01st October 2012

We are delighted to have participated in KTA's last issue, getting the chance to explain how our role as Designer in Residence at Sheffield University is to "turn knowledge and research specialisms into real world applications":

One of Britain’s leading product designers, Sebastian Conran, has spent the last year as the KTA’s Designer in Residence at the University of Sheffield. Here, he gives his own account of a remarkable collaboration between the world of business and scientific research.

This last year has been an incredible adventure for me. The truth is that ever since I was a child I have wanted to be a scientist. And this year I have had the opportunity to work with some remarkable people who are at the leading edge of scientific and engineering research.

Much of my career has been spent in collaborative ventures with clients to create innovative and inspirational designs. Whether it was working with Mothercare on the design of a pushchair, or with McLaren on emotional aspects of their high performance cars, I have always followed the principle that form follows fabrication and function.

This last year I have been travelling up to Sheffield to develop ideas across a range of projects at the University, from robotics and recyclable bottles to assisted living and anti-theft technology on cars. In each case, my role as Designer in Residence has been to engage with academics helping to turn their knowledge and research specialisms into real world solutions and applications.

As a young man I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A-level, but my father said I should be a designer and go to Art School instead of becoming an engineer. Despite this, I have always loved machines, taking things apart and putting them back together, and when I come to designing things I always fall back on the key principles that come from these scientific disciplines.

I first came to Sheffield after I met the polymer scientist Professor Tony Ryan, now Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Science at the University. Like me, Tony has a fondness for making the links, or blurring the boundaries, between the arts and the sciences. We met a Royal Society event where I was speaking and from there he invited me to address a group of materials scientists.

I hadn’t really addressed scientists before so I thought I had to explain how design works and I came up with ‘the value equation’ – where value equals brand plus design plus quality, divided by cost. At the end of the speech I was amazed that all these people came up to me to tell me how good it was, as I was the only person in the room without a doctorate, and these were people I held in huge esteem.

It was from this that the idea of the long-term KTA collaboration was born and I was given the opportunity to show how the beauty of design is that it can make science successful: it shows us how to harness technology and to make it appealing to the public.

This means that for business – and for designers like me – collaborating with a University like Sheffield can be a mutually beneficial relationship that can lead to new products being brought to the market.

A lot of value is created in the University but sometimes the researchers need help in realising their potential. It sounds awfully superficial, but if Dolby didn’t have a name or Goretex didn’t have a brand, such ideas may never have been realised. Creating a brand is a key part of that process.

I am trained to create real value. If something I design sells, then it is successful. If it doesn’t sell, it is unsuccessful. With product design you have to be able to get it into production and at a price; it has to be resilient; it mustn’t fail; but most of all it must be compelling; it is a rigorous process. And that is what I have been trying to do here at Sheffield.

Maybe I am a conduit between research into, and the implementation of, technology – design is about making ideas successful. It is almost like being a lightning conductor, taking the bright sparks and flashes of inspiration and channelling them in the right direction. It is about thinking like an entrepreneur, coming at things from a different direction, thinking laterally, behaving disruptively, seeing the real like context of what we are doing.

I believe this kind of collaboration is the way forward for business. Whatever I have given to the University, I have more than received back in the experience and knowledge I gained from working with some of the leading minds in their respective fields. Without exception I have been wowed by the people I have been working with. They have inspired me and given me news ways of looking at the world. We have turned many of their ideas into real world projects. But for this to happen, business has to be clear about what it wants from collaboration. The parameters of the partnership have to be spelled out clearly and the ground rules agreed. But once these are agreed the relationship feels very productive.

For businesses and designers like myself, collaboration with the University will stimulate insights into issues and things that you hadn’t thought of before. It will open your eyes to new ways of seeing and approaching problems. For instance, the work we are doing with the psychology of robotics is transforming my whole idea of what the future is going to be. And thi is crucial for a designer, whose success depends upon understanding what the future is going to be like in the short, medium and long-term. This work has convinced me that robots will be the next big ‘have-to-have’ in the home. They will be the DVD and plasma screens of the future.

And my role is to give a much more user-centric view of what the final product should look like.

What this last year has given me – and I believe this would benefit any commercial business – is access to quality thinking time, and high quality thinkers. The University has a different sense of urgency. It gives me lots of marinating time. Ideas don’t come to order; you don’t sit at your desk and say I am going to have four ideas this morning. They come through conversation and collaboration, and this is what you get when you collaborate with a University like this. In the end, we both share the same goal – to enhance the experience of like for everyone. And engaging in that activity is an incredible adventure and privilege.