• 08.05.09

Reimagining the Prosthetic Arm

Students at New York’s School of Visual Arts rethink what a prosthetic arm can be.

This past fall, Allan Chochinov, a partner at the design blog Core 77, ran a course at SVA which challenged students to rethink the prosthetic arm. Today, The Prosthetics Project launched as an online exhibition, showing the work of all 21 students that took the class. As Chochinov writes:


Through readings,
research, and an incredible group of guest critics including Aimee
Mullins, Jon Kuniholm, Frank Wilson and Elliot Washor, the students
attempted to put a dent in what may arguably be one of the most
daunting design challenges imaginable–to design a better prosthetic arm.

students took different approaches to the problem: some attacked it
directly with mechanical improvements to existing prosthetics. Others
offered devices and garments that introduced alternative modalities or
provided new functionality. Some students took a more abstract
approach, creating formal, often sculptural, gestures as a way to help
us think about the notion of ‘prosthetic,’ while others took an
extremely conceptual approach to investigating the paradigms and
cultures around prosthetics and amputees.

The intent wasn’t to create solutions that might pop right into the current market–but rather, to challenge students who otherwise might never have encountered such a difficult and unique design problem. The hope, according to Chochinov, was that the young greehorns would have ideas that would never occur to an engineering pro.

The projects are organized along four basic approaches: Decorative, Playful, Utilitarian, and Awareness. Here’s a sampling of each category:

In the Decorative category, Tonya Douraghy & Carli Pierce designed the “Feather Cuff and Wing Arm”–which aims to tackle the stigma associated with a prosthetic, by turning it into a fanciful accessory:

project tonya

In the Playful category, Ekta Daryanani designed a sleeve for a prosthetic arm which kids can draw on–thus making it into a canvas for self-expression, not unlike a cast which all your friends sign:

project ekta

The Utilitarian category emphasized function over form. Giho Lee began his investigation by experimenting with a “trainer”–a device that gives a two-armed person a sense of what it’s like to have a prosthetic hand. Then he began devising a clever, willfully “dumb” and low-tech method for wire attachments to adapt the trainer to different tasks. It’s not a design solution per se, but nonetheless, documents the process of how you’d start developing improvements on the “hook” (thanks to Allan for the clarification).

project giho

The most abstract category was Awareness, which investigated the cultural mores that amputees live with. Meital Gueta created three pieces that aim to reflect the body image of amputees:

project meital
project meital

You can see all of the projects–and more images–at the Prosthetics Project Web site. Kudos to Allan for leading such a well thought-out class, and to the students, for coming up with such a wealth of interesting ideas!


About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.