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Product Design alum talks disability and design

GE Healthcare’s Venue Fit Ultrasound System in action. A sonographer uses an ultrasound probe to scan a patient’s arm in preparation for an injection.

GE Healthcare’s Venue Fit Ultrasound System in action. A sonographer uses an ultrasound probe to scan a patient’s arm in preparation for an injection. Designed by: Emily Siira and GE Healthcare Global Design Team

Emily Siira ’17 (Industrial Design) started her education in mechanical engineering, but discovered industrial design (also known as product design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) unexpectedly through a journey of disability as a young adult. Now a successful designer working with medical equipment, Siira is deeply involved with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), and was recognized in 2022 through their 20/2X program.

“Industrial design is what I thought mechanical engineering was going to be,” explains Siira. “I always wanted to make things and come up with ideas to solve problems. That’s what industrial design is.” Halfway through her engineering education, Siira suddenly started having strokes as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition. “I became a patient, I became disabled, and the related challenges are what sparked a desire to pursue human-centered innovation,” she says.

After spending a significant amount of time in hospitals, Siira wanted to use her insight to improve the patient experience through her career as a designer. After discovering industrial design, her career plans clicked. “I had always been creative and I missed that,” she says. Knowledge of human factors from the medical setting led Siira to her dream job at GE HealthCare right after graduation. After working at GE HealthCare, Siira transitioned to Milwaukee Tool, where she got hands-on experience designing power tools with ergonomics in mind. In January 2023, she started working at Delve, a design consultancy that specializes in medical equipment. “In a consultancy, there’s more opportunity for front-end innovation; learning by observation, brainstorming, exploration, trial and error, that kind of stuff,” she says of her new position as Senior Industrial Designer at Delve. “Those are two things I wanted to get back to in my career: medical design and hands-on problem solving.”

Milwaukee Tool’s lineup of lighting products, which range from tall overhead lights to handheld flashlights. The product family is posed inside a building under construction.

Milwaukee Tool’s lineup of lighting products, which range from tall overhead lights to handheld flashlights. The product family is posed inside a building under construction. Designed by: Milwaukee Tool Industrial Design Team

Siira also advocates for involving people with disabilities at every stage of the design process. “Don’t just design for us, design with us,” she says. “Involve us in research, problem discovery, and evaluation of ideas and prototypes in usability studies.” As part of her involvement with IDSA, Siira serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, and as chair of the IDSA Disability Section, which she and several other colleagues with disabilities recently established. “One of our primary goals is to start discussions about disability within the design industry. People affected by disability comprise nearly a quarter of the global population, yet this demographic is often overlooked in design processes. This needs to change,” she says.

In 2022, Siira and her colleagues who started the disability section were honored by IDSA for their work. As part of the organization, she contributes to DEI efforts and disability advocacy by sharing her story as a speaker, organizing events, allocating funds, and facilitating opportunities for inclusion and involvement of anyone interested in design. Siira notes that many of the events and professional development opportunities hosted through IDSA are open to students, whether or not they are members of the association.

Siira urges current MIAD students to keep their portfolios at the forefront of their minds. “Always be thinking about your portfolio and always document your process; employers want to see how you think and arrive at a solution,” she says. Siira also offers encouragement to potential design students, saying that well-roundedness is an important part of any design career. “It’s okay if you’re not amazing at every single design skill. Everyone has different strengths which can be developed – that’s part of going to design school!” She particularly appreciated her instructors during her time at MIAD: “As someone with disabilities, I may not have been able to succeed in my education at any other school, because I wouldn’t have had that tight-knit support system in the design faculty.”

Keep up with Emily on LinkedIn and IDSA, and learn more about Product Design at MIAD!

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