Pushing the Boundaries: Product Design Students Create Specialized Gear for Wheelchair Rugby


Sara Novak sat at a large, messy worktable with a plastic foot form in her hand. She carefully built up layers of masking tape, following the curve of the heel, to create a shoe-like template. Soon she started crisscrossing fabric and elastic around her own ankle and calf, making note of pressure points and mobility.

Students from the University of Oregon’s Adaptive Design class spent a Saturday in the Innovation Lab – a new product manufacturing workspace tucked under the Burnside Bridge in Portland – working on prototypes for their midterm review. They sketched designs, explored materials, discussed ideas with instructors and created soft goods with industrial sewing machines, surgers and steam pressers.

Novak and her classmates are enrolled in the Department of Product Design through the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. The bachelor of fine arts program allows art, architecture and design students the opportunity to spend a fifth year in Portland, concentrating on the use, invention and production of consumer products, while working with instructors and mentors in the field. Only a few similar programs exist in the country. The UO is working towards launching a one-of-a-kind master’s degree in sports product design this fall. 

Sara Novak, UO product design student, consults with Wilson Smith, adjunct instructor for Adaptive Design.

Students in the Department of Product Design take the studio course, “Adaptive Products: Enabling Athletes with Disabilities,” allowing them to work though design challenges for athletes with disabilities. Previous athletes have included a wheelchair fencer, a double-leg amputee snowboarder, and a paralyzed rower. This year’s class focused on creating gear for wheelchair rugby, working closely with members of the Portland Pounders and James Gumbert, head coach of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team.

Wilson Smith, adjunct instructor for the class, UO graduate and long-time Nike designer, lead students through the adaptive design process, pushing them to think of the challenges in a new way, while keeping the end-user experience in mind.

“The Adaptive Design studio gives students a real-world look at the product design process. Students work directly with athletes and realize that sometimes drawings on paper don’t translate when turned into a prototype,” said Smith, who taught the class with Nike design colleagues Bruce Kilgore and Matt Rhodes. “Having access to athletes and receiving their direct, immediate feedback is what leads to a successful final design. It’s really important for a designer to understand and empathize with the end-user.”

Sara Novak, University of Oregon product design student, uses a foot form to build her project pattern for the Adaptive Design studio class in Portland

An industrial sewing machine in the Portland Innovation Lab.

Sara Novak explores connection points in a wheelchair.

Sara Novak's design sketch looks at how to reduce heel spasms for wheelchair rugby players.

Sara Novak, University of Oregon product design student, uses a foot form to build her project pattern for the Adaptive Design studio class in Portland (top). An industrial sewing machine in the Portland Innovation Lab (bottom left). Novak explores connection points in a wheelchair (bottom center). Her design sketch looks at how to reduce heel spasms for wheelchair rugby players (bottom right).

Through the course, Novak looked at how to solve the problem of leg spasticity for some of the athletes. She worked closely with Seth McBride, a member of the Portland Pounders, who will compete for Team USA in Wheelchair Rugby at the Paralympics this summer in Rio.

“When Seth is playing, he gets quivers in his calf and his heels will bounce. The spasms travel up his legs to his hip flexors, impacting his game,” said Novak. “I am working on a shoe that locks his heel down in the chair. By getting more weight down low, it will give him more power and leverage.”

McBride, a UO graduate, enjoyed working with the students, serving as a guide and sounding board. The athletes often create their own makeshift gear, like duct taping garden gloves to their hands for both protection and grip.

“I think the idea of locking the heel down is exactly right. If the heels are locked down, there’s no room for the spasms to get started,” McBride said during Novak’s midterm review. “Anything that keeps the feet and lower legs from shifting around will be a huge value. Our lap is the pocket that the ball sits in. It is important to have a secure ball pocket.”

Pushing the boundaries in the field of sports is the inspiration behind the proposed Sports Product Design master’s program. The new master’s program will develop graduates proficient in using theories and creative problem solving methods as they work through product usability, material study, prototyping, testing and manufacturing.

“This innovative program will combine specialized courses from multiple areas of study including product design, human physiology/biomechanics, journalism, business and management to give designers the necessary tools to successfully excel as sports product innovators,” said Susan Sokolowski, UO associate professor of product design. “We will be located in the heart of Portland, where students will have access through studio critiques, internships and mentorships to work with major sports product design companies, including Nike, Adidas, Columbia, KEEN and Under Armour.”

Through the Adaptive Design studio, McBride got to see what could happen when product design students focus on a particular sport.

“Having the right equipment can be a huge advantage in our sport. It’s nice to get fresh eyes on issues we’ve been tinkering with for a long time,” he said. “Some of the ideas are things I wouldn’t have throught of, but I’m excited to see the outcome and how far they push it.”


More than Redemption: UO Graduate heads to third Paralympics in Rio

Seth McBride at wheelchair rugby practice

Seth McBride gestures to his teammates, calling out a play before taking off down the court. Two opponents come at him, trying to stop his motion, but at the last minute he cuts to the side in the effortless way only an elite athlete can accomplish, out of danger and to the goal.

On this Sunday morning in spring, seven athletes and their coach gather in Vancouver, Wash., for practice. They warm up. They run drills. They scrimmage.


The sound of metal colliding echo