of wheelchair users have push bars on the back of their seat to allow assisted movement. Most wheelchairs have these as standard but a lot of the people we interviewed said that they often get pushed around by their friends, even if they don’t want to move. It is just stuff like this that the research revealed. You never think about it, but if somebody doesn’t want push bars, then they shouldn’t have to. They should have that choice.

Anya Go also aims to remove the stigma of wheelchairs. How exactly does it achieve that?

Benjamin We found in our research that there was this stigma around wheelchairs feeling very medical and super mechanical with lots of struts, connectors and floor bolts. Lots of raw forms and clunkiness. We tried to strip all that back: reduce the amount of struts and put them underneath and behind the user where possible. So, rather than the struts following the profile of the legs, we put them underneath so you see as much as the user as possible and as little of the chair.

Anya The wheelchair's foot rest and seat are 3D printed. Why opt for this manufacturing process?

Benjamin Although a lot of the press releases lead with the idea of the chair being 3D printed, it wasn’t until much later that the idea of 3D printing came. It became a technology and a way to solve problems that we had identified in the research process. Sometimes I am a little bit critical of 3D printing in the way that it is used for everything. We have used it for most projects as a way to validate shape, fit or size but we have never used it in final production. We felt that it was appropriate in this situation because it was solving a problem. It wasn't just for decoration, it was actually something that people needed; 3D printing allows the chair to fit the user’s body perfectly.

Anya Customisable wheelchairs do exist in the current market but they are usually quite expensive. How does Go compare?

Benjamin Not to be too much of a politician, but it is a little bit difficult to directly answer that at the moment. What we do know is that everything, apart from the seat and the foot rest, which are the two 3D-printed elements, use the same type of materials and technologies as existing wheelchairs. Titanium, aluminium, and carbon fibre are all common materials on what we consider to be higher performance wheelchairs. These high performance wheelchairs cost something between £2,000 and £10,000 per chair and we hope to be at the lower end of that scale. Our ambition is to make it competitive in the four-figure numbers, not the five. Basically we'll just see where we end up.

Anya You're launching Go at Clerkenwell Design Week which suggests that you are positioning the chair as a design object. What was the logic behind unveiling the chair to a largely design-led audience?

Benjamin It's just a coincidence. We were talking to a concept store [Clerkenwell London] about showing a selection of products and we said 'You know what, this wheelchair is going to be finished so why not utilise that platform?’ Ultimately, I just want as many people to see it as possible. This isn’t about ego, this is about getting as many people interested in it and excited about it and maybe even attracting funding. All of these things will help it happen.