The website “Look, No Hands” tells the story of a designer who works in the most unconventional of ways.
May 14th, 1989
Designer at Omada Health
Swedish Speaking Finnish Kiwi...?
Twin sister Vanessa
Bachelor of Architecture
I was 20 years old when I landed a summer job as an architecture trainee. When I started I really felt I needed to prove myself. So I decided to work long hours in the hopes of impressing my boss. Outside of work I'd also agreed to take on another project. A friend of mine said he needed an illustrator for a children's book he was publishing - so I jumped at the opportunity, thrilled at the thought of getting paid for my illustrations. That summer I ended up working roughly 10-15 hours per day. I felt very proud of myself for working so hard and I remember joking about my arms the day I started noticing a slight tingling sensation in my fingers. if I had only known...
I had a few weeks left of my internship so I decided to work through the discomfort..but it proved impossible. Within a matter of days my left arm started cramping, my thumb started twitching and I lost all strength in my fingers so I was forced to switch the mouse over to my left hand. Still optimistic, I decided I could easily learn how to work with my left hand,
which I did, and that got me through the last month of my internship - but my untrained left arm was even less equipped for such a tough working regime and I soon felt the same tingling feeling in the other arm. This time i panicked.
The problem for me was that all my interests and hobbies revolved around my arms and my studies and future career depended on them too. But now all I had was pair of useless extremities causing me pain. For three weeks straight I lay in bed feeling sorry for myself and thinking everything was unfair. In my mind I had reached the rockiest of all bottoms. My whole life revolved around creating - every day I would satisfy that need in some way - let it be sewing, painting, drawing, photo editing, building miniature models. But what would I do now?Read more
Well, first I had to hand in a sick leave notice at my school. I could hardly hold a pen let alone build a miniature model so there was no way I could keep up with my architecture studies. The doctor I had seen wasn't too concerned - said my arms would be fine in a month or two, and that gave me hope. Finally I got to the point where boredom was my biggest enemy. As much as my arms where driving me insane- so was not having anything to do. So maybe I'd read one of those self help books that my sister had been raving about. I was astonished to discover how much one single book could influenced my way of thinking. So I read a few more and it was like getting a whole new collection of lenses to put on my camera, to view the world through. One line in particular stood out to me "You cant control the world around you, the only thing you can control is the way you respond to it."
Two months later I headed back to school (arms still useless) determined to complete at least one or two theoretical courses. But asking professors if I could do oral exams instead of written ones proved a lot harder than I thought. Most of them seemed pretty skeptical of my story and told me to come back when my arms had recovered. However one teacher showed genuine concern and realized how important it was for me to continue studying. I chose her as my mentor for my bachelors thesis. What I liked about her was her optimism and willingness to be flexible. For example, she didn't say no when I suggested to her that I would dictate my thesis in english with the help of speech recognition software. Even though It proved to be a useless idea. Voice dictation software was very immature at the time and wouldn't translate my kiwi-like accent.
In my search for solutions to this problem I started to come across all these fascinating technologies. Eye tracking tools, voice dictation, motion sensors, mobile apps for sketching and so on. Then a friend sent me a link to this website showcasing a yet to be released product called the Leap Motion. I was exasperated. The promo video introduced a new way of interacting with an interface, with the help of a camera. A world of new possibilities had all of a sudden opened up to me. It gave me a glimmer of hope that I might somehow find a solution to my arm problems in technology. I turned my creativity back on.
"Dad, can you build me a device that allows me to press keys on the keyboard with my feet" dad: Yes Of course I can! (he’s got his own wood workshop) Two weeks later the device arrives at my door step. It had been beautifully crafted in wood and shipped half way around the world within a few days from New Zealand.
He even painted it black so it would comply to the strict color codes of my room. I carefully layed it on the floor under my desk and tried out the enlarged keys with my feet. This will take some time getting used to I concluded...it also came with an unwanted feature - the keys made a rather odd sound once pressed. This made me pretty self conscious as my flatmate next door could hear every rattle.
My search for a solution continued. I bought an ipad and stylus pen and yes you guessed it - put the stylus between my teeth and tried to draw with it. Observation: too much saliva. Conclusion: Do not attempt at home kids- Its messy! The next experiment involved my feet - surely I could learn how to draw with my toes?! Perhaps - but the idea of getting rsi in my feet wasn't appealing. It only took a few attempts and two sore feet to rule out that option.
Then It happened. I was sitting in my room late one evening fiddling around with this external touchpad I had lying on my desk and without thinking, lifted it up to eye level and touched it with my nose. "Click". I tried swiping too - it worked! I opened up photoshop with shaking fingers, hadn't opened it in months! I had a few more goes holding the trackpad to my nose and swiping left and right, up and down and the movements felt strangely natural to me. Next thing I'm dialing my father on Skype again. I told him about the new idea I'd just stumbled upon. His told me he had just the right parts lying around in his workshop and would put together this device right away. True to his word the parcel arrives a week later. This time It felt right straight away and I start practicing away drawing line after line. I finally look up at my stick figure masterpiece resembling the works of a three year old and Felt so excited. My nose-technique proved useful even when it came to typing, just not very efficient.
I wrote a large chunk of my bachelors thesis on the ipad with my nose (I looked absolutely ridiculous) - no teachers ever found out. (Omg I can't believe I just revealed that...)
Later on that same year I signed up for some project courses. However - I wasn't ready to tell anyone about my new unconventional way of working. It was way too embarrassing. So despite having a personal desk and all the required gear at school, I started working from my student apartment bedroom, which fortunately was only a short walking distance from the art and design department. So after every lecture I'd wonder back to my secrete workstation to complete the assignments that had to be handed in. My excuse was that I couldn't concentrate when people were sitting next to me - and to this the course assistants would simply shake their heads as if to conclude, " the students these days..."
But I was happy - I'd somehow managed to complete my first project course without making my RSI worse and I'd validated the nose-pad device. But in the back of my mind something had changed. I did't feel excited about my studies any more, and I couldn't picture myself working in architecture an entire working career when I hadn't even managed 4 months. So without making any conscious decision, I slowly started gravitating towards technology and entrepreneurship and I discovered a thriving entrepreneurial community at my school. I also set myself a mission: to challenge myself and extend the boundaries of my comfort zone (which of the time was minuscule). One afternoon a poster with the title “Start up speed dating” caught my eye at school. Now what could be more more awkward then that? Well nothing I concluded.
First of all, I wasn't sure what the word "start up" meant, and second, the thought of speed dating terrified me. So I decided to attend the event.
It turned out to be a type of recruiting event, gathering students and startups. And by the end of the evening I'd somehow managed to join a team of three eager entrepreneurs and agreed to work as their designer. Smitten by their enthusiasm and positivity, and perhaps one or two beers, I was convinced anything was possible, if you worked for a startup. However reality hit me hard in the face the next morning, when my common sense returned. If I could hardly keep up with my studies, how in the world was I going to jungle an additional project on top of that? I decided not to listen to common sense. However I wasn't prepared to reveal my secret just yet, so I told them I'd join them for all the meetings but do all of my design work from home, and they were fine with that. So once again I found myself working crazy long hours in front of the computer first doing school work and then designing for the startup. However this time my nose was doing all the work and not my hands.
I left the startup after six months. However, a new exciting opportunity was around the corner. A friend of mine, whom I'd met at one of the entrepreneurial events told me about this student run organization called Startup Life and mentioned they were looking for students interested in summer internships in San Francisco. I attended an info session and from that point on was hooked. I simply had to get an internship. So I put together an application and sent it their way. Within a few weeks I'd scheduled a few Skype interviews. And that is how ends up talking to Sean, the CEO of Omada health. I remember our Skype call as if it happened yesterday, because the call took me by surprise. You see, I'd miscalculated the time zone difference and was still sitting in my pajamas, when the Skype ring tone started playing. I didn't even have time to get extremely nervous. But my wardrobe blunder didn't seem to bother Sean at all, or he simply didn’t notice. I decided to take the plunge and reveal my "secret” right there on on the spot. And his response was "are you kidding me, that's awesome!”
and I can't tell you how much of a relief that was. He finally told me he loved my work and was keen to get me on board.
A few months later I sat on the plane to San Francisco. The first few weeks were tough. I remember the first day setting up my new laptop trying to disguise the twitching fingers and cramping thumbs. When I reluctantly realized it was time for me to unveil my nose-pad, I got very nervous, "just don't be awkward about it, don't be awkward about it…” oh god, I was so awkward about it. But my workmates were understanding and didn't seem to judge me at all. The team looked beyond my peculiarities saw that I indeed could produce work. And I did- and still do. I feel a deep sense of gratitude towards Omada. The company has been great to me and they allow me to do what I really love doing.Minimize
The device I use to design with consists of three main parts and these can all be found on Amazon: The Manfrotto 492 table tripode costs roughly around $100, the Apple Magic Trackpad around $60 and the tripod adapter plate cost me $20. The velcro I purchased from a regular convenience store.
My initial designs Looked pretty terrible but my precision and speed improved the more I practised.
I jokingly refer to the device as my “nose pad” but that is somewhat misleading because I also use my mouth to perform certain gestures.
During a typical day I’ll usually use my nose-pad 50% of the time and my hands for the remaining time. I mostly work in Photoshop and illustrator.
In retrospect I realize my arm are the reason why I’ve developed so much as a designer. Prior to the condition I had a mental picture of myself, my world and the people around me and I behaved as if those images where the truth. However deciding to step outside my comfort zone both widened and altered those pictures.
Illustrating and visualizing has always been easy for me but within each area of design that I've explored so far (architecture, graphic design, UI and UX work, photography and now onto behavior and Game design) it's taken me years and years of practice to become sensitive to the subtle and sometimes minuscule, details that make up great work. It's like training your brain to pick up visual cues that you previously haven't even seen. I know I can master any visual technique or design style out there, but not without persistent 'design research” first. And because I believe I can teach myself anything, I approach every new challenge as if I were a
student willing to soak up every piece of advice I get. This mindset makes me fearless. However I didn't always think this way.
When I was studying architecture I thought you were born with a certain amount of artistic talent or ability. This talent couldn't increase or decrease, it was just inherent. This way of thinking also meant that every critique session in school turned into a battle field where your work was measured and ranked against your peers’. And to influence this decision all you could do was convince the professors you were amazing, and your ideas were incredible. But this type of thinking only makes you miserable, because any form of critique immediately becomes personal and you think your talent is being questioned. But let me tell you, that mindset won't make you a great designer and my arms made me realize that. You cannot be afraid to be “bad”. You just have to realize your work isn’t finished yet and you need more practice. It takes courage to be imperfect.