It started with a pair of headphones–or at least, the idea for a pair. Max Julian Fischer, an industrial design student at the University of Pforzheim in Germany, was given an assignment to create a design for a pair of headphones that was inspired by a song they were listening to. Fischer’s first thought was: Why?
“I didn’t want to become a designer just to feed the design industry,” he says. “For me, the purpose of design is the thing.” So he respectfully bucked the assignment, and starting thinking about sound itself, and what role it plays in society–which quickly got him thinking about the people who struggle to hear, or cannot at all. Around 5% of the global population, or 466 million people, are hearing impaired, and the World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, that number might rise to 10%. And while the design industry keeps churning out more headphones for people who can hear, Fischer noticed that disproportionately little design effort was extended for people who are deaf.
“As a designer, I wanted to change this,” Fischer says. He began to contemplate a hearing aid, crafted with cutting-edge technology and a strong design focus. That idea evolved into Incluse, a concept Fischer developed over the course of last year with input from hearing aid companies and technicians from German companies like Siemens. It’s one of the winners of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Students category.
Incluse looks more like an earring or a sleek Bluetooth attachment than a hearing aid: It’s a small cylinder, plated copper, gold, or silver, that hangs from the earlobe like a clip-on earring. A small, undetectable plastic tube extends into the ear to transmit sounds to the wearer. Fischer aims for the device to be able to connect to devices like smartphones and voice assistants, as the latest hearing devices do.
In developing Incluse, Fischer wanted to learn and source feedback directly from people who depend on hearing devices. He learned that of the 15 million people who are hearing-impaired in Germany, just 3 million use a device. “For many people, the main issue with hearing aids is the stigmatization,” Fischer says. In interviews with hearing-impaired people, he heard that many people tried to hide their hearing aids, or just opted not to use them. Fischer thought about glasses, and how they evolved from a similarly stigmatized aid for the visually impaired to the core of trendy businesses like Warby Parker. Couldn’t hearing aids follow a similar arc?
Fischer worked with the jewelry design program at University of Pforzheim, which has a long tradition in the industry, to design the body of Incluse. “Minimal design was the goal,” he says. “It’s very hard to create a piece of jewelry that everyone likes, so I went for a sleek and timeless design that could accommodate the technology.” For the tech component, Fisher is in talks with the development departments at different hearing aid companies, which have expressed interest in moving forward with his design.
While Fischer’s goal for now is to bring his design for Incluse to market through a collaboration with a hearing aid company, he eventually wants to create a streamlined retail experience around the device, complete with fashionable shops, personalized support, and a continually expanding range of designs.