If you have trouble with your hands—a category that encompasses a huge swath of the elderly—you basically have two options: spill food on yourself, or else use a sippy cup, strap a fork to your hand, and suction-cup your plate to the table. For aspiring product designer Shelly Ni, seeing a catalog of these "adaptive eating utensils," as they’re known, was a revelation. "It was very shocking to me," Ni says. "All of the products looked like they were for toddlers."
Add to that a cultural importance placed on something that’s impossible when a dish is stuck to the table: holding the bowl itself. "Growing up Chinese and growing up with Chinese culture, [holding a bowl] is just what you do," she says. Observing lunch at the Jackie Chan Center in San Francisco, she saw this play out with fork-spoon struggles, bowl-dropping, and a woman eating rice out of a thermos with an easy to grab handle. "She sort of hacked a bowl out of a thermos," says Ni.
Thanks to Ni and fellow designer and School of the Visual Arts grad student Gaïa Orain—Small Giants, as they call themselves—that woman should soon have a more appealing option. It’s called the Nautilus.
Act like you’re giving someone a handshake, and a curved lip that winds, nautilus-like, around the edge of the bowl fits snugly on the top of your hand.
Their concept was named a finalist for New York’s "Next Top Makers" contest, which will give them funding, mentorship, and an office for the summer. In September it will go up against the other finalists, that include high-tech bike bells and children’s toys.
"People are making fun of us because we’re going to be the granny specialists," says Orain, as they both start laughing ."Which is fine, old people are awesome," says Ni. "We think they’re awesome," says Orain.
The Nautilus design was originally developed from discussions both with potential bowl-users and with therapists, who emphasized the importance of a hand position that was neutral and comfortable. Ni got positive feedback from the 3-D printed prototype she made as a Stanford undergrad, back in 2010, but it needs some tweaking, according to Orain. "The rim needs to be thinner," she says. "It has to be universal grip, so left and right." Most importantly: It needs to be made of a material that’s food-safe, which isn’t yet possible with the 3-D printers available in the SVA’s "Visible Futures Lab" where the two have been working.
Ni and Orain will spend May and June 3-D printing bowls, and using those to cast ceramic, food-safe versions. By June they hope to be designing a version that could be mass produced, and they’re looking at both a cheaper option for institutions (likely from a food-safe plastic) as well as a more attractive option for use at home.
Regardless of how they fare in this competition, they see a continuing need for young designers to pay attention to the growing elderly population. "I think we’re really good at designing for ourselves," says Ni. "We tend to forget that there are other groups that are really important, and we need to look at their needs."
As for future ideas, Orain thinks that those assistive eating catalogs provide a wealth of opportunities.