Q&A: Designer Stuart Karten

The IDEA award winner talks about health care's growing recognition of design and the form vs. function challenge of medical devices

Stuart Karten and his small design team have dabbled in DNA analyzers and Bluetooth headsets, untangled problems with Belkin computer cable aesthetics, and helped companies like Adidas, Mitsubishi, and Du Pont (DD) overhaul their products and image. But even before founding Stuart, his eponymous firm, in 1984, Karten had made a name designing medical products.

After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, Karten got a job at Mattel MAT. But he soon traded Barbies for bone-piercing needles, taking a position in the disposable medical products division at Baxter (BAX). Based in Los Angeles, Stuart Karten Design doesn't only take on medical projects, but that is a strength. Of the seven Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) the firm has won, two are for medical products, and Karten has been heralded as a leader in the medical product industry by Medical Device and Diagnostics Industry magazine, which named him one of 100 notable people in the medical device industry.

BusinessWeek.com's Kurt Soller spoke with Karten about what makes a good medical product and what's approaching in the industry. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

What was the first medical product you designed?

It was a bone marrow biopsy needle for Baxter. The original device was metal and meant to be reused. With the implementation of sterilization techniques, all medical products like this had to be converted to one-time use. [The previous designers] just took the same design and made it in plastic. Nobody had actually looked at how the device was used.

When I started researching, I found that doctors would actually wad up cotton pads into their hand to prevent themselves from getting hurt as they pressed this thing into the bone. I started looking at the form factor and the forces at work and redesigned it to be safer and easier for the doctor to use.

Do you approach the design of a medical product differently than you would a product for a client such as Zyliss or Kawasaki?

I would say it's primarily about function vs. aesthetics, or styling. Classic "form follows function" really applies when you're looking at medical products because usability is the primary concern. You're looking at who the users are and if there are any undiscovered users who hadn't been considered previously.

How do you balance the different needs of the doctor and the patient?

First, you want to address the functionality as it relates to what the device does; then you want to look at how much you can affect from a patient's perspective. For example, with the bone biopsy needle, I couldn't make it any less painful for the patient; but in a way I could, because I made it easier for the doctor to use and he didn't have to apply the same kind of forces, and he was less stressed.

Are there times when you can directly affect the patient?

We recently worked on a breast biopsy system, used in clinics treating women with possible breast cancer. You go into the clinics and, of course, they've made [the lobby] really comfortable from an interior design viewpoint. But the procedure room looks like Dr. Frankenstein's lab.

We looked at the device and said, "O.K., of course, it needs to do what it needs to do, but can the form of it, the color of it be softened so it looks less threatening?"

And what about these "undiscovered users" you mentioned earlier? How do they factor in?

For example, we're working on a line of infant ventilators which is used in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This thing is basically breathing for your baby. Now, the parents are actually spending a lot of time in the NICU. And we found that they want to know that the machine is doing what it's supposed to be doing and that it's functioning properly. We gave it a sentinel form that seems to be embracing [the baby] and a green, pulsing light that lets you know that the device is in operation.

How do you determine all those different users' needs?

We interview people. We observe what's happening in the environment and who is there. If an engineer were to design a product like [the ventilator], he's just thinking, "Well, somebody has to program it and it needs to deliver the air." Once you get into the environment and start looking at how the device is being used and talk to all the people that come in contact with it, then you begin to find other ways of driving home what the product should be.

After the initial research, we begin to visualize the product in sketches that help us work out the core functions. We're going through a high volume of sketches to explore the options. We look at it from mild to wild—what would be the obvious? What would be the craziest? And then we begin to mix and match and hone down to a series of ideas to present to the client. Then we narrow it even further and go back out into the field to validate the design—talk to more parents, nurses, and, in this case, respiratory therapists.

How much do you get involved with the engineering?

That is typically what our client brings to us. For example, we have a client that's making an outdoor, public defibrillator. We're not doing the electronics of how to deliver shock. But it's up to us to package the core technology and give it a form factor that's going to be successful in the marketplace, give the client an edge, and help build the brand.

So what makes a successful defibrillator?

What we realized is the actual frequency of use is really low, but when you have to use one, your adrenaline is pumping and you're in a very highly charged state. So the ability to educate prior to use is important, and in this case we're designing a public defibrillator, so we're thinking about it like a public health service announcement.

There's tremendous fear on most people's part that something could potentially go wrong. So we've made it an informational kiosk so people can see it while relaxed and understand how to use it. We have icons, graphics, and pictures along with four steps. We wanted minimal steps so somebody doesn't get overwhelmed. Hopefully, we'd give them more confidence [through this design] to use it in an emergency situation.

Is this attention to design rare in the medical device industry?

In the past, if it worked and it was functional and it looked O.K., then that was good enough. More people in the medical field now recognize the value that design can bring to a medical product, and, as a result, there are more people engaging with us to help them drive innovation and get a competitive edge.

What's behind that shift?

One of the primary uses of design in the medical field is to address ergonomics and function. Typically, [the makers of] medical instruments haven't been that concerned with appearance. But, after ergonomics became a standard consideration, the next level, or way to stand out against competition, is to address appearance and aesthetics. That said, you can't just have a nicely styled device—function is first.

As a designer working in the medical industry, what do you see as the remaining hurdles?

Even though companies recognize the need for industrial design, they need to invest in [design] research and address not only…the needs of the doctor but also the physical and emotional needs of the patients.

Also, products are now being driven into the home and more people are being asked to deal with their own medical needs. So you're going to be forced to get the patient more involved in using the product.

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