The amazing story of Van Phillips
I was doing a radio interview about Glimmer last week and someone called in to the show to say that design had changed his life. That’s true for all of us, of course, but this particular person—who explained during his on-air call that he uses a prosthetic leg and foot—can undoubtedly appreciate the benefits of good design better than most of us. He went into a rhapsody about the wonders of the Cheetah prosthetic foot. And he specifically praised the designer responsible, a man named Van Phillips.
I was pleased to hear him mention Phillips, a designer who isn’t very well known, except among the people whose lives have been changed by his work. I first found out about Phillips a couple of years ago, while working on Glimmer. It took me a while to track him down—he’s a guy who pretty much keeps to himself. But I persisted because I really wanted to include his inspiring and moving story in the book.
Phillips began working on the challenge of creating a more flexible prosthetic leg some twenty years ago. He wanted to go way beyond what existed at the time—his dream was to create an artificial leg and foot that would enable someone to run, jump, and do all the things that a person with a natural foot can do. At the time, Phillips’ college professors advised him that this could not be done, and that he shouldn’t waste his time.
But Phillips would not be deterred, perhaps because he had a real stake in the outcome of his work. A few years earlier, when he was 21, his left leg had been severed below the knee in a water-skiing accident. Phillips, who’d lived a very athletic lifestyle prior to the incident, subsequently became consumed with the challenge of designing a replacement foot that would allow for better movement. It wasn’t so much that he was trying to use design to change the world; he was really trying to get his old life back.
He told me that he created hundreds of prototypes, baking them in his kitchen oven, then testing each foot himself. Often, the foot he’d made would quickly collapse under his body weight, sending Phillips tumbling to the ground. He’d then pick himself up and begin work on the next iteration.
While Phillips was working on his design, he used the principle of “jumping fences” by connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and influences. For example, his father happened to own an antique C-shaped Chinese sword and Phillips had always been impressed by the flexibility of the blade; this influenced his design as he began thinking in terms of a C-shaped foot. Meanwhile, Phillips was studying the mechanics of diving boards and wondered if the same kind of spring force could be applied to a prosthetic. And on top all this, he drew lessons from nature: He’d learned that the hind leg of a cheetah functions in a very distinctive way, with the tendons compressing and releasing in a manner that yields great elasticity.
Phillips began to connect all of this—along with his knowledge of the unique properties of carbon graphite—and eventually created a lower-leg-and-foot prostheses with no heel and a distinctive C-shape. It became known as the Cheetah and revolutionized the prosthetics industry, drawing worldwide attention in 2008 when the track runner Oscar Pistorius competed for an Olympic berth, running on two Cheetahs and looking like a man from the future. The Cheetah also changed Phillips’ own life, enabling him to return to running and other activities he’d always loved. And obviously it had the same effect on the lives of many others—including that gentleman who called in to the radio program the other day, to say, in effect, “Thanks, Van.”
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.