Dr. Leah Heiss
Designer and Researcher
Dr. Leah Heiss
Designer and Researcher
Leah Heiss is a Melbourne based designer and RMIT researcher, through her work she brings a new perspective to the development of health technologies, designing beautifully crafted devices that people want to wear but also keeps them well and healthy.
Over the last 10 years, Leah has led the design for a number of innovative projects including a brooch that detects loneliness amongst elderly people, a ring that can administer insulin through the skin removing the need for needles, a necklace that can both monitor your heart rate and send the data to your doctors, and a hearing aid that decreases the stigma associated with hearing loss through it’s elegant and modern design.
Leah’s work meets at an interesting cross-section where art and design meet science and technology, because of this she works in a deeply collaborative environment working with experts such as electronic engineers, computer scientists, material scientists, hospital staff through to fashion designers, and textile experts.
The reason Leah’s work can be set apart from existing healthcare technologies is the emphasis she puts on empathising and understanding her end user. Taking a human-centred design approach, Leah sits down with her users listening to their stories and asking questions to better understand their lived experiences when it comes to their illness, their disabilities and their experience with current technologies. Whether it’s shame they feel when they have to duck to the bathroom to inject their insulin or the embarrassment they have because their hard of hearing at a young age. These personal stories play an important role in arriving at a final outcome that not only fulfils the medical and technical requirements but can also transform the users life, letting them live with greater ease.
What I find really interesting about the emotional bond that people have with their possessions is that there’s certain things that we cherish and love, things like wedding rings, bracelets, special trinkets … then we have other possessions that we have no strong connection to and there are often medical devices.
There is no doubt our childhood experiences make us who we are and influence what career path we choose as an adult. For Leah, she spent a period of her childhood growing up in Seattle USA where she watched her grandfather work as an orthopaedic shoe-man, designing beautiful shoes for people who had club feet, people who had been ill with polio or had one leg shorter than the other.
From the outside, the shoes looked like a typical pair of store-bought shoes, but concealed on the inside were complex orthopaedic inserts. Through his work, he helped people living with disabilities feel ’normal’ for a period of time.
We loved this story because there is an undeniable parallel between Leah’s grandfather’s work and her mission in the healthcare sector.
On the surface, Leah’s work could be described as ‘contemporary jewellery’, and this wouldn’t be wrong but there is more than meets the eye.
What appears to be a simple ring, necklace, brooch, earpiece, is really the final outcome to months of research, user engagement sessions, consulting with experts, rapid prototyping and ongoing iterations with leading nano-technology to refine the size, weight and mechanics enabling her team to be able to conceal a lifesaving drug within a small ring. The piece of jewellery and what it holds is the solution to a complex health problem and the hidden element to Leah’s work gives the power back to the wearer, letting them choose if they divulge its true primary purpose.
Leah is designing for the future of health technologies and what it means to be a patient and we look forward to watching from the sidelines to see what is next!
Photography by: Caspian Moore
Special thanks to: