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Q&A: The Transformative Power of Industrial Design

The idea that form should follow function is an age-old axiom of design. But at GE Healthcare, form and function increasingly go hand in hand. And rightly so, as medical equipment has a tendency to be scary, cold and robotic, from the patient’s point of view. In recent years, the industrial design (ID) team at GE Healthcare has been playing a more prominent role in the development of the company’s imaging products, not only to enhance the user’s experience, but to help put patients at ease when they are at their most vulnerable.

GE Healthcare’s most recent example of innovation in design is in its newest line of magnetic resonance (MR) scanners – the Discovery MR750w*. We spoke to Lionel Wodecki, the Design Architect responsible for the MR750w’s new look.

Lionel graduated in 1993 from ENSAAMA (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués et des Métiers d’Art) in Paris, and worked at three companies before joining GE Healthcare. One of these was DELSEY luggage, where for four years he gained a foundation of knowledge about materials and consumer products. In 2001 he joined GE Healthcare, designing vascular products including the Innova 3100. In 2004, he was lead designer for the new ultrasound platform, including products such as the Vivid E9, and more recently he was behind the ID of GE Healthcare’s latest ultrasound device, Vscan, which launched last year to industry acclaim. Today, Lionel is the global ID leader for the MR business, developing the product line’s new design.


GE Healthcare is bringing new products to the market that have a distinctly fresh and modern feel. How do you explain this change?
As designers, we create a fusion of technology and humanity. This is the foundation of GE Healthcare’s design philosophy called, ‘The Magic of Science and Empathy’. The idea is to see through the eyes of the patient to create a more empathetic and caring design. The design needs to resonate with patients, in order to make them feel at ease when they undergo an examination. This design philosophy reinforces the strategic role the global design team plays within the company.

GE Healthcare’s ID studios in Waukesha (US), Shanghai (China) and Buc (France), are connected with all the key partners in each product segment. During the past three years, the business has come to understand the benefits of working with an integrated design team inside GE Healthcare. Consequently, because of these trusted relationships internally, we are able to initiate some advanced concepts in anticipation of future user and patient demands.

At RSNA 2010, GE Healthcare demonstrated its design leadership with the launch of its wide bore MR system, Discovery MR750w. How did the design of this product come about?
In late 2009, the MR executive team agreed on the need for a new look and feel for future MR products. A lot of time was spent conducting focus groups and customer observational studies in a clinical setting, benchmark analyses and so on. As the MR designer, my role was to federate the different stakeholders — MR product managers, engineering, applications specialists, marketing and sales — to reach consensus and have a clear design objective. After numerous meetings, I came to the table with a totally new design that I hoped would meet the needs of our customers and patients.

One example of my influence was in engaging with the sales team. At first, the sales department didn’t want to change the design because they thought we could live with the current design for at least another two years. After some ID presentations and the presentation of the mock-up, they changed their minds. Finally they recognized the work that had been accomplished. In fact, I even received a message from a sales leader who said: “Your passion for design boosts our confidence and passion to sell!”

Tell us about the new MR design.
Inspiration for the Discovery MR750w design came from two words: ‘caring’ and ‘open’. As a medical company we care about people’s lives. Our goal is to provide targeted and safe products with ease of use for the clinician and comfort for the patient. With the Discovery MR750w, the purpose of adding lights on the front of the system was to create a better patient experience. In short, the lights project a warm, caring feeling.

Openness is very important when designing a new MR product, as the feeling of claustrophobia is a major issue during MR procedures. Consequently, I spent lot of time on the shape transition from the front cover to the bore. The light reflection on the radius aims to create a very soft transition and increase the perception of openess. Looking at the outer edges of the unit, you can see the visual metaphor of two slightly curved hands that hold and protect the patient during the MR scan.

In the nineties, MR scanners were all a standard GE blue, and then this shifted to GE steel blue around 2000. Recently, however, we have been using some new textures and finishings, such as wood grain side panels and the contrasting glossy and matte user interface. Another new attribute is a more ergonomic user interface (UI) for the MR operators, including a bigger palm rest.

Do you think a designer working in the car industry, for example, could work in the healthcare industry?
Sure. I think a designer has to be open to different industries. When thinking what the latest wide bore MR could look like, I was inspired by the world of furniture and interior design. Users and patients today are all using consumer electronics, and as designers we have to be aware of this context. Our new products should reflect the mood of the 21st century.

What inspires you as a designer?
I’m lucky to live in Paris. This city helps me to be creative due to its diverse and dynamic environment. The streets, the shops, the museums, the restaurants, the music — it all influences my work, allowing me to stay connected to a fast-moving world. I like to start a new project without any preconceived design solution, so I never know what I will find.

Another source of motivation is meeting other colleagues and external partners who represent different cultures and different points of view. This is one of the great benefits of globalization, helping us to accept and learn about different behaviors around the world. Each project is the result of a global effort requiring numerous skills. The design is the visible part of the iceberg, but beneath the surface it’s a huge team effort.

What design work at GE Healthcare are you most proud of?
In the span of nine years with GE Healthcare, I have been fortunate to apply my creative skills across four different modalities. Every design I have worked on has been rewarding — from Vscan to Vivid E9 to the Innova 3100 — but I’m particularly proud of my latest design, the Discovery MR750w. It has been a tremendous effort over the course of one year, and nobody expected such a positive result. We’ve really changed the look and feel of MR. In fact, I remember the first presentation of the design in Milwaukee, with the one-fifth-scale model, and surprise of a woman who said “Wow! Is that a GE product?” It goes to show that we we’re pushing the boundaries of what an MR scanner typically looks like. With creativity, effort and leadership support, we have really changed the MR paradigm and demonstrated that design has a strategic role to play. It’s not just about aesthetics.


*The MR750w cannot be put into service until it has been made to comply with CE marking.   It may not be available in all regions.  510(k) pending at FDA.  Not available for sale in the USA.