Össur has gone a long way since Össur Kristinsson started his business followed by an Icelandic workshop for prostheses in 1971. With cutting edge inventions and smart business strategy, the company managed to become one of the few big global players in the field of orthopedic technology.
During our recent visit to Össur’s headquarters in Reykjavik, our Florian Lohse talked to Egill Egilsson, design lead for the platforms of interfaces and silicone.
Scroll down to read is our conversation with Egill about the company, design, technology and Iceland.
Industrial designers and product designers should be integrated in every project team – even in very technical areas, like the development of prosthetic knees, which involves a lot of electronics. One should not divide projects into parts, first let the engineers do their thing and only then call in the designer to make final touches.
At Össur, designer is always part of any project group. The designer has a different way of looking at things. S/he often serves as the connection between departments, as well as between us and our customers.
It seems like Össur is something of a pioneer, especially in Iceland, with this kind of attitude towards the implementation of design in technical development?
True. Take a look at Iceland as a whole: 10 years ago, it was difficult for me to tell people what an industrial designer or a product designer actually does. Design is not mature here, especially because the industry is still small.
Icelanders have been working with fish for a very long time, and it is just for the last decades that we started working our way into other directions and industries. And so “design” or “industrial design” have become known as professions only very recently.
It is still difficult to describe what designers actually do.
Designers are expected to be either technical “inventors” or “artists”. Actually most of us are none of that – or something in between.
I heard many Icelandic designers say they are heavily influenced by Iceland itself, by the nature, the people and their attitudes. Does this also apply to you at Össur?
Maybe to a certain level, yes. Icelanders are basically still fishermen. People here tend to just go and solve their problems. If something is broken, they will fix it. Sometimes it may be crappy, sometimes good, but the mentality is mostly the same.
What you gain with that attitude is that people will get up and try. Icelanders seem to like jumping into things, also into things they maybe should not touch.
That spirit can also turn out negative, because we sometimes feel so independent that we don’t see the right path among many possible. We just jump in there. I also feel that Icelanders aren’t so used to thinking and working in processes. It’s always more of a spontaneous attitude in the spirit of “go there and solve it”.
People here just go and solve their problems.
I think our whole nation sometimes has some difficulties with accepting this hierarchy-thing. It happens that we won’t respect the chain of command, which can turn into a problem.
Here at Össur things work quite well, because most of the people working in our headquarters are Icelandic, so they know how things go around here and the foreign people do adapt quickly. We just don’t like to follow rules. If you manage to channel THAT attitude in a productive process, you can get a real benefit out of it.
Do you think Iceland has potential to develop further in high technology based industry?
I think we could definitely go further. But you have to take into account that research is cheaper to do in bigger countries than here. So if you want to run a highly developed business based on high level knowledge, it will be difficult. Today, Össur is an international company and does not have that kind of boundaries anymore.
We are few here so we need more time!
Time is not an easy resource in a small country like Iceland.
The circumstances change so rapidly here, not just the weather, also the economic situation, the strength of our currency… And then you also have the volcanoes, of course. The general environment in Iceland is not very stable. Thereby the development of long-term industry is quite difficult. And perhaps there’s also a challenge as per our our mentality – we aren’t always that patient.
Are there any differences between the wishes of your customers from all around the world?
In the Western world, attitudes are mostly the same. Of course, there are little differences between different cultures.
The big differences xist between age groups, not nationalities. Older people often have difficulties in reaching out for information on prostheses. That’s far easier for younger people, they just google it.
This all used to be a lot worse. We cannot imagine the situation of the amputees after the World Wars, for example. Media attention has grown during the last few decades. It is now popular knowledge, that there is life after an amputation, that there is a lot of support and equipment.
The Paralympics getting more popular probably also helped raising the general attention towards prostheses.
Yes, definitely. But the older customers are less affected by that. This is a general phenomenon with any cutting edge technology – it’s always most interesting with the kids! They just think about getting it from A to B in the fastest possible way. If it’s faster without the prosthesis, they will throw it away and crawl the distance. In many cases it is the parents that think about covering the prosthesis, to make it look “normal”.
And what is “normal”, anyway? If you are working in our field, you see that from a very different point of view. There is no difference between people just because of a different number of legs.
There is no difference between people just because of a different number of legs.
The anthropology is also very interesting. There are different people, needs, and environments which all require different solutions.
Interview by Florian Lohse
Images Courtesy of Össur