It’s August, so I’m doing what I do every year and spending a couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Festival, seeing as many shows as I can manage. It’s rare to see much that says anything about technology or design, but this year I was blown away by a show that should be compulsory viewing for anyone concerned with product design. Even more surprising is the fact that it was a dance piece.
ME (Mobile/Evolution), written and performed by Claire Cunnigham is about crutches. Since a bicycle accident at the age of fourteen she has been using crutches. Four years ago she took up dance and since then has rapidly gained fame as a disabled performer. I should add that, having seen her, the adjective disabled seems utterly inappropriate, as what she manages to do far surpasses most people’s physical capabilities.
ME (Mobile/Evolution) consists of two pieces. In the first the stage is strewn with a variety of crutches that she has accumulated over the years, ranging from expensive made-to-measure ones, through found ones to everyday ones. Each has a memory. Equally importantly, each has a design flaw, which Claire explains. Her explanations aren’t negative – she just explains pragmatically what the limitations are.
She also explains her concerns as a user. It’s an object lesson in what a product designer ought to be thinking about. There is the revelation of how much a crutch users knows and thinks about surfaces, making us realise how much we take for granted in assuming that we will naturally cope with the transitions from concrete to cobble to wet paving slab. And the everyday questions of whether they let her wear platform heels or kiss a tall boyfriend.
As an eloquent expression of the sort of questions a designer ought to ask it was more compelling than any text or lecture I’ve come across. The second half of the performance (pictured) was one of the most beautiful pieces illustrating how a crutch need not be a hindrance, but can extend someone’s elegance.
If you’re in Edinburgh, go and see these pieces. If not, look to see if she’s performing anywhere near you. If you’re organising a conference on Usability, consider booking Claire to perform as part of it. In thirty minutes she can demonstrate more than you’ll learn from a year’s design course, transforming dry theory into something of beauty.