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Designers have been applying inclusive design principles to everyday products for decades, elevating humble objects like can openers and vegetable peelers by making them easier to grasp and operate for those with physical limitations. But products that are meant to be accessible—assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, and commodes—have been largely left to medical-device makers, which simply follow the tracks of previous designs.
In February, Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D) launched a groundbreaking line of affordable, beautiful, and highly usable accessibility products for CVS, available online and in more than 6,000 stores, and starting at just $40. The brainchild of MGA&D chief design officer Rob Van Varick (who approached CVS with the idea), the line includes a portable anodized aluminum cane, a commode so stylish it could fit in a living room, and a walker with a single column front inspired by bicycles.
Each item has been designed for improved function: The foldable travel cane can unfurl with the simple flick of a wrist, the walker is lighter and more maneuverable than standard models, and the commode converts into an adjustable chair. (“Who ever thought you’d look at a commode and think, ‘That looks cool’?” says Van Varick.) But the objects’ improved aesthetics are just as meaningful to patients as the functionality. In almost every part of our lives, “we can pick things, design-wise, that suit our needs, tastes, and desires,” says Van Varick. “In healthcare, there [was] no choice.”
CVS reports that sales of the supportive care line are exceeding expectations (the folding cane is the most popular); the pieces have even made the rounds on social media following a partnership with actress Selma Blair, who has multiple sclerosis.
The design challenge was a deeply personal one for Van Varick. After joining MGA&D in 2003, he was mentored by a wheelchair-bound Michael Graves; the architect and design legend was paralyzed from the waist down for the last 12 years of his life due to a spinal-cord infection and passed away in 2015. “He [was] at the office every day looking over my shoulder,” says Van Varick, reminding his mentee of the importance of inclusive design. Today, Van Varick does the same for the young entrepreneurs he teaches as a lecturer at Princeton: “I tell them, ‘We’re not looking for the next million-dollar idea; we’re looking for the next million-people idea,'” he says.