Flying a kite?

Not all self-initiated concepts make it to production, but the PR and goodwill generated make it all worthwhile. Angus Montgomery reports

As well as the Sisyphean task of satisfying fickle and demanding clients, most designers somehow still find time to work on self-initiated projects. These can vary in scope – from just a few ideas bounced around in the studio to a fully fledged concept idea with prototypes – and are carried out for various reasons.

One of the most common motivations is to keep the creative team on its toes, and provide a break from working on often complex commissioned projects. Seymour Powell last week unveiled the concept design for a luxury airship, the Aircruise, which it had conceived and developed in-house and which was then picked up by South Korean firm Samsung Construction & Trading. Funding from Samsung C&T allowed the consultancy to work up full technical specifications and visualisations for the 265m-tall theoretical airship.

Nick Talbot, design director at Seymour Powell, says the project started as a way of ’stimulating our internal design team from a transport point of view’. He adds that the project provided freedom as ’while we were working on lots of great projects, they all had the usual constraints’. The Aircruise was able to develop to such an extent because it was picked up by Samsung C&T after Seymour Powell used it in a credentials pitch. The project, which has received global media coverage over the past week, not only showcases Seymour Powell’s creativity, but has also allowed Samsung C&T to test material and construction theories and techniques.

Another consultancy which has been using conceptual self-generated projects to develop ideas and gain publicity – albeit on a smaller and less ambitious scale – is Jamie Martin Design, which has produced specifications and visualisations for the Super Hatchback Concept car, which consultancy founder Jamie Martin describes as ’a near-future rival to such cars as the Honda Civic and Ford Focus’. Martin, whose London Navigator design was a runner-up in the Bus for London competition, says, ’Projects like the SHC are a bit of a showcase for me – I like to set projects like this and see how far I can push them.’

Martin has produced full technical specifications for the SHC, from aerodynamics and styling through to ideal weight distribution. He says, ’I was trying to come up with something that was advanced but that could potentially go on the road.’ But he adds, ’It’s not really something I expect would go further or into production – it’s more just a demonstration of my design skills.’ Martin, who has a full-time marketing job as well as running JMD, says he carried out most of the design work in his spare time.

Digital consultancy Poke London endeavours to build time into the working schedule for self-generated conceptual ideas. Co-founder Nik Roope says, ’In the Internet business there’s so much “blue sky” around – it’s full of predictions.’ Last December the consultancy held its first ’hack day’. Roope says, ’We closed Poke for client business for 24 hours and spent the time on some playful, rapid R&D. A bit of fun, some team-workshopping and some interesting ideas coming out at the end.’ Projects that emerged from the hack day hothouse include www., a never-ending stack of user-generated sandwiches, and Egg Watchers – billed as ’the egg timer that entertains you’ – which sources YouTube clips that run for exactly the amount of time it takes to boil an egg.

But self-generated projects aren’t always merely PR or a way to let off steam – sometimes they can be serious projects in their own right. Paul Priestman of Priestman Goode developed the Waterpebble, launching to the international consumer market this week. The Waterpebble, designed to cut water usage, is a small plastic device that sits in the sink or shower and measures the amount of water going down the plug-hole. A series of traffic lights, flashing from green to red, indicate when to finish showering. Each time you shower, the product automatically fractionally reduces the amount of time you take to shower.

Priestman says the concept was inspired by signs in hotel rooms that say ’please use water sparingly’. The concept won a Future Friendly Award in 2008, which allowed the development of the project.

Priestman Goode works on a number of conceptual projects – including Post A Phone, a phone made mainly from recycled cardboard that can be sent by post – not all of which make it to market. Priestman says, ’Projects like this are about putting in the time sitting on aeroplanes and thinking about things, and allowing people in the studio to work on the projects while they probably ought to be doing something else.’ He adds, ’We always look at the end product. A lot of people are just interested in conceptual things for their own sake, but as designers we are always interested in mass production – that’s the main difference between design and art. Designing something that’s cheap and useful is the ultimate challenge.’

The benefits of conceptual projects

  • Allow you to develop ideas that aren’t part of a formal brief
  • Can show your range and design thinking to potential clients
  • Allow you to work on projects of personal interest
  • Allow the creative team to let off steam

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