Queensland College of Art design student Riley Sheehan will overhaul his electric wheelchair as the basis for his Honours project, proving that design can change people’s lives.

Riley has a genetic condition called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) that causes muscle degeneration and weakness. He lost the ability to walk during his early teens, and has been using an electric wheelchair for the past decade.

The Gold Coast design graduate recently won the Australian Decorative Fine Art Society (ADFAS) Scholarship to complete his Honours degree at the QCA. The scholarship supports promising art and design students at Honours level — through equipment or material purchases, hosting an exhibition, or travel to extend their networks.

Riley intends applying his unique insight and skills to create an exciting new concept for an electric wheelchair, playing with elements including modularity, colour and functionality.

“The design of the wheelchair hasn’t changed for years,” he said.

“They are the cost of a small car, and it does frustrate me that the design is still so basic.

“We should be able to express ourselves with our chairs and have some fun with them, just like any other accessory – I want to make something bright, stylish and functional.”

As a kid who loved building elaborate creations with Lego and was obsessed with computer games and art during high school, Riley found a design degree was the perfect way to explore all of his passions. At the QCA, he soon discovered an interest in inclusive design – working on designs for kitchen utensils for people with limited mobility and a new tray for his wheelchair.

One of Riley’s projects focused on the electric wheelchair tray table, often the last part created for the chairs.

“The role of design in society is very important as it directly impacts everyone – it’s all about solving problems,” he said.

“Good design is focused on the end user, and when it’s done well, it can completely upend the way objects are used and bring meaningful change to people’s lives.

“Bad design can alienate certain groups of people and leaves people feeling that their needs aren’t being met.

“My passion for design comes from a desire to enact change and help create a more inclusive society.”

Riley’s Honours supervisor, Dr Sam Canning, said it was inspiring to see a young designer embarking on such a personal project.

“I think this is a really interesting project and Riley is in a unique position to really consider the users needs – something that isn’t always considered as much as it should be.

“I can’t think of a better time or a better place to be a 3D or product design student – Griffith has produced designers who focus on everything from medical products to fashion and theme parks.”

Riley is planning to continue his studies at the Queensland College of Art after completing his Honours degree.

“I’m hoping to continue on to a Masters degree, and then perhaps a PhD,” he said.

“I’m keen to pursue a career as a design researcher, I think it’s the best way to put my skills to use and Dr. Sheehan has a nice sound to it.”