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TIME Magazine Hails Industrial Design Alumna's Assistive Tableware Set as One of 2016's Best Inventions

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Sha Yao’s Eatwell assistive tableware. Photo courtesy of Sha Yao.

Watching her late grandmother struggle with cognitive impairments resulting from Alzheimer’s disease, Sha Yao experienced a common emotional response to a difficult situation. She felt helpless. What the Academy of Art University School of Industrial Design (IND) alumna did next was decidedly uncommon. Yao designed and created Eatwell, an assistive tableware set to help make mealtimes easier for people with impaired cognitive function.

While volunteering at senior care centers to learn more about Alzheimer’s, Yao observed that recurring problems such as spills, frustration and inadequate nutrition marked each mealtime. Inspired by her grandmother and informed by her background in industrial design, she set out to help users increase food and drink intake, maintain dignity and independence, and reduce the burden on caregivers. 

The collision between Yao’s personal and professional lives embodies the mission of industrial design. “I think industrial design helps connect ideas to people,” she said. “Or, put another way, I think IND helps bring ideas to life.”

Her training helped propel Yao through the iterative process of design, feedback and research, repeated over and over. “Research gave depth to this product set and provided support for every design decision,” she said. The spoon, bowls and cups born of this process feature design elements tailored to users’ needs. Bright primary colors not only stimulate appetite, but also help differentiate vessel from food. Bowls employ slanted basins to facilitate scooping. Curve-handled spoons fit comfortably in the hand, and the curvature of the spoon head matches that of the bowl. Cups stay upright thanks to wide, tip-resistant bases.

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Academy of Art University alumna Sha Yao with her grandmother, the inspiration behind Eatwell assistive tableware. Photo courtesy of Sha Yao.

The product line has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, including users and caregivers. Eatwell, winner of the 2014 Stanford Design Challenge, has earned overwhelmingly positive feedback from the mental health, assisted living, design, caregiving and user communities.   

More recently, in November, TIME Magazine named Eatwell one of its 25 Best Inventions of 2016. Media outlets including CNN, Fast Company, PBS NewsHour and Forbes have also featured the set, which is as timely as it is functional.

While medical research aimed at treating and curing Alzheimer’s could one day change the future of human health, it often makes little impact on current patients.

“It’s natural that people want to permanently solve, or prevent, the challenges that come with taking care of people with impairments,” Yao said. “But it’s important to be aware of the people who are already affected by the disease. As life expectancies continue to increase around the world that number is almost certainly going to dramatically increase. Before a cure is actually found, it’s important not to lose sight of improving the quality and not just the quantity of life.”

Media coverage has proven to be a critical component of Eatwell’s success. Another key ingredient is the network of experts that formed during the research phase. That community not only provided valuable input, but some also became supporters and customers. A worldwide promotional tour generated interest and support, too. 

Some memorable experiences have resulted from the attention. During the product promotion tour, Yao met the then-president of Taiwan, and she was invited to judge the 2016 Stanford Center on Longevity Design Competition. 

But the most exciting development is that Eatwell has landed in the hands of customers. Both of Eatwell’s production runs have been 100 percent crowdfunded. The first run of 1,800 sets sold out. The recently completed second run produced approximately 6,500 sets. Yao is hopeful that current talks with international distributors will yield an agreement within the next month.  

Based on the amount of positive feedback Eatwell has received, it seems as though this is only the beginning. Product line expansion is already underway. “We’re currently completing the design of our much-anticipated tray, which we hope to get out later this year,” said Yao. A left-handed version of the Eatwell spoon is in development, and the team is considering various other features, utensils and containers, too.

Yao also sees the potential to expand beyond tableware. “I’d like to develop the set to include other aspects of life. It would be wonderful if I could eventually help people maintain their independence in other daily functions as well.”