Designing for Every Body

March 7, 2019

When Professor Emeritus Karen LaBat (Apparel Design) met medical doctor Karen Ryan (M.S. ’06, Apparel Studies) in 2002, they found that they shared a passion for improving the design of wearable products so that all people can enjoy safe, fully functional, and innovative products.

Their work together on a wide variety of health-related design projects culminated in the release of their new book, Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer’s Guide published by CRC Press on March 7, 2019. In this interview, LaBat and Ryan discuss their research, the inspiration to write Human Body, and what they hope readers will learn.

How did you two meet?

Ryan: Before I go into how we met, I need to give a little background information. My aged mother had significant osteoporosis-related posture change. Necklines in her clothes were tight in the front and hemlines rode up in the back. As it became more difficult for her to shop I tried, with limited success, to help her find clothes that she liked, that fit well, that were comfortable, and that looked good. I was familiar with the medical aspects of osteoporosis from my practice as an M.D. specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) and recognized that my mother wasn’t the only person with these problems—they were common and were going to increase as Baby Boomers grew older. In late 2001, I decided to return to my childhood interest in design and sewing to learn how to create clothing for women with posture change from osteoporosis. I applied to the College of Human Ecology (now the College of Design) and met with Karen LaBat who suggested the apparel studies graduate program could help me reach my goal of producing apparel specifically for women with posture change from osteoporosis. I completed my M.S. in 2006 and decided that I could benefit more people by pursuing research based on both my medical and design backgrounds than I could from working in either field alone.

What research have you worked on together?

LaBat: Finding a research partner with medical expertise presented many opportunities to further enrich my research goals of improving quality of life through wearable products that meet the needs of specified user groups. Projects pursued with Karen Ryan focused on body image, weight loss, lower extremity prosthesis fit, postural modification, and apparel needs of breast cancer survivors. Collaborators from other fields (statistics, psychology/psychiatry/eating disorders, nutrition, prosthetics, physical therapy, oncology survivor groups, virtual reality research, kinesiology, and balance studies) often worked with us. As we’ve worked on these projects, each involving varied aspects of health and well-being, Karen Ryan served as co-investigator on several research grants and often informally advised graduate students working in the Human Dimensioning Lab. A multi-phase project assessed the needs of women who had experienced treatment for breast cancer—mastectomy, lumpectomy, radiation. The treatments often result in altered body form requiring new apparel strategies for the women. Projects included: assessing young women’s feelings about their bodies through use of body scan images of “real” body shapes and sizes, documenting change in form and volume of amputees’ residual limbs to try to stabilize prosthetic fit, use of body scans to evaluate posture modification therapy, and analysis of body form and size changes associated with a controlled weight loss program.

Why did you decide to write this book?

LaBat: I had a long-term goal of writing a book for wearable product designers that would explain the relationships of body and product. After years of teaching and conducting research in apparel design, I felt that many designers do not have a realistic understanding of human body structure and function. So, after Karen Ryan completed her master’s degree I asked her to co-author the book. Little did we realize at the time that the book would be so all-consuming—sometimes frustrating—but always exhilarating as we worked through differences in educational backgrounds, approaches to problem-solving, and writing styles. We think the effort was worth it!

Ryan: “Doctor” comes from a Latin word meaning “teacher.” I know that a comprehensive understanding of the body is essential for good medical care and I’ve worked, throughout my medical career, with a focus on how the musculoskeletal and nervous systems work together to allow people to do all the amazing things we can do. When I was on the UMN Medical School faculty, I served as training director for the PM&R residency program and have always believed patient education is key to successful medical treatment. Coming from that background, writing a book to share the wonders of the body with wearable product designers was a very appealing idea.

LaBat and Ryan: We wrote the book, Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer’s Guide, to provide designers with realistic, reliable knowledge of human anatomy from a design perspective. We believe that the information and product design examples give a fresh approach to the design process. The book also provides engineering and medical professionals a design perspective and an understanding of how designers approach designing wearable products. On a personal note, we wrote this book because we have experienced products that do not fit, are uncomfortable, and/or provide poor function; all due to mismatch of the product and body. We believe that better understanding of the basis for the range of human body types and sizes, as well as body functions, will help designers address and solve the problem of products that do not meet the needs of the wearer.

How might students, instructors, and researchers use this book?

LaBat and Ryan: The book consists of nine chapters and also includes appendices detailing landmarking and measuring instructions for each body region. While the content is primarily human anatomy, the book is, as the title suggests, about the human body, which also includes function. Therefore, the anatomy becomes a basis to help designers understand functions such as thermal control, reproduction, and health in general.

The book can be read from beginning to end—or readers may elect to read Chapters 1 and 2 (for background on anatomy related to product design) and then the chapter of greatest interest. A shoe designer might read Chapter 8 on “Designing for Foot and Ankle Anatomy;” a headwear designer, Chapter 3 on “Designing for Head and Neck Anatomy;” an incontinence product designer, Chapter 5 on “Designing for Lower Torso and Leg Anatomy.” The information within each chapter is specific to that topic, but each chapter makes more sense when studied as a part of the whole as, to avoid repetition, we did build upon concepts introduced in earlier chapters throughout the book.

How is this book different from other anatomy books?

LaBat and Ryan: The book is divided into sections pertinent to wearable product designers. The two introductory chapters include many definitions, an introduction to anatomical terminology, and brief discussions of the body’s systems, setting the stage for the remaining chapters. The book is extensively referenced and has a large glossary with both anatomical and design terms making it maximally useful for interdisciplinary collaborative work. Exercises introduce useful anatomical, physiological, and biomechanical concepts and include design challenges. We believe that designing a good wearable product requires that the designer have a thorough understanding of the structure and function of the human body.

The fantastic work of our illustrator, Le (Lettie) Wen also distinguishes the book from other anatomy books by illustrating how wearable products relate to anatomical features—things you will not see in a typical anatomy book. You can preview 20 of her illustrations on the publisher’s web site using the “downloads/updates link.”

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

LaBat and Ryan: As we state in the concluding paragraph of the book, we want designers to:

“Marvel at the complexity of the human body while respecting its limitations to surmount design challenges in the ever more complex world we live in. When wearable product designers go beyond surface observations of the human body to fully understand anatomy and body function—safe, fully functional, and innovative products will result.”

You can learn more about Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer’s Guide, or order a copy of the book, on the CRC Press website.

February 2020 Update: On February 19, 2020, Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer’s Guide was named the 2020 Prose Award winner in the engineering and technology category.

November 2022 Update: LaBat and Ryan have developed a free-access website, which provides the basics of anatomy based on their book, Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer's Guide.

The fields of medical device and apparel design may not seem to have a lot in common, but alumni from the College of Design are changing that.

When Simon Ozbek (MS '20, Human Factors & Ergonomics) started his academic career he never could have imagined that it would take him all the way to NASA. Determined to unite his passions for psychology and creativity, he discovered the College of Design’s Human Factors & Ergonomics graduate program. Now a human factors engineer at NASA, Ozbek describes his journey into the field in the following interview.

Sarah Klecker (BS ’17, Apparel Design) is putting her design degree to work creating functional apparel for athletes of all kinds.