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Graham Pullin – Disability-related design

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Designer and academic Graham Pullin’s latest project is a collaboration with wearers of prosthetic hands, exploring how everyday materials might better reflect people’s attitudes towards their disability – and how a choice of materials could give a greater sense of ownership.

Before moving to Dundee, Graham was a studio head at international design consultancy IDEO. Here he led a multidisciplinary team designing the Simply mobile phone for people in their 50s, but also Social Mobiles that used design to critically reflect on how anti-social mobile phones can make us, as well as creating many other products and services.

Yet Graham’s first awareness of design came “only after I had studied and was practicing as an engineer”. “The Design Council and newly-founded Design Museum played a big role in my being able to learn about a field that no-one had told me about at school.” Further studies at the Royal College of Art “felt like coming home”.

Graham’s work explores the many relationships between disability and design, from hearing aids to communication devices. And while involving the people who products or services are designed for in their design is “good practice in any area”, he stresses that “in disability-related design it’s also a political issue”. “’Nothing about us without us’ is a principle of disability rights,” he adds.

So the Hands of X project starts with an equal partnership between wearers, designers, makers and other researchers. The ‘X’ refers to both the material and the person: Hand of what? Hand of whom?


Graham with Corinne Hutton from Finding Your Feet

“It challenges the polarisation between cosmetic hands that attempt to replicate human skin (ours don’t) and sensational cyborg robotic hands,” he says. “Hands of X is more nuanced, and draws on a deeper culture of materials worn and handled, which feels appropriate given that disability is part of the fabric of our everyday lives,” Graham adds.

“Our first Spring Summer 18 collection features a materials palette including woods like beech and cedar, cellulose acetate (that spectacle frames are made of) in tortoiseshell and plain colours, leathers, stainless steels and felted wools: familiar, everyday materials, in their own way both beautiful yet unremarkable.”

A prototype in-store service for browsing, trying on and picking materials has been staged in Cubitts eyewear shop in London and in a makerspace in Glasgow.

However, despite his interest in this area he is anxious to blur boundaries. “This is really important: that disability-related design needs designers who are not specialists and will never be, yet bring other skills and sensibilities to the table instead,” Graham says. “Otherwise design for disabled people will remain marginalised – and mediocre, which can be the most offensive thing of all,” something he explores further in his book Design Meets Disability.


Graham speaks as part of a Microsoft film on inclusive design

“Whilst design can and should reflect our values, sometimes it can make a contribution to changing them,” he adds. “It’s said of architecture that we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. I think the same is true of any design.”

Graham’s passion and creativity – and his thoughtful, open approach to issues of disability-related design – make him a very welcome addition to V&A Dundee’s Design Champions.

To find out more, please visit the Hands of X website

(Top image courtesy of Andrew Cook.)

The V&A Dundee Design Champions are inspirational designers creating high-quality work and helping to enhance people’s lives, or champions of the power of design to improve the world.

We will announce one Design Champion a week until the museum opens in 2018.

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V&A Dundee's Design Champions project is working with Dezeen as its media partner.

Dezeen is the world’s most popular and influential architecture and design magazine, with an audience of 2.5 million unique visitors each month.