EcoHelmet’s Isis Shiffer on: “How thinking wrong can be so right”

Isis Shiffer isn’t your average thinker. Instead, she’s one of many inventors who practice “wrong thinking”. Here, Isis explains that where inventors are concerned, rules are meant to be broken…

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May 23, 2019 · 9 min read
Inventor, Isis Shiffer, pictured wearing her EcoHelmet | Photography Dyson

In my second year of graduate school I became fixated by the idea of designing a helmet for bike share. I was studying abroad and found riding in Tokyo to be alarming. The enormous public Mamachari bikes topped out at 8 miles per hour, but still I had plenty of white-knuckle encounters with the city’s slow but unyielding traffic. I was unused to cars driving on the left, the roads were narrow and hilly, and my brakes didn’t work too well either. On more than one occasion I scrunched into someone’s hedge so as to avoid a bright pink Kei truck. Only racers wear bike helmets in Japan, but I would have liked one all the same.

So, I started messing around. I wanted something that could go in a briefcase or a vending machine, cost little, be sustainably made, work like a regular helmet, and not look too foolish. Traditional Styrofoam was out of the question, as it doesn’t biodegrade, and most other materials were too heavy, too expensive, or wouldn’t fold up. I had read somewhere about paper honeycomb absorbing blows well. So, I thought to myself, let’s try that.

I knocked together a prototype that looked like a pineapple, put it on the floor and tried to drive my boot through it. It didn’t dent at all. I showed my it to a professor.

“A paper helmet?” she laughed. “What an idea. That won’t possibly work.”

“You just watch me,” I thought. A mildly interesting side project suddenly became a burning passion.

Then as now, telling me something won’t work activates a deeply stubborn part of my nature. If a client or contractor tells me something can’t be done my first impulse is to dig in my heels and insist that nothing is impossible. “I’ll just sort it out myself then” is one of my most commonly used phrases. Often the problem in question turns out to genuinely be insoluble and I have to sheepishly admit it. Other times by luck or advice or sheer will, I’m able to prove everyone wrong and force the absurd idea through — whether the effort was worthwhile is another issue.

Isis is a wrong thinker, this means she practices thinking differently at her studio | Photography Dyson

This strain of stubbornness is common amongst designers and inventors, who regularly have to convince a baffled world that a seemingly poor idea is actually the nucleus for innovation. This is not to say there are “no bad ideas” — a phrase used far too often — because, of course, there are.

Instead, I’d say that approaching any problem from strange or counter-intuitive directions can lead to amazing results. An argument can be made that without ideas that spring from a non-linear thought process our world would look very different. Without wrong thinking we would not have internal combustion engines, saxophones, cheese, super glue, penicillin — the list goes on.

Before I went into industrial design I built bicycle frames for a living. I liked designing the fancy lugs and the colour schemes and tailoring the frame geometry exactly to a customer’s body (I retain the ability to tell someone how tall they are and what size bike they should ride just by looking at them). But after a few years I became bored — a bike is a bike.

Shortly before I quit to go back to school for design, I was at a trade show and found myself admiring a very unusual bicycle indeed. ‘Old Faithful’ looks like what someone would draw if they had heard a bike described but never actually seen one: there is no top tube, only one fork blade, almost no space between the pedals, and the bars and saddle are placed ludicrously close together. It was invented by a Scottish cyclist named Graeme Obree. Already competitive on ordinary bikes, Obree believed that traditional frame design was inefficient and built a bike for himself that solved all the problems, as be he saw them. The strange bar and saddle position upended traditional cycling posture and forces the rider to fold themself up a bit like a downhill skier. It looks ridiculous, and frankly if someone had asked me to build one I would have laughed them straight out of my bicycle shop.

I was lucky enough to try a replica of Old Faithful at that show, and it was unlike any cycling experience I’ve ever had. My arms cramped up in minutes and it felt deeply counter-intuitive to be leading with my face, but once I got going it began to make sense. As I wobbled around the bike testing area, dodging electric trikes and full suspension mountain bikes, I got a tiny echo of how very powerful this machine could be with the right rider in the right conditions.

Sir James Dyson meeting with Isis after her EcoHelmet won the 2016 James Dyson Award | Photography Dyson

Most new bicycle designs tend to build on what came before them, refining rather than rethinking. This one broke most of the accepted rules of bicycle design, and most designers would have found dozens of things wrong with it. It’s worth adding that, riding Old Faithful, Graeme Obree broke the hour record — twice.

Graeme Obree was a cyclist who wanted to go faster. Unburdened by design and engineering conventions he turned wrongthink to his advantage, tinkering in his bike shop and testing the results until he was satisfied.

But Wrongthink can also happen suddenly, as when a thoughtful person does something stupid and learns from it. My father, an auto mechanic, used to tell me about an inventor named Henry ‘Smokey’ Yunick who seemed to do this a lot. One story in particular stuck with me. Smokey wanted to convert an old, empty gasoline barrel into a trash can. He began to cut one end off with a torch, and found himself flat on the ground with his eyebrows blown off. Rather than retreating in embarrassment and nursing his scorched face, Smokey stuck a rag on a pole, lit it on fire, and stuck it in another empty barrel — KABOOM. Smokey thought to himself, an empty barrel exploding had to be useful somehow, and he later developed a long-range sparkplug that ignited from gasoline vapours alone.

I still think of this story when I do something truly ill advised — such as when I forgot to tighten down the fuel lines on a new brazing torch and blew my own eyebrows off (I gained no engineering insights, unfortunately). Smokey Yunick would not have admitted to being wrong thinker of course, nor did he consider himself an engineer, but he held twelve patents and many of his inventions are still used today.

In its most useful format, wrongthink arises organically. When a project is predicated on wrong thinking it becomes an intellectual exercise and can lead to a great deal of labour for no particular reason. Every year, American civil engineering students sink time, blood and energy into the infamous National Concrete Canoe Competition.

The goal is to take a non-floating material and use it to make a functioning boat, which is then raced. Everyone works hard and has a wonderful time, but ultimately what is left is a pile of barely seaworthy boats and a questionable lesson. Yes, they have taken a bad idea and made it work, but why? Would the entrants not learn more by trying to create genuinely useful boats, or at the very least change the material choice year to year?

Humans love to create specific, repeatable processes for the things we do, but it’s not applicable in every field. While STEM projects often follow a predetermined path, many artists approach their work from an abstract place, closer to subconscious inspiration than scientific research. Industrial design falls squarely between art and science, and a good designer can operate to an extent in both.

I am as likely to attack a tricky problem in my studio with math and research as I am to go cycle around the park for a while to see if the solution is actually lurking somewhere out in the real world. Very often I’ll be doing something entirely different, like buying groceries or watching a movie, and the solution to a problem that’s been bugging me for weeks slips into my mind fully solved. This does n’t always work. I occasionally rocket out of bed having dreamed something absolutely world-shatteringly brilliant only to discover the next day that the scratchy drawing in my bedside notepad is something I saw a few days prior or perhaps makes no sense at all.

Not everyone agrees that design exists in a nebulous, thrilling place between process and inspiration. I was introduced to design thinking by an elderly professor who spoke slowly, used innumerable blurry charts and had an unimpeachable resume in UX design. He insisted that every project must be proscribed, from colour coded post-it notes at the ideation phase to scripted talks at the end. Each step was scrutinized, and the slightest deviation was quashed. I thought it was the most deadening, wrongheaded approach to design I had ever seen, and I am still averse to post-it notes years on. In a series of increasingly fractious interactions I insisted that creativity is best nurtured by going outside and doing things, seeing things, taking things apart. The professor insisted my approach was the same as throwing random bits of metal at a wall and expecting them to magically become a train. I’m convinced I only passed his class only because he wanted to make sure he never saw me again.

The EcoHelmet which Isis was told would “never work” | Photography Dyson

That said, I’ve softened towards design thinking as I’ve discovered how valuable it can be — though not necessarily for designing things. I’ve used it to get teams on the same page and, though I hate to admit it, to concentrate my own restless thoughts.

After I finished my studies in Tokyo I relocated to London for a term at Royal College of Art (RCA) and Imperial College London. This time I brought along a bike of my own and a helmet. I spent many lovely hours cycling through the city and being shouted at by motorists while I tried to remember which way one is supposed traverse a roundabout. When I did find myself on a so-called ‘Boris Bike’ I felt the lack of helmets even more keenly, as London’s traffic makes that of my native New York City look sedate. I reanimated the bike helmet project, and was met with more scepticism, though less than before.

“That’s an interesting idea,” one tutor said. I wondered whether he was employing British irony or actually meant it. “Why don’t you see if that actually works?” he advised.

I brought an armload of samples to Imperial’s crash lab and, with the help of the wonderful staff, I was finally able to get some verification. Some samples failed, but a few stopped a blow much like a traditional helmet — the paper crushed under the hammer, distributing the pressure around the dummy head and leaving it unscathed.

“We have a pass!” said the lab’s technician smiling at me.

I remember ricocheting out of lab, bits of crushed paper spilling from my hands. I had been doggedly insisting for months my helmet would work, but privately I had nothing more than a hunch I only half believed myself and an inability to admit I might be wrong. By any metric, a blow stopping, aesthetically pleasing, weather-worthy piece of sports equipment should be made of anything but paper. Now, while it was far from complete, the concept was proved sound and worth pursuing- and no one was more surprised than I — showing that sometimes you have to prove yourself wrong first.

Words: Isis Shiffer, Inventor

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