Customized design in a time of fluid identities
When Aimee Mullins was 16, she was given a new pair of lower legs. Made from woven carbon fibre, they were lighter and stronger than the wood-plastic compound prostheses she had worn until then, as well as being easier to put on, less painful to wear and less likely to fall off. So far so good – except that those legs were designed to be worn by both men and women, and coated in a thick foam that came in just two colours: one named ‘caucasian’; the other ‘not caucasian’.
That was in 1992, and Mullins now has many more legs to choose from. Among them are four pairs of silicon-covered prostheses, each one specially designed to suit her. One pair is fitted with flat feet and the other three with feet shaped to fit shoes with two, three and four-inch heels respectively. Not that she will need them for much longer as her newest legs are equipped with adjustable ankles. For hiking, Mullins wears carbon fibre Vertical Shock Pylon (VSP) limbs fitted with shock absorbers; and for swimming, she dons a pair of old carbon fibre vsps with holes drilled into the sockets to allow water to drain through – and these are just the prostheses she has to choose from at home in New York. Other legs designed especially for Mullins, including the transparent polyurethane ones she wore in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002), are conserved in archives.
Having so wide a choice of lower limbs has helped Mullins to build a career as an actor, model, athlete and activist, but most of them only exist because of the time and energy she invested in their design and in convincing the prosthetists, biomechatronic engineers, designers, cosmeticians and artists with whom she has collaborated to do the same. Had Mullins accepted the standardized legs she was offered – which was her only option when presented with ‘caucasian’ or ‘not caucasian’ – her life would have been very different. By immersing herself in design, Mullins has secured her right to wider and better choices, empowering not only herself but the millions of other people whose prostheses have been better designed to meet their own needs and desires.
Choice will be a defining element of design in the future. As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly complex and nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of our lives, just as Mullins has done. We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so. If design is to respond to our needs and wants, it must find new ways of delivering the choices we crave, even though this will demand radical shifts in design practice.
Up until now, many of the most important design innovations have restricted choice, whether in the way they were made or how they were used. Not that choice was deemed undesirable – quite the contrary – but it was often considered dispensable in the interests of other qualities such as efficiency, speed, economy, convenience and inclusivity, which is why standardization has loomed so large in design history.
As long ago as the third century BCE, a decisive factor in the success of Ying Zheng, the teenage king of Qin – an obscure Asian state – in defeating his richer, more powerful neighbours to found the mighty Chinese empire, was the standardized design of his weaponry. At the time, weapons were made by hand to different specifications. Ying insisted that all of his army’s spears, axes, daggers and arrows were designed to identical templates, all devised to be as deadly as possible. Until then, if archers ran out of arrows, they could not fire their comrades’ arrows from their bows. Ensuring that they were interchangeable solved this problem, and Ying’s formidably efficient army won battle after battle. Similar design principles were applied in the workshop of the French gunsmith Honoré Blanc in the late 18th century. When Thomas Jefferson visited it as a young us diplomat, he was so impressed that he submitted a report that urged newly built factories in the us to adopt the same system.
First published in Issue 176