Michael Graves in Medical Devices? Danger Will Robinson!

According to this article,

Michael Graves is looking into moving his brand of ID into the medical device and medical product world. Hmmm, I am not sure what I think about that. While Graves does have some interesting stuff, I have heard horrible things about the functionality and durability of his products for Target and other companies. That scares me a bit if the product is a defibrillator rather than a tea pot.

I design medical devices (among other things) for a living. And I can say without a doubt that designing a medical device, whether it be a wheelchair or a surgical laser, is a bit more complicated than designing a tea pot. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure a lot of thought goes into the design of Graves products but I feel like he is jumping into the deep end of the pool with one day of swimming lessons.

I have spent 8 years designing medical devices and I can say from experience that the process of design, validation, verification, testing, clinical trials, regulatory submission (should I go on?) is a difficult and lengthy one. There is a reason that eronomics and industrial design tend to fall (unfortuantely) by the wayside in medical device design. Designing a medical device is not easy! It takes years to design a device that if it was released into only the consumer world would take months. Its the nature of the beast and the regulatory system of the FDA.

Personally, I am happy its so hard to design a medical device. For one, it keeps me in business (ha, ha) and two, I would rather be operated on by a device that has had some serious work and regulation put into it. If your IPod fails on your way to work, big deal, buy a new one. If your artificial left ventrical fails, well, that is slightly more serious.

That said, there is definitely a trend in the medical device design world to move to more ergonomic and user friendly design. Medical devices that are pleasing to the eye are more likely to be used and less likely to terrify a patient, especially since more and more medical procedures are being done in outpatient clinics when the patient is not under general anesthesia. Personally, I am trying to be part of this trend and really move things forward from an industrial design point of view. My only advice to Mr. Graves is that he take full stock of what he is getting into before he makes that leap.

PS, to be fair to Mr. Graves, he handles himself very well in the interview. The interviewer seems to be egging him on to say that he is going to change the world of medical devices and he is very reluctant to make that type of statement. Cheers for showing humility and respecting the medical device design field…



I understand your concern, and you make a very valid point. I think Graves is going after the medical buisness not to expand his buisness or to be the next big thing in the medical field, but because he is handicaped himself. I think he has great passion for this and I think that will cause his products to be successful. This and the right people can do wonders (They have been hiring a lot lately). I have had the chance to work with these guys and they really are good at what they do.

I think it’s clear from the interview that he’s interested in infusing style and thoughtfulness into the simple, everyday stuff. Think OXO Good Grips.

There are three: bath safety equipment, mobility equipment, and aids to daily living.

Items like bath benches, handheld showers, tub rails, and portable bath benches for traveling that fold up with handles that can assist someone in getting balance. What currently exists is unattractive plastic seats and metal tubing.

We notice that while one person in the family uses [the device], everyone has to live with it, and there is no need for it to look terrible. We are trying to make ours look not like medical devices but furniture that is meant to help you.

I thought the same thing when I read, “medical device”. Then I read that article. Graves is going to design at the easy end.

I’ve never heard of becoming paralyzed due to an untreated sinus infection. I guess there was some truth to the high school health class warning that zits in the “death triangle” could kill you (my understanding was that the “death triangle” was comprised by the ends of the eye brows and the chin, or some such facial landmark).

Does the lengthy validation process for Medical Products account for no small amount of the high cost of goods in that industry? And does the same rigorous validation process effect where manufacturing is done? Can American designers always count on medical and defense-related industries staying stateside?


I can’t speak for the US, but most of the Canadian consultants I’ve talked to in the past two years have told me that they are doing far less medical projects than 5 years ago. Same for the expensive electronics (servers/computers). So, American’s can’t depend on the medical industry…the defense industry they certainly can. It’s probably the US’s greatest export-generating industry. Just look at this list:


Well I can say from experience that the medical device industry, at least in the Northeast US is still strong. I work for a company that just estabilished an office in the US (about 2 years ago) to take advantage of the US med device market. I have been there for nearly the entire two years and I can happily say that our business just keeps growing. That said, we are a full service product design consultancy, mechanical design, ID, electrical, software, etc, so I can’t speak for pure ID firms.

In terms of the validation process, you bet your sweet a$$ that is one of the reason the medical products are so expensive. Take a standard professional level video monitor, it sells for about $1500. Engineer the same monitor with the same guts and parts, validate it for medical use, do all the testing and regulatory work for the FDA requirements and it sells for about $3500! Nasty.

As for depending on markets, I don’t think any of us can depend on anything these days. The next 20 years we are all going to be working our a$$es off to keep America in business. Manufacturing is going to be gone, even medical device manufacturing is moving off-shore. Consumer products, forget it, they are already as good as gone. The only way we (the US) can stay on top is by being smarter and moving techology forward.

People were really scared when Japan started producing better electronics products faster back in the 1980’s. We had to step up the technology then, we did and we are still around to tell the tale. Now the Chinese and India are taking over manufacturing, we are going to have to step up again. Its kind of like economic evolution in my opinion. Except instead of the strongest surviving, its the smartest, most innovative and most aggressive that will survive. We, as a country, are going to have to move in that direction or get passed.

In my opinion the greatest US export is and always has been innovation, invention and the willingness to take risks…

Fearing offshore manufacturing is misguided–it’s the wrong question.

The healthcare industry desperately needs designers–there’s more than enough work to go around. The demand far outweighs the supply and there is a demographic and financial crisis that will force clinicians to do more with less. Usable technology is essential in filling this gap and designers are best suited to deliver that need.

If you’re in consumer or telecom, you should take a serious look at what you can offer in medical device design.

My meaning was not to sound like chicken little, or the oppressed designer who fears inexpensive overseas competition. I was, however, paraphrasing a former boss who ran a (little) design and (big) Engineering firm who thought the consumer products market was simply too cost-competitive, and his argument was that strict validation requirements would prevent offshoring of medical device design and manufacturing, and our love of blowing things up (and paying our cronies to rebuild) would keep defense stateside, too.

From a business standpoint, it would seem that the market for medical product design (at least when looking in the Northeast, where I’m headquartered) is glutted. Do you really feel that this is not the case?


Don’t fear outsourcing overseas, step up to the challenge of it. We just have to keep improving and being smarter.

In regard to any “glutted” market, there is always room for new and better design, no matter what the market status. Sometimes you just have to push harder than others.

I’d agree–most medical device manufacturers (and some hospitals) are just now realizing how badly they need design. It’s definitely accelerating.

Follow this link:

You’ll find an article and another link to a slideshow previewing some of the aforementioned medical products the Graves team has been working on.