Is Michael Graves the James Dyson of Healthcare?

Michael Graves has noticed the deficit in understanding in the design of hospital rooms -- including layout, bathrooms, and even décor, and the tremendous need in assistive devices for patients.
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James Dyson came up with an idea for a better vacuum cleaner -- one that would not lose suction and would not require bags -- in the late 70s. It didn't get on to the market in the U.S. and U.K. for another 20 years. His eventual breakthrough in these markets came not because the entrenched players saw his idea and knew it was great but because he circumvented them with his own TV advertising campaign. Hoover and other manufacturers were scared to death of killing the lucrative vacuum cleaner bag market in the UK.

Shortsighted? Yes. A stymie to their own innovation? Yes. Did that stop Dyson? Thankfully, no. The rest is history. The Dyson vacuum cleaner is renowned, gorgeous, and held up as an example of what innovation and design is meant to be.

Michael Graves -- yes that one of Target fame -- may very well be the James Dyson of health care. I just hope we find someone (with money) to listen to him soon because he may not have the luxury of a couple of decades. It's not just his age -- he's a young 78 with a clear mind, tremendous management skills (he wants all of his employees to know everything he knows, so he has them ride in a wheelchair for a week and buys them all the same journals he reads), and a continued, unerring sense of design (he refuses to wear Velcro shoes). However, Graves was stricken with an infection of unknown origin, possibly bacterial meningitis, in 2003. It's a virus that "ate pieces of his spinal cord" according to CBS's Sunday Profiles with Charles Osgood. He now designs from a wheelchair.

And so, at an unspeakable cost to himself, Michael Graves' attention is now on health care.

I heard Graves speak Monday morning at the Saatchi and Saatchi Wellness hub of Social Media Week. He has come to health care, shown us what we have known about hospital rooms and assistive devices for decades, and reminded us that "smart people can sometimes be remarkably stupid". Thus far, he has noticed the deficit in understanding in the design of hospital rooms -- including layout, bathrooms, and even décor, and the tremendous need in assistive devices for patients. He has designed two new tables for use in patient rooms, which are being manufactured by Stryker Medical, a medical devices firm. These tables make sense for a patient's room. They take into account the need for patients to have two surfaces -- one for when the meal tray is brought in, the other for personal items -- a drawer that opens on both sides of the cart, a plastic drawer with a lid that the patient can take home with them, and an attached litter bin. These are all things that make tremendous sense, and seem so obvious now that they are there. He has added a deceptively simple pair of catches on the back of a hospital chair so that a sheet on the chair will actually stay put, and fewer sheets need to be washed because they fall on the floor. He has also designed a satchel with a retractable cane -- eliminating the need for someone with a cane to carry a separate bag. His firm has been awarded a project to design houses for the thousands of disabled Wounded Warriors returning from the wars.

He has also designed a few things that are not making it to market -- yet. The most interesting is something that he calls a rollator -- a walker with an easily flipped two-way seat and ergonomic handles. He has also designed a reacher that extends a person's reach so they can grasp things from the floor or from a shelf. These things are not being developed because manufacturers "were cutting corners, and we were making the corners smooth", according to Graves. Graves is very interested in finding a manufacturing and distribution partner that is "simpatico about design" to bring better healthcare, including home healthcare, products to patients. He has designs for medication management, aids for daily living, mobility products, bathroom safety, furniture, and home safety products. After seeing the hospital room table - and I know it's only a table but you have to see this table! -- I want to see them all.

On March 24, 2012, Michael Graves will be presented the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. Let this also be the year that Michael Graves' Design Group (MGDG) is given the opportunity -- via a big industry partnership, or a VC funded startup, or a smart hospital -- to leave an indelible mark on design for patients.

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