MICHAEL O’BRIEN AND A DOLPHIN
It has been less than a decade since Michael O’Brien graduated from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). In that time, he has used his energies and talents to design an impressive range of products that manage to be elegant, innovative, prize-winning and sustainably produced. He takes designing for good very seriously indeed, focusing on the healthcare needs of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet: premature babies in developing countries.
I was born, raised and educated in Sydney, Australia. It was, considered by most standards, a fairly privileged upbringing and schooling. But I had always been interested in spending a year abroad after finishing high school, preferably in Latin America. So I enrolled in a volunteer program which placed me where there was a need – teaching English in a municipal school in Paraguay. I spent a year living with a host family in an outer suburb of the border town of Cuidad del Este, a very underprivileged neighbourhood. My hosts owned the local pharmacy, so I lived above the local newsagent, gym and telephone cabina.
I spent a lot of time on the street in front of these shopfronts – the local hangout – speaking to people with very different and diverse backgrounds compared to the average Sydney-sider I knew. I was exposed to a range of different opinions about the world. And I met some very happy people, some sad people and witnessed abject poverty. You could say that that year was both informative and formative.
After this trip, I returned to Sydney and studied a BA of Industrial Design and International Studies at UTS. During my degree I was able to take time for two international exchanges – one in Mexico City and the other in Barcelona. I also participated in a final year subject that involved a school building project in Cambodia. All those overseas stints gave me an appreciation of the different problems faced by different cultures with varying wealth and freedom. As a designer, I am influenced by the design processes and different approaches to problem solving that this involves.
In 2011, I met some of the staff of an organisation called Medical Technology Transfer and Services (MTTS) at a bio-medical engineering conference in Darwin. MTTS is a Vietnamese medical equipment manufacturer. They design their own equipment specifically for low-cost production, to be supplied to NGOs or philanthropic foundations who then donate the equipment to hospitals around the developing world. Anyway, MTTS became interested in my work and, I guess, in my design ethos. They offered me a job on the spot, and a few months later I moved to Vietnam.
I worked for MTTS in a full-time capacity and, along with a small group of engineers, redesigned a breathing machine, a CPAP that they already distributed. The Dolphin CPAP was and is the product of that team of electrical and bio-medical engineers, and not my invention. As I was their only industrial designer, by default I became the head designer shaping the product and seeing it through from concept to the production of the first functioning units. (For more about the Dolphin CPAP see the case study in Ligature Journal Issue 2.)
The concept of ‘Design for Good’ is one that I embrace, and one that I largely subscribe to when designing. However, it is a concept that is laden with a bunch of special clauses and conditions. Firstly, any definition of ‘good’ in this context is flexible and open to interpretation, just as ‘common sense’ is not necessarily ‘common’ to everyone. Secondly, designing something to be universally ‘good’ is quite a challenge and is often compromised by the choices we have to make during the process.
For instance, traditionally, in development, something that is ‘good’ for the economic empowerment of a society is probably detrimental in some way for the environment. In the same way it can be tricky to find that balance when designing for good. It is not possible to design a contextually appropriate solution to a problem that satisfies my values, and not make compromises between costs, quality, time, and ethical and environmental constraints.
If I had to categorise my personal approach to designing for good, I would say that it is the intention of my overall design practice to explore democratic design, sustainable design, humanitarian design and design for global health.
I don’t presume that every one of my projects fulfils the criteria for all these categories, but these are the areas where I hope to contribute the most with my work. As to why it is important to me, my motivation to do ‘meaningful’ work that affects people in a positive way comes from simply enjoying this type of work, mixed with a healthy dash of privileged guilt!
On a less personal level, I believe designers have a moral obligation to NOT flood the market with products that are unnecessary, but instead to curb consumer behaviour by offering an alternative to the thoughtless plastic junk that crowds the shelves in most stores. Sustainable design is very important in today’s culture of mass consumption, mass production, over-population and thoughtless depletion of natural resources. We must think carefully about how we design products to use materials sustainably, and re-use materials where possible. The onus is on every consumer, policy maker, designer and manufacturer to consider sustainable use of materials. As a side benefit, I have found using recycled materials often leads to more innovative solutions, more affordable production, and a more intriguing aesthetic.