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Listen up: hearing aid takes out top design award

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"There has always been a stigma attached to hearing loss," designer Leah Heiss recalls a hearing aid user saying. "If you don't understand what someone else is saying, you could be deaf or stupid and, likely, dread of dreads, old."

People often wait 10 years before using a hearing aid.

The Facett hearing aid has won top prize in the 2018 Good Design awards.

Photo: Matt Harvey

"For some it's about the hospital beige colour, others it's the fiddliness of batteries, others it's the stigma of looking old," Heiss says.

Too much vanity and too little dexterity can have serious consequences.

Nielsen Design's pedestrian traffic light button.

Photo: Supplied

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"The visual cortex starts to annex the auditory cortex if it's not activated," she says. "Research suggests that if you don't use it, you lose it."

Faced with these challenges, Heiss designed Facett, a hearing aid that looks like jewelled minerals. Instead of needing tiny replaceable batteries, Facett is rechargeable and snaps together with magnets.

"The role of design shifts hearing aids from disability to desirability," Heiss says.

Listening to people and designing the product around their needs won Facett the 2018 Good Design awards top prize in Sydney this week. Heiss and her client, hearing aids supplier Blamey Saunders hears, shared the top prize with the Queensland government's Human-Centred Design initiative.

The Facett hearing aid is rechargeable and snaps together with magnets.

Photo: Matt Harvey

The wins are emblematic of how much design has changed since the awards were established 60 years ago, says Brandon Gien, chief executive of Good Design Australia. "Sixty years ago design was very much related to product and industrial design. Over the last 10 to 15 years design has got into service-, strategic- and systems-design thinking."

The Queensland government has taken a user-centred design approach to help problem-solve at every department level, not just those that are design-related.

"Any project – whether product, service or piece of architecture – should be human-centred and have that deep level of empathy," Gien says. "We need to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of the user, to live and breathe what the user is going to experience to truly understand at a deep level how the user is going to interact and use the product or service. That is the essence of human-centred design."

Haven't designers always considered the user?

"We used to call it research," says Ian Wong, senior lecturer in industrial design at Monash University and curator of an accompanying retrospective exhibition – 60 Years of Good Design – being held in Sydney. "But responsibility has shifted from needing a broad understanding of 30 different things to making human-centred design a vital skill. To be internationally competitive today we need to be, and are, experts at user-centred design."

The information age has delivered even more data to designers, but information alone can't replace talking to a person, Heiss says. "Data can frame the problem, but not give you the emotional insight."

Among the 60 past award winners in the retrospective is Nielsen Design's pedestrian traffic light button.

"Unchanged for more than 30 years, it gives greater confidence to pedestrians with vision, hearing and physical impairments to move about independently," Wong says.

Another classic design is Robert Pataki and Phillip Slattery's Britax Safe-n-Sound baby capsule. "The engineers' approach would be to save the baby, lock it in and everything stays in the car," says Wong. "But a user-centred notion says 'wouldn't it be great if you could just unclip the whole thing, not wake the baby? We're going to work out a way to clip this in, make it good for the user but also make it prevent injury.'''

The Safe-n-Sound capsule illustrates how designers incrementally improve a product. Britax's latest incarnation, Graphene, is designed for small cars and growing children. It can be peeled from the inside, adapting as children grow.

As design itself continues to mature, Gien hopes Queensland's human-centred design approach will encourage other governments to follow suit, particularly at a federal level.

"When the awards were established in 1958, the Industrial Design Council [which ran the awards] was funded by the federal government," Gien says. "It was centred round promoting design to Australian business to be internationally competitive. The sad part is that 60 years on, the federal government doesn't get it. We don't see the Prime Minister spruiking design. We have a Minister for Innovation but the next frontier is having a [ministry] for design that looks holistically at everything government does from a design point of view."

The Good Design Showcase Exhibition, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay, Sydney, May 25-27; good-design.org.

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