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Interview with Fred Held

20 years of medical design: reason enough to celebrate. We met Fred Held at the Held + Team office in Hamburg, where he spoke openly about the difficulties of medical technology, capitalism and why all surgical devices have black handles.

What makes Held + Team different to other design studios?

I could talk about that for a long time, but to keep it short: We try to be different to other design studios. One main difference is our focus on medical design. Working this market more or less alone -- we don’t have a lot of competition - is far from unpleasant. If you do that for 20 years and for many different companies, it really helps a lot in day-to-day business. You no longer have to justify your every move. And we really enjoy working in this field; it’s still a lot of fun.

Why do medical devices need to be designed in the first place?

That is a very general, provocative question. Oddly enough, it’s asked quite often. You don’t really need a designer in any industry, do you? Somehow things work out without design. In medical technology, a designer serves the same purpose as in most industries. Making products understandable and easy to use: think usability. Differentiating between different products: think branding. Making products appear to be high in quality: think price setting. Finally, producing aesthetic products: think design quality. Finally, I’d say that a designer is responsible for any number of product components that are anything but unimportant. Maybe the word “design” simply no longer quite describes the demands made on us in today’s world.

How did you end up in the field of medical design?

You could say it almost, but not quite, fell into my lap. Medical design was somewhat unusual in the 1990s, especially as far as instruments and specialized medical-technical products were concerned.

At that time, I was working in an agency for brand development and packaging design. To expand their portfolio, I tried to set up a new department for industrial design. In 1994, I acquired Olympus, which, besides cameras, also works in the field of endoscopy. So two fields came together – brand development and industrial design for technical products. I quickly found out how exciting this field can be. At the same time, I realized how much brand development was still needed.

In medical technology, it is almost always new types of products that are designed. Ninety percent of the time, a new product is developed when it’s innovative and reflects an advancement in technology. As far as I was concerned, this seemed then (and still does) more ethical than putting new products onto the market every few years just for the sake of having something new.

The sense of security that comes with medical technology also played a role in the decision. Indeed, we have yet to be affected by a single economic downturn: firstly, because medicine is less dependent on the state of the economy, but also because every development in medical technology takes at least three years, and usually up to five years, until the product is launched. In other words: What I design today won’t appear on the market for at least four or five years.

Is the long development cycle a result of the strict requirements that have to be met before a product is approved?

Yes. It always used to be about two years, I don’t remember it ever being much faster than that. But now the regulatory process alone takes two to three years. And the path leading up to it has also become more complicated. By comparison: User tests are not mandatory in the consumer goods sector. They can be done, but they don’t have to be. In the field of medical technology, however, evaluations must be made and proof of validation provided during product development. And if this is done on a global scale, it can quickly take many months.

What is difficult about designing medical technology?

The many restrictions and limitations tend to make life difficult. Here’s one example: black handles on surgical instruments. The color was not selected by chance, it is not just because we find black so beautiful. It’s because it’s the only color that can be used for plastic that is steam-sterilized. The fact that stainless steel is used for instruments is certainly aesthetic from a design point of view, but it’s also the only metal that’s affordable and able to withstand the processes. It used to be chrome-plated brass, but today it’s stainless steel. This more or less predefines the color and the surface material.

Sure, not the shape, but the form is also dictated to a significant degree by the technological processes that are possible. Juggling all these restrictions to design an aesthetically pleasing product in the end, despite all the hurdles, is an exciting challenge.

As an industrial designer looking to work in this sector, what do I have to know about medical technology?

Nothing. Everyone starts with little to no knowledge. My rule of thumb is one to two years until a new colleague can really work independently on a project. The procedures used in the operating room, in intensive care or in a doctor’s office are all very different from one another and you have to familiarize yourself with these different work environments. And to make matters even more complicated, there are significant regional differences – from country to country and from continent to continent.  

An understanding for technology is very important; a healthy dose of curiosity and the ability to put yourself into the user’s situation should also be part of the package. And patience. Lots of patience. You often have to repeat processes again and again, to the point when an outsider might say: Another test? This is starting to get ridiculous. But we do this to prevent accidents from happening in the daily clinical workplace, and it’s better by far to do one test too many than one too few. And by the way, it would probably wouldn't hurt for some consumer goods to be subjected to a process like this.

What is the secret of your success?

Of course, our top priority is to be a good service provider. But first and foremost, we also try to give a company’s products an appearance that is coherent with the brand. To do this, we have developed a detailed methodology over the years that involves not only writing up comprehensive guidelines, but also the process by which design has to be anchored in the company in order to be integrated successfully. I really do believe that this course of action, over the years, contributes to the success of a company. This common visual identity over time works quite well, and customers think so, too.

When I look back on the past 20 years, there has been a lot of sunshine and very little bad weather – not like the weather in Hamburg. That is largely because our customers have remained loyal, and we have grown right along with them. At the moment, we have lots and lots of work. That’s not always the way you want to be, but there are worse problems, that’s for sure. One of the big issues we are currently dealing with is how to find new employees; it used to be easier than it is today.

Would you also hire job applicants from other countries?

Theoretically yes. We have a Japanese woman working for us. But up to now, not many foreigners have applied.

What do you look for in an employee?

Someone without an inflated ego. There is no room here for people who think they are the greatest. People who are willing to cooperate. In other words, people who can sometimes take a back seat and do some of the leg work for other colleagues without getting offended. Design is created in evolutionary steps and by finding compromises, at least in our sector.

You get that when many different professions work together and achieve good results – in terms of form, function, ergonomics, producibility and, last but not least, costs. Self-serving egotists are the last people you need. An employee should be hard-working, but we don’t usually do overtime. They should also have good English language skills, because a lot of our work is done on an international scale.

What does design have to do with ethics?

I think that as long as capitalism still functions like it does today, we will be the last people who will be able to put a halt to our disposable lifestyle and the culture of rock-bottom prices. The designer who says to his client: “I won’t design that because the world doesn't need another new water-bottle design,” well, that’s just ridiculous. That’s a problem that has to be solved at a political level, not by design.
A designer might be able to make somewhat of an impact by using a better material or by using less material, but I believe the real problem is the superabundance available to us and the throw-away society. And medical technology is right out in front there, as disposable articles are being used in this sector to an ever-increasing extent.

How do the next ten years look?

Good, I hope. We are optimistic.