A Leg Up
In the summer of 2005, Jeff Weber took a fall in the backyard of his Minnesota home, broke his heel, and was sentenced to 13 weeks on crutches. With little to do but hobble around and think, he quickly noticed the flaws in his new accessories: the way the hard "pads" compressed the soft tissue of his armpit, the way the rail-straight columns forced nerve-stressing bad posture, the way the perpendicular grips required a constant awkward twisting of his wrists. "It was pretty quickly introducing secondary trauma," he says. "People are not constructed to walk on their arms."
Unlike most of the millions of Americans who end up on crutches every year, however, Weber is a professional industrial designer. He apprenticed with Bill Stumpf on Herman Miller's Aeron chair, which set a new standard for deploying contemporary materials and research methods into the design of everyday items, and then raised that standard when he became Stumpf's partner on the follow-up Embody chair. So rather than acquiesce to a rotten design, Weber began sketching.
His new crutch would employ an articulated mesh saddle that remained parallel to the armpit even as the angle of the column changed with the gait of the user. The column itself would curve away from the hip, so walkers could avoid angling the crutches outward into a chest-pincering pyramid. The grips would be shaped individually for each hand. ("For some reason we have 'handed' shoes, but not crutches," Weber notes.) The feet would be rounded, so they could roll forward with each step. And the entire structure would use only 58 percent as much aluminum as regular crutches, making them far lighter.
The new crutches would also look a lot cooler—a crucial design element. "You can strike an intimate relationship with an object," Weber says, but people "tend to feel that they lose their dignity" when they must use ugly objects, and they use those objects less as a result.
The design of crutches hasn't changed since, well, nearly ever—Weber notes that standard crutches are little more than repurposed tree limbs—and with 10 million pairs sold last year, his new design presents a sizeable business opportunity. At first, fearing copycats, Weber used his prototypes only at home. Now he has a partner (John White, a Minneapolis entrepreneur), a company (Mobi LLC) and 100 or so dealers. He is also working on updates to the traditional cane and walker, but he says the ultimate success will be if his designs actually do see less use. "Mobility is the key to good health," he says. "If you're mobile, you're going to recover that much quicker." —Brian Gallagher