YD Talks: How a design student and part-time fire-fighter designed a postural aid to prevent back pain

Little did Leo Ochoa know, the work from his summer job as a wildlife firefighter many years ago, would give his spine, of all things, back problems. The risk of backache exists practically with every profession… whether it involves long hours on foot, heavy lifting, or even sitting on an uncomfortable chair at work for half a day. For Leo, a short stint as a firefighter was enough for him to feel the fatigue on his spine. Once he realized that he wasn’t the only one, and that almost everyone past a certain age feels spinal fatigue (most people normalize it), Leo went on to develop the Dorsum Exospine.

The Dorsum Exospine is a wearable that gives you a second-spine to help distribute the load and effort, keeping your back safe and preventing injury or chronic aches. Molded from a thermoplastic polymer, the Dorsum Exospine is a combination of lightweight, supportive, and flexible materials. It integrates into a minimal shoulder-strap system and a waistband that allows you to secure it to your body, while a relatively discreet design allows you to wear it under your clothes, just like any back-support belt.

We spoke with Leo Ochoa, founder of Dorsum and designer of the Dorsum Exospine about his product design journey, and how necessity led him to invent a product that would go on to help people who face back problems with a lifestyle that’s either too active or too sedentary. The Dorsum Exospine, according to Leo, is ideal for laborers, construction workers, package handlers, drivers, and stylish for even the office-going professional who faces the brunt of sitting for long hours on uncomfortable chairs.

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Yanko Design: Hey Leo, we’re very happy to be doing this interview! Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to develop the Dorsum Exospine.

Leo Ochoa: Likewise, and thank you for this opportunity to share how the Dorsum Exospine came to be. I worked for three summers as a wildland firefighter to pay for my university expenses while I was studying design. Carrying equipment and heavy packs while doing repetitive work was no fun when my back become fatigued and was in pain. But that job allowed me to pay for part of my college.

What kept me coming back to do the physical work every summer, was the feeling that my work mattered and it made a difference in other people’s lives. The best memories I have is when on the drive back to our camp, we watched from our fire trucks the local people on their front porches waving their hands and holding signs.

Those signs read; Thank You for Saving Our Town. It was that feeling of making a difference to an entire town that motivated me to push through the pain and come back every summer. My dream position then was to become a Hotshot firefighter, and be part of an elite crew with qualifications to approach and fight fires from a much closer distance. Eventually, the risk of body injury convinced me to take a different path.

The experience of fighting fires became a bigger part of me years later when studying product design at Art Center. We were given the assignment to design for future health and medical applications, and I chose to design for emergency response. Doing station visits and conducting interviews with north Los Angeles fire medics I started to notice a pattern emerge.

Every first responder I interviewed had a back injury story, from the most common of a pulled muscle, to the most severe of a herniated disc. For some first responders the injury had prevented them from returning to do the work they loved so much. Hearing how a simple back injury crushed their dreams to save lives motivated me to help and do something through design.

It doesn’t surprise me why the injuries keep happening, and part of the reason is the lack of preventative focused products in the market. I started prototyping ways to support the body by creating a flexible vertical spring-like device to help keep the user upright and allow them to bend properly while doing their job. The outcome was reimagining the first responder uniform and integrating the vertical spring in it. This was the first application of the Dorsum Exospine into apparel.

YD: Did you have any experience with back-braces before you made the Dorsum Exospine? What were your thoughts on the current solutions?

LO: My experience with back-braces was from a designer’s point of view, I wore several versions (non-injured) as a product study to understand their use. My experience validates what everyone that has worn a back-brace says, they are bulky, uncomfortable, restrict movement, and soon become warm and sweaty. You don’t feel good wearing them. My thoughts are that they serve the function for what they were intended to be used for, post-injury and restrict the body from movement. My design perspective though, is that back-braces are antiquated and some are over-engineered. Their material is not breathable, use too much layering, and the design is unattractive. They serve a purpose, but desperately need a modern design and more innovation.

The Dorsum Exospine is different and the opposite of a back-brace. It is designed to be flexible, and supportive while moving with the user and adapt to their everyday movements. It supports the upper, mid, and lower regions of the back, and all focused on reducing the risk of injury.

YD: There’s this common theory that people with back problems shouldn’t be engaging in any activity that causes them strain. What prompted you to design a product that goes against this theory that’s so ingrained within everyone’s minds?

LO: In design reviews with our medical experts, I learned that theory is outdated in many ways and needs clarification. There is a spectrum of back problems, from the most common affecting the muscles, to the most severe, affecting the joints and discs. It all depends on the severity of the injury of course. If the skeletal or spinal structure is affected, the best solution is to prevent movement until the bones are correctly aligned.

For common strain from overuse of the muscles around the spine, as long as all vertebrae are correctly aligned, the best solution for the body is to continue being active. When the body remains active, more blood which carries oxygen is delivered to the injured area, and waste is removed for consistent recovery. It is healthy to have blood pumping through your spine, and proper posture to engage your core muscles, even while sitting.

The Dorsum Exospine is not a brace and is designed to be worn to keep your spine aligned while doing activities requiring repetitive movement. Research shows when the spine is properly aligned, added weight to the body is distributed evenly, and the risk of injury is significantly reduced. Although it is not a brace, it is a postural support and encouragement of proper body mechanics as an injury is healing, which is extremely important to long term recovery.

YD: What age-bracket do you see most Dorsum Exospine users falling under?

LO: We designed the Dorsum Exospine for everyone, but we see it being used primarily by the 25-45 age-bracket. This age group is developing the awareness that by investing in one’s health early on, one can prevent or delay an injury from happening. They understand the importance of maintaining an active life but are also the ones taking jobs that put their bodies at high risk of injury.

YD: Guide us through the design process of the Dorsum Exospine. How did you arrive at the final form?

LO: It has been a challenging process with a lot of learning at each step of the way. User insights along the way showed us we needed to adjust the functional requirements, changing the entire design three times. For the function of the spine I took inspiration from automotive leaf spring suspensions systems. Also pulling from my past experience in footwear and designing healthcare devices, I first created a lacing system that would control the tension when bringing the Dorsum Exospine closer to the body.

With feedback from our focus groups of first responders, we first designed a ballistic heavy duty utility vest to be worn over clothing. Then the preference was for the function to be more slim, flexible, and comfortable while sitting. This was our biggest challenge by far, and it took us many months until we found a breakthrough. Finally, we were able to design the product in a way that is adjustable and collapsible for maximum flexibility. This became a lighter version of the previous design but one that could be worn underneath workwear and closer to the body. The request for the product to be more breathable lead us in the direction of the final version.

YD: What sort of prototypes did you make? What materials were you considering for the Dorsum Exospine?

LO: For the outerwear utility vest we used ballistic nylon fabric with power mesh for breathability with the Dorsum Exospine being made from 100% carbon fiber. We could make the product paper-thin, super lightweight, and very supportive. Using these advanced composites meant the Dorsum Exospine could be used under extreme hot temperatures in case it needed to go into burning structures to fight a fire. To add flexibility we baked a mix of ballistic nylon and carbon fiber more specific to firefighting.

We then explored polycarbonate and spring steel to make a slimmer version of the Dorsum Exospine, that would fit into a lite vest/jersey style using compression fabrics. This created new challenges with adjustability and later the winning design was the final version using elastic bands, ballistic nylon, and breathable mesh fabrics.

YD: Is the Dorsum Exospine curative/rehabilitative? Or does one wear it all their life?

LO: The Dorsum Exospine was designed and created to help reduce the risk of the most common back injuries, from muscular overuse and repetitive motion strains. It is a postural and ergonomic enhancer used to increase the functional movement of the wearer. It supports the body by encouraging the wearer to move properly throughout the repetitive movement the workday requests. It bolsters the body with three points of contact, supporting the upper thoracic, mid-thoracic, and lumbar spine regions. The wearer is effortlessly reminded to maintain natural spinal alignment and activate proper muscle groups while lifting and performing repetitive movements. When proper postural and ergonomic technique is maintained, injury is significantly less likely to occur.

The Dorsum Exospine back support is focused on prevention rather than rehabilitation. Wearing the device gives the user postural feedback to let them know when they’re in and out of alignment. It gently guides the user into correct posture while also teaching the wearer what proper posture feels like. It is not intended for a person to wear the product all their life, only while performing activities increasing the risk of body injury. We are finding from our testers that after wearing it, makes their bodies create muscle memory in their minds and they are much more likely to maintain proper posture even when not wearing the device.

YD: Can the Dorsum Exospine be worn with backpacks or while exercising or sleeping?

LO: Absolutely, by wearing the Dorsum Exospine with a backpack you feel more supported, the weight of the pack is evenly distributed along your entire back activating more the function of this Postural Aid. You can also wear the Dorsum Exospine while working out, especially in activities requiring you to maintain a straight back and hold that posture position for long periods of time. Using it while exercising has become a big request from or customers. Wearing it while sleeping is only functional if you sleep face up, so you can apply the weight of your body through your back directly on the back supporter. This will keep your lumbar curve supported the entire time you sleep.

YD: What sort of feedback are you getting on the Dorsum Exospine? Are there any useful suggestions from the users?

LO: We’ve been getting great feedback and the top two suggestions and requests have been, 1 – to make the Dorsum Exospine more specific to exercising and weightlifting, and 2 – integration of the Dorsum Exospine with body armor.

YD: I believe the Dorsum Exospine is just one of the products under Dorsum’s company line. What else are you working on?

LO: Without revealing too much, I can say we have continued working on a more advanced, heavy duty version that requires more development time, it’s on our innovation track. But that’s not to say the suggestions from our users won’t make it into our product line and to the market sooner.

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