Artistic visions for prosthetic design VI - Why on earth RED? What happens when you wear a RED ARM?

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Artistic visions for prosthetic design VI - Why on earth RED? What happens when you wear a RED ARM?; published June 22, 2009, 01:45; URL: https://www.swisswuff.ch/tech/?p=183.

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1571390477, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Artistic visions for prosthetic design VI - Why on earth RED? What happens when you wear a RED ARM?}}, month = {June},year = {2009}, url = {https://www.swisswuff.ch/tech/?p=183}}


Red is the color we are talking about. Red is not a new color for wearing stuff though.

After trying my "cosmetic looking" prosthesis - both the cosmetic arm and the very realistic silicone covered hand - at work and at play, at parties and when meeting people, they all felt very comfortable to wear and put me in a good mood. But comfort was only what I got - the others got a different ride out of it.

Actually, my initial reaction to the skin colored hand as well as the first hook that I saw was that of nausea. When I first saw the options for prosthetic arms I felt like going to the toilet and puking maybe for two or three weeks or so. But I didn't. And instead of the void, the nothing, I do like that bit of ugly ass plastic there, at least I liked it better than non-disabled folks. They often react like I reacted for the first time.

I am not alone to be appalled by how prosthetic limbs look. Typical reactions of amputees when seeing artificial limbs for the first time are similar (cited from [1]):

I don't think I realized, but I thought I was getting my leg back and when I saw the prosthesis for the first time, I cried and cried. And I look back on that day and not the day of the accident but that day as the worst day of my life and I cried and cried and cried...

I remember the first day h put the limb on and I remember the emotion was to start crying. It just wasn't the same. That was your immediate reaction to it you know. Subconsciously you are thinking that you are going to be put back together.

Authors' further comments, also from [1]:

Thus, a common response to seeing a prosthesis for the first time was of extreme shock and disappointment. Furthermore, it was also generally agreed that it was an emotionally charged experience and that living with an amputation did not simply involve getting a prosthesis made and returning to a relatively unchanged life.

My prosthetic technician's officially defined attempts - so far - at camouflage and emulating a normal hand/arm did not at all manage to communicate 'ease', 'beauty', 'comfort' or 'relaxed attitude' to other people. Of course not. People cannot see that I like the way the snug fit of the liner compresses my stump and they cannot see that my brain even believes there is still a hand and that things feel not at all what they look like from outside. Alright, it's called 'phantom' hand for a reason. Yet, all that has no bearing and how and what I feel is not what plays out at the other end.

Signaling 'ease', 'beauty', 'comfort' or 'relaxed attitude' in relation to the disabled arm could even be wrong for any prosthesis to attempt. Non-disabled people by nature and by all we know will be nervous or irritated. So if the people you encounter are at all to be given a chance to chill, to go "phew", trying to communicate 'ease', 'beauty', 'comfort', 'chill' or even 'humor' could go down the wrong way.

Conversely, wearing a standard issue cosmetic looking hand, I will likely be understood as communicating 'this has been taken over by specialist replacement, it is a taboo zone and ought not to be talked about'. It may communicate in our society also 'we are all tense and hope you accept the prosthesis as suitable attempt for perfection, please look away'. That seems to cause conflicting emotions and appears to be a rather solid basis for relatively stressful further encounters.

So the issue is complicated, but bear with me here.

Missing an arm or parts of it by default is not equated with 'ease' but with 'difficulty', not with 'beauty' but 'horror' and 'ugliness', not with 'comfort' but with 'suffering' (one of my T-Shirts says "it was a lot worse than it looks") and not with 'relaxed' but with 'tense attitude'.

From all of my encounters and from all I read - (like Goffman or Cloerkes) - I know that nervous mood and agitated fear abound. Life tends to get tense around the visible disability. And I believe that replacing a human body part has to roughly approximate - not almost copy - the original form; check the Uncanny Valley theory.

By definition, cosmetic is an adjective describing beauty, aesthetics, or appearance, especially concerning the human body.

So how to equip a "cosmetic prosthesis"? Go for the gut feeling first, don't waste time on tiny intricate details. The color RED comes naturally. YELLOW would be suitable as well. Also I found that dark mahagony wood looks extremely elegant in that it embodies a look commonly found in car wood panels or smokers' lounges in Gentlemens' clubs - but upon wearing it and upon deep reflection, I found that a direct 1:1 representation of known entities, of morphological alliterations so to speak, of embodiments of already existing references feel mostly problematic. They are so confusing to interpret as these can mean so many different things to other individuals. So I need a look that transcends existing experiences. The Michelangelo hand and the iLimb are great - yet they caught up in demonstrating a limited degree of technical awareness, of a model builder's coolness. They are not social body parts but technical gadgets. And I need a part that communicates and that does so effectively.

In an apodictic interpretation of the significance of color, the color red greets and acknowledges the nervous child inside the non disabled person that meets me. It is a far more adequate color than all attempts at camouflage or attempts at showing technical gadgetry. It communicates sentences such as 'it is OK to be irritated', and 'yes we all know something has happened here', or 'I scream, you scream, we all scream, for I scream'. It is the best label for breaking possibly disturbing news - rather than putting artificial skin on the arm and asking "why, something wrong?" once the psychological trauma aspect is admitted and agreed on as relevant. Even wearin "cool techno stuff" is only limited in how cool it comes across as as ultimately, missing a part of an arm is just not cool, and any effective communication must reflect that. I can very well overplay feelings of being disturbed or irritated. But we don't want to overplay irritation.

My initial instinct immediately steered towards thick red glossy acrylic to soothe the aching eyes of the innocent bystander. Hell, I feel better with it too. But it was not until my little sister alerted me to the fact that this type of madness has method: the theory behind it is that emotions may be distorted, boosted or calmed down by what we see. From "DIE ERZIEHUNG DES KINDES VOM GESICHTSPUNKTE DER GEISTESWISSENSCHAFT" «Lucifer-Gnosis» 1907 (Nr. 33) by Rudolf Steiner, we learn the following:

"Nur ein paar Beispiele mögen noch angeführt werden. Anders muß im Sinne der Geisteswissenschaft ein sogenanntes nervöses, ein aufgeregtes, anders ein lethargisches, unregsames Kind in bezug auf seine Umgebung behandelt werden. Alles kommt da in Betracht, von den Farben des Zimmers und der anderen Gegenstände, welche das Kind gewöhnlich umgeben, bis zu den Farben der Kleider, die man ihm anzieht. Man wird da oft das Verkehrte tun, wenn man sich nicht von der Geisteswissenschaft leiten läßt, denn der materialistische Sinn wird in vielen Fällen gerade zum Gegenteile vom richtigen greifen. Ein aufgeregtes Kind muß man mit roten oder rotgelben Farben umgeben und ihm Kleider in solchen Farben machen lassen, dagegen ist bei einem unregsamen Kinde zu den blauen oder blaugrünen Farben zu greifen. Es kommt nämlich auf die Farbe an, die als Gegenfarbe im Inneren erzeugt wird. Das ist zum Beispiel bei Rot die grüne, bei Blau die orangegelbe Farbe, wie man sich leicht überzeugen kann, wenn man eine Weile auf eine entsprechend gefärbte Fläche blickt, und dann rasch das Auge auf eine weiße Fläche richtet. Diese Gegenfarbe wird von den physischen Organen des Kindes erzeugt und bewirkt die entsprechenden dem Kinde notwendigen Organstrukturen. Hat das aufgeregte Kind eine rote Farbe in seiner Umgebung, so erzeugt es in seinem Inneren das grüne Gegenbild. Und die Tätigkeit des Grünerzeugens wirkt beruhigend, die Organe nehmen die Tendenz der Beruhigung in sich auf.

Durchgreifend ist für dieses Lebensalter eines zu berücksichtigen: nämlich, daß der physische Leib sich den Gradmesser schafft für das, was ihm zuträglich ist. Er tut das durch die entsprechende Ausgestaltung der Begierde. Man kann im allgemeinen sagen, daß der gesunde physische Leib nach dem Verlangen trägt, was ihm frommt. Und solange es auf den physischen Leib bei dem heranwachsenden Menschen ankommt, soll man intim hinsehen auf das, was das gesunde Verlangen, die Begierde, die Freude haben wollen. Freude und Lust sind die Kräfte, welche die physischen Formen der Organe in der richtigsten Art herauslocken. Man kann in dieser Richtung allerdings schwer sündigen, indem man das Kind nicht in die entsprechenden physischen Verhältnisse zur Umgebung setzt. Das kann insbesondere in bezug auf die Nahrungsinstinkte geschehen. Man kann das Kind mit solchen Dingen überfüttern, daß es seine gesunden Nahrungsinstinkte vollständig verliert, während man sie ihm durch die richtige Ernährung so erhalten kann, daß es genau bis auf das Glas Wasser alles verlangt, was ihm unter gewissen Verhältnissen zuträglich ist und alles zurückweist, was ihm schaden kann. Die Geisteswissenschaft wird bis auf die einzelnen Nahrungs- und Genußmittel alles anzugeben wissen, was hier in Betracht kommt, wenn sie zum Aufbau einer Erziehungskunst aufgerufen wird. Denn sie ist eine realistische Sache für das Leben, nicht eine graue Theorie, als was sie allerdings heute noch nach den Verirrungen mancher Theosophen erscheinen könnte.

Zu den Kräften, welche bildsam auf die physischen Organe wirken, gehört also Freude an und mit der Umgebung. Heitere Mienen der Erzieher, und vor allem redliche, keine erzwungene Liebe. Solche Liebe, welche die physische Umgebung gleichsam warm durchströmt, brütet im wahren Sinn des Wortes die Formen der physischen Organe aus."

Beautiful, isn't it.

And here the core part of it as rough English approximation:

"A nervous, that is to say excitable child should be treated differently as regards environment from one who is quiet and lethargic. Everything comes into consideration, from the colour of the room and various objects that are generally around the child, to the colour of the clothes in which he is dressed. An excitable child should be surrounded by and dressed in red and reddish-yellow colours, whereas for a lethargic child one should have recourse to the blue or bluish-green shades of colour. For the important thing is the complimentary colour, which is created within the child. In the case of red it is green, and in the case of blue orange-yellow - and that, in turn, has the strong tendency to calm the child down, to create a green color inside for the excitable child and an orange yellow color for the lethargic child. "

So - too much of a detached materialism as basis for our decisions may go horribly wrong. Sometimes I just praise my humanistic and heretic education ideals. Thank you, and keep inspiring me, Parnassos ;-) And so, my Red Hand Project was born. It is not crazy or offensive, it is not an attempt to get extra attention (you walk around with or without an artificial arm and you'll find that you get that anyway).

It's nothing but clever neurophysics put to use effectively and cheaply.

Obviously there are a whole number of other options - patterns, artwork, et cetera - but then, try out other designs by digitally editing a photo, let the photographic impressions ofother prosthetic artwork sink in, take time, look at it, and see whether you can pick up your emotions. And you may agree that there are some things that work better than others.

Compare these:

Photo with Red Arm:

Digitally edited to show cow skin; in fact, it is one of my next projects to do a cow skin sheath / glove combo:

Digitally yellow: I really like this. Maybe I will get sick of the Red. Then I'll paint it yellow.

Digitally black. Ooooh. This looks too gloomy for my taste. The arm looks great and technical and black - but I don't match that :-)

A while later I went to try a range of other colors and designs (see blog post thread). In the meantime I was able to persuade Centri (Sweden) to help me with a red hand.

Custom made Centri PVC gloves for Becker Imperial hand

After everyone and their grandmother expressed so much preference for red, I was finally ready to try an industrial version of otherwise useful and nice cosmetic PVC gloves. As I know some ins and outs of plastics I was quite aware of the fact that colored gloves don't necessarily cost the manufacturer too much effort. Still,  Centri (Sweden) were nice enough to provide me with these.

And, here we go : )

Now, wearing red, what happens?

  • I get joyous and genuine compliments from people that say they feel refreshed and under much less pressure. Seeing a disabled person wear out proactive designs was rated 10 out of 10 by two people who would not at all have to make such a compliment.
  • People look at me and relax, then laugh. I had people really be good spirited around this and that has not happened with all gloomy attempts at replacing natural appearances.
  • Some people really stare hard now. They really dig their eyes in it now. But not that long any more. Short intense check glances - and we're done. The Red Hand seems to somehow act like a 2-way signal splitter. But the intense stares now, they are the nuclear meltdown type, these people cannot recover any more. At least the couple of folks that I saw freezing up so far.
  • I get relatively mature and adult verbal responses when out in public rather than previously, when "standard issue prosthetics" seems to elicit a mixed stress response that combines fear, attempts at support, attempts at not overstepping any boundary, patronizing and curiosity.
  • I attended a wedding reception wearing the cable controlled red arm. A friend that was with me who is extremely alert in that respect watched the crowd out of the corners of her eyes all the time. She has almost two decades of suffering stares herself and has to be regarded as very alert in that respect. She said that much to her surprise not a single person had stared. She was shocked - she had not anticipated that much of a relaxed reaction at all.
  • The white shop window mannequin arm - a variant to the Red Arm - appears even more blunt and quite clearly extremely artificial - but while that one is a real looker from very far away, it allows people to really chill and for the first time since a while other passers by stopped (as they would do before I lost the hand) to ask me for directions or start a chat in the tram. So as counter intuitive as it seems - that one was a real ice breaker. It has only very limited practical use which I find problematic - as I am spoiled and at least want a sufficient open/close mechanism. Still, this one leads in terms of social coolness.
  • Another arm amputee wrote to me "Mission accomplished! You have succeded in changing thought patterns, perceptions and reactions towards the physically disabled. You have also spiked my interest and shifted my focus regarding my own lack of a right hand. The photo of you sporting the (..) [Red Hand] brought a rather visceral reaction for me. (...) Your red hand packs a punch that says "BAM! THIS PLASTIC HAND IS AN ENERGY SOURCE! LOOK, STARE,TOUCH, ASK....BEWARE OF THE MAN WEARING IT...YOU MAY BE SCORCHED BY THE HEAT OF HIS CONFIDENCE!" Well done Wolf! (...) [23 April 2009] - so while some designs do this and that I certainly paved the way to a totally different angle, but starting with a full red.

Possible underlying principles

I have no way of telling why this works the way it does. It would be good to investigate what type of emotions a prosthetic arm conveys.

The null hypothesis based on purely anecdotal and experimental impressions would line up as follows:

  • The hook comes across as very relaxing to some and disturbing to others. Its visible mechanism may act as a distraction. It may be too technical and not anthropomorphic enough - as we may require a minimal anthropomorphic appearance for body parts central to our communication - face, head, hands.
  • The silicone glove on the Otto Bock hand that attempts to mimic a real hand's skin surface is probably too close to the real thing and yet still so far away that it creates an uneasy feeling. The minute details that are extremely necessary to create a relaxing and cool feel are a sufficiently realistic motion of underactuated prosthetic hand . Conversely, the static details are not necessary to have people chill but in fact too much static detail in combination with wrong dynamic resemblance may make them nauseous. In other words, a very realistic surface in combination with a stiff hand are in an obvious dis-balance. The iLimb in my view is not moving realistically enough (when I saw it live I fully tensed up, it did not make me feel at ease at all - it's a feeling thing) - realistic motion seems to be better in Otto Bock's new Michelangelo hand and in some other experimental new hands.
  • The red arm series is coming along well: others' reactions are far more relaxed than with standard issue coloring and skin simulation. It may cause people to realize that this is a visible thing that is OK to be visible. I am still not happy with the glove details as I would like the fit to be perfect. If Otto Bock would issue cool dark red PVC gloves with a technical looking ridge pattern on palms, finger tips and around joints - somewhat like their Michelangelo hand - they'd definitely go to the right direction. But as someone remarked - to do that, you need balls.

There are a number of models that could serve as start to anyone that would further investigate the issue:


[1] Gallagher P and MacLachlan M (2001) Adjustment to an Artificial Limb: A Qualitative Perspective. J Health Psych 6(1): 85-100. [pdf]

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