News

December 9, 2008

The Jane Goodall of Design

Kat Darula ’95 uses an anthropologist’s approach to improve people’s lives

by Kate Helm
Kat Darula ’95 knew she was in the right job when she began working on the “resuscitation bay of the future,” a project to give surgeons more time as they work to keep patients alive.

“We literally had to stand there and watch 13 surgeons decide in seven minutes how to save someone’s life,” says Darula, director of design research at XIMEDICA, which specializes in the design, development, and supply of innovative new medical devices. “It was about things like creating a new medical device that will give a surgeon three more seconds to save someone’s life rather than spending those seconds trying to find the button to turn the equipment on. We created a simple storage system where doctors couldn’t miss where something was. It adds up.”

Darula is charged with getting to know the consumer or user of the products or environment that her firm is preparing to create. Her design background gives her an added dimension as a researcher.

“It’s about being able to offer observations for design solutions that will enhance someone’s life or improve the outcomes of what they’re supposed to do rather than create a pretty chair,” she explains. “You get into a certain part of your career where you hope you’re impacting people and really understand what that means rather than just making stuff. It’s always challenging me to look at common things in uncommon ways and try to make them tangible design solutions.”

Another recent project involved replacing the system containing vital equipment on the back of a power wheelchair for Kyle Page, a vent-dependent teenager with no voluntary mobility or motor skills other than facial expressions. Page controlled the joystick to move his wheelchair with his tongue. But the steel tray containing the equipment – including a ventilator, oxygen tank, and multiple electrical and computer systems – jutted out so far behind the wheelchair that it often hit walls, collided with others, and got stuck in small spaces. Working with Page’s caregivers and using his input, the designers substituted parts, materials, and connections that worked much better for Page.

Early in her career, it seemed like Darula had dream jobs as an art director at Calvin Klein Incorporated and later as a product designer for Martha Stewart Omnimedia. But when her father began to have knee and hip problems, she had a career epiphany.

“He wasn’t able to find a lot of products that would help him in everyday living,” she says. “I became more conscious of what I was doing. I realized that Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein are distributing to millions of people, but I didn’t know one person who was using a product I made. I didn’t even know where it was going. Why design another chair when there are so many problems that need solutions?”

She left Martha Stewart in 2003 to co-found Multi, Design for People LLC in Providence, R.I. The firm took a “people-first” approach in using consumer insights and values to create tangible design solutions. She worked on an island-wide initiative in St. John, United States Virgin Islands, to accommodate disabled and elderly tourists. The design team gained insights by accompanying four volunteer travelers on a seven-day St. John vacation.

Although she loved having her own business, Darula wanted the opportunity to use her innovative design approach on a larger scale. In an instance of perfect timing, she met the cofounders of Item Group, owner of XIMEDICA, at an awards ceremony where both were accepting honors for their respective companies.

“We do a lot of primary research and observation and bring that information back to the design team,” she says. “We’re sort of like Jane Goodall; we do a lot of ethnographic work like living with someone for seven days and observing how that person takes medications. The user experience sets the stage for good design. What we’re finding is a lot of medical companies don’t have that knowledge of their consumers or users. I can translate research into something that’s design-related, which is something you don’t normally find in a researcher.”

Darula also is an adjunct professor at Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her master’s in industrial design in 2003. Teaching, she says, gives her the opportunity to help students see design in a new way. She invites Lafayette students interested in design to contact her, katd@item.npd.com.

“I had amazing teachers and professors all the way through school who gave me a new way to look at something,” she says. “When I went to Lafayette, I wanted to be an engineer and build bridges. Lew Minter, director of the art department media lab, saw through that – I wanted to be a commercial designer. I wanted to have the chance to do that for other students because it’s so easy to get lost in the world of design. It can actually mean something. It’s about really knowing what your process is, what your passion is, and having a place to express it. Also, making sure you’re helping people because in the long run, that’s what gives you true meaning. You make the world a little better, the planet a little healthier.”

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