To truly understand, explore and experiment, you must create

In Review: KTN MaDE Lecture ‘in conversation’ with Sir Kenneth Grange and Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Jess Fox, IJess Foxndustrial Designer and Researcher at Designability, recently attended the KTN Annual MaDE Lecture at Imperial College, London. Here she shares details of the Q&A session with the world renowned Industrial/Product Designer Sir Kenneth Grange and offers her insights from the discussions.

About Kenneth
In the early 1970s, Kenneth co-founded the consultancy Pentagram, a hugely successful graphic, architectural and Industrial design firm. Kenneth is widely recognised for his work; from the Parker pen to the TX1 1997 London taxi. There seems to be nothing he wouldn’t try his hands at. His most famous designs include the Venner UK parking meters, Kenwood food mixer, Kodak camera, Wilkinson razors, irons for Morphy Richards and many commissions for Japanese clients. He continues to work at the ripe age of 87!

When it’s OK to challenge people’s expectations
Kenneth shared a memorable story of a project that he was involved in with Wilkinson Sword. When developing a plastic version of his razor design he chose a red colour for the main body. In the first board meeting hands flew in the air, with senior team members saying “It can’t be red!” – thinking of the negative connotations it had with blood. Kenneth convinced them that if it were red, surely that challenges their associations by inferring that it was so good and daring that it couldn’t possibly cut the user. He was right, and the product flew off the shelf. If it hadn’t been for Kenneth knowing when to challenge the rules and having an understanding of acceptability, it probably wouldn’t have done as well.

It just goes to show that it’s OK to be daring at times. To innovate, you have to think differently and take risks.

How design has changed over the years
One of the biggest changes Kenneth has seen in his 60+ years as a designer is the ubiquity of design. Nowadays it can be hard to identify a specific designer for a product – usually there is a wealth of inputs and expertise from numerous people to create a design.

It was clear that Kenneth delighted in the advancement of manufacturing systems. He was amazed at the manufacturing process of creating cigar tubes – an extremely refined process where a high pressure male component compresses a small pellet of aluminium into a female tool, creating a remarkably thin wall section. Considering this refined process, it is fascinating that it was also designed so that, when the lid of the tube is pulled off, a satisfying “pop” sound is created. He highlighted that: to discover new opportunities, it is essential to interact with manufacturers to understand this process.

The importance of real prototypes vs. virtual ones
One person asked if it is essential to create real prototypes as opposed to virtual ones. Kenneth, without a shadow of a doubt, said “Of course!”. To truly understand, explore and experiment, you must create. “You gain everything from feeling a prototype and these can be adapted quickly and efficiently”. As a designer I have to completely agree – design become much more real when you can use all your senses to explore a prototype and it is so much easier for the potential user of the product to appraise the design when they can actually handle it.

The future of design
What intrigues Kenneth the most about modern design is the potential of re-using and repairing. People seem very accepting of using disposable products which never used to be the case when Kenneth started out as a designer. He proposed that we should sometimes look at what we already have and consider adaptations to create new products. It made me wonder whether we are perhaps losing the sentimental value of our products because of high-scale manufacture and the lessening feel of uniqueness and craft that they hold?

Aesthetics and connecting emotion to design
Scandinavian’s know how to design and create beautiful products. This is something that Kenneth mentioned and that I heard again only the other day, from an Occupational Therapist. We must consider aesthetics and the value of the emotional connection someone has with the aesthetic of a product. This is the difference between something that’s meaningful and something that isn’t.

One of the most beautiful things Kenneth had ever seen was when he was moving offices in Hampstead. He had worked there for about 10-15 years and had a small workshop, with a paint room at the back. Before he vacated, Kenneth decided to prise off a chunk of the wall and he cut it open to observe the paint layers. Considering how long he had been there, and the fact that many models required up to 20 coats of paint, it was a true marvel to observe the history of their work in one piece of material, with each layer telling a story.

Age and accessibility for all
Kenneth suggested we all take a look at the work of the University of the Third Age, an intriguing movement where retired and semi-retired persons collaborate to learn with one another, for the sheer joy of it. Age was a topic that Kenneth touched on frequently – his pet hate is the lowering of cars over the years and how this creates reduced accessibility for older users. His dream project would be to design an inclusive public bus which considered the needs of people with disabilities and age-related problems.

It’s interesting how his priorities have seemingly shifted as he has become older and I definitely felt a sense that he cared much more about putting the user at the heart of the process now. He encouraged everyone to work with people of various ages to learn from each other. I recently read a similar story from Michael Graves, a product designer who also shifted his thinking when he became paralysed from the chest down.

My final thoughts
What struck me most from Kenneth is just how sell-able the products he designs are. He always seems to know what people want and importantly, when they want it. He even stated that “staying ahead of the competition” would be his best advice for us all.

The question I put to him was: “If you could go back in time with the knowledge you have now, to when you started out as a designer, what piece of advice would you offer yourself?”

Kenneth confidently, without much need for consideration said “never say ‘no’, stay ahead of the game and be prepared to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week”!

I went away feeling truly inspired by Kenneth’s wealth of knowledge, the sheer range of products he has worked on and the timelessness of his designs. His designs that were created 50 years ago remain desirable today. I would love to be able to achieve that with my work!

It was one of the most enjoyable lectures I have ever attended, not only for Kenneth’s compelling storytelling, but also the contagious delight he got out of the minutiae of the design process.

I was also excited to hear about his shift in thinking as he has become older – it shouldn’t be that people only begin to think about designing for reduced ability because of direct experience. My hope for the future is that this becomes a responsibility for all designers and that inclusive design becomes an integral part of every designer’s thinking.

Photo credits: Kodak CameraHackney CarriageInterCity 125

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