For Renata Souza Luque designing an award-winning method for children with diabetes to not only administer their insulin more easily, but in a way that they actually look forward to and almost enjoy, was truly one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
“She struck a perfect balance between a medical tool and a toy,” says Jenny Blanton, the Lead of the James Dyson Foundation in North America, which named Souza’s design for an insulin kit for children a runner up for its 2017 James Dyson Foundation National Award. “Renata is not only a young person designing something for even younger people, but the amount of work she put into it is remarkable. She followed a path of iterative design and made it work.”
Souza, 24, first had the idea to design and make an insulin pen (4+) when she was a student at Parson’s School of Design, which she graduated from this past May. For Souza, the system, called Thomy, went far beyond just being a design challenge.
My nephew Thomas, who is six, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes,” Souza says. “He was facing a lot of issues but, on top of all the things people with newly diagnosed diabetes have to deal with, he also had to deal with issues that were unique to him simply because he’s a child.
“Thomás was having trouble with current insulin pens. He had a hard time injecting and holding it in place because his coordination and dexterity are not as developed. He was also having a hard time remembering where he had previously injected. Despite the fact that type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in young children, there are rarely any products designed specifically for children.”
When asked if the lack of children-specific diabetes products might be an oversight, Souza says she thinks it runs deeper than that.
“Perhaps nothing is made because there’s no real market for such products,” Souza says. “I mean, children with diabetes have to take insulin. Even if it’s difficult for them to administer, that doesn’t mean they can choose to not take it, right?”
Her nephew’s diagnosis was the start of a design odyssey that addressed much more than merely making a smaller and more intuitive insulin pen to accommodate children’s hands.
“The real goal was to make a system that children could make an emotional attachment with,” Souza says. “That’s key because if there’s a real emotional attachment then you increase compliance.”
Beyond just a vague notion of creating an emotional bond between a child and a medical device, Souza narrowed down her focus to addressing three primary problems: encouraging injection site rotation; creating an insulin pen designed with the ergonomic factors of a child’s hand; and encouraging the patient to keep the pen in longer ensuring that the full dose is administered, through a simple yet playful material.
Souza began an intense process of observation, ideation sketching and soliciting feedback from her nephew, from doctors, and even from children who don’t have diabetes.
Souza didn’t just dream up a system of temporary tattoos that children could use to know where they last administered the insulin. She interviewed children and their parents; she asked kids what kind of tattoos they would like. The thought process that went into it was intense. “I chose the size of the dots specifically because it is the exact amount of ink that is easy to remove with an alcohol pad but not too small that it could get erased with the friction of clothes,” she said about how the tattoos were finally designed.
They also had to be awesome and cool. Souza knew she was on the right track when Thomas’s younger brother, Agus, who does not have diabetes, wanted one of Thomas’s tattoos.
Souza’s feat of research and study to perfect every nuance of the kit she named Thomy, from the tattoos to the ergonomic factors of the pen—the added handle that assists patients when screwing on fresh needles and also allows them to let go without the pen touching the ground, is more impressive when you consider how far away she was from her nephew and other collaborators.
When Souza was designing Thomy she was living in New York, while her family was in Mexico City, where Souza is originally from. She travelled several times to Mexico City to speak with Thomas’s doctors and try out various prototypes, that said much of the work she did with family members and many others was conducted via Skype, phone calls, post mail, and various other conference connections.
Now that she has graduated and is an award-winning designer, Souza will try and forge a path forward with Thomy.
“I put a lot of time and work into this and it means a lot to me. I don’t want to let go of it completely by, say, just selling it to some company,” she says. “I have a provisional patent, and I am still working to perfect it even now. The one thing I am sure of is that I want to continue designing; I love creating products for niche markets.”
“As a designer she really put herself out there and really put in the work to make something that is very impressive,” Blanton says of Souza’s work. “The tattoos tackle a current medical issue (rotating injection sites) and on top of that have a gamification aspect that makes kids love them. Her ideas have really opened up the design world a bit more. The design is great right now, but she’s still working on it so imagine what it will be in six months or a year. Wow.”