The Award Trophies (photo by Matt Beech Photography)

Designing awards for tech pioneers

The development process behind the Scottish Tech Startup Awards 2018

The Project

Last month K_N Design Studio had the pleasure of designing something truly one-off. We were approached by the lovely people from the Turing Fest to design the trophies for the inaugural Scottish Tech Startup Awards. An exciting project to be apart of.

Inspired by the topography of my home town in Alva, I decided the awards shouldn’t be identical. We modeled all 10 in a continuous line. When lined up together, they create a cohesive strip of hills. When separated, they each become a unique chunk of the rock. This is symbolic of the winners of each award, individually unique yet united by a shared vision of a better world.

Tweet from Alistair Gunn, winner of the Ecosystem Award

Attending the ceremony was great fun and I was proud to watch the winners receive their awards. The party was a real spectacle of an evening and I’m so glad that the designs were well received. My favorite quote is a Tweet from Alistair Gunn (above), who won the Ecosystem Award. It is extremely gratifying to know that our intended message translated through to the end user, and I’m delighted that our work has done justice to the incredible achievements of each of the winners, and the exceptional work they do.

The Award Trophies (photo by Matt Beech Photography)

Behind the Scenes — making the awards

The concept

As an industrial design studio, we’re used to developing products for mass manufacture, so when this opportunity arose I was thrilled to take on the challenge. I’ve always wanted to design a trophy. They are such significant objects. Ornaments which represent great achievement and accomplishment.

This project was unique for many reasons and one of those was the freedom trusted upon us to create our vision. The brief was very simple, deliver 10 award trophies which represent tech in Scotland. Each being of equal merit, and robust enough to withstand being knocked around (the award ceremony was a Christmas party after all!). My first thought was “what would people from the tech industry find cool?” and my mind immediately jumped to Sci-fi.

Initial Concept — Solid Bronze

I love science fiction, and my initial vision was a sculptural, organic object. A form which is functionally indistinguishable. We wanted them to look like a background prop from a movie, sat upon a desk or coffee table in a scene from Blade Runner. They should be mysterious and unbranded, with any copy written on the front disappearing into the object, legible only when looked for. The first concept we presented was a solid Brass Cube with random bumps rising from the top surface. like waves or melted wax. This was technically too difficult and expensive, but headed in the right direction.

The Award Trophies (photo by Matt Beech Photography)

My biggest challenge was integrating Scotland into the form. It could easily end up twee or cliche (I definitely wanted to avoid whiskey and tartan!). The original concept of lumps and bumps rising from a cube gave me the inspiration to look at topography. Specifically my home town.

My home town ALVA (foreground), The Ochil Hills (background)

I grew up in a small town called Alva. It sits in the middle of a strip of villages which cut across the central belt, at the foot of the Ochil Hills. Growing up, the hills were always looming over us, providing a stunning backdrop to daily life. I still get goosebumps when I drive home to visit family, the scale of them warping as I approach, loosing more and more of the sky.

Initial sketches / concept development, map reading and coffee!

The topographic data is beautiful all on its own. I took inspiration from this and started playing around with shapes. Clackmannanshire has a rich industrial history, most famous for wool mills, harbours and canals. In the 18th Century, Alloa was ahead of its time, becoming one of Britains first towns to be industrialised. The wider area is still home to many of the countries breweries and cooperages. Adam Swan, Author of ‘Clackmannanshire and the Ochils, an illustrated architectural guide’ describes it as “Scotland in epitome”.

Modelling the awards in the K_N Studio at CodeBase (photo by Matt Beech Photography)

The awards are recognising the brave people in Tech who are paving the way, disrupting and leading industries. I could clearly see the parallels with this areas history. I began modelling the shape freehand in CAD. I created a plane divided up by a grid, and started pushing and pulling on various points to achieve the desired effect. I manipulated and twisted the plane until the hills settled in a visually appealing way. I merged the shape into a solid block and split it up into 10 equal parts. I studied each part to make sure they were as interesting individually as they are together.

Creating the awards / Bringing the vision to life

3D printing the prototype (left), and testing it out in our studio (right)

We 3D printed a proof of concept at the Eagle Lab below our studio in CodeBase. This allowed us to present the client with a physical representation of the final product. It’s easy to sell an idea when you can show a tactile prototype, and since the awards are small, we printed one at full scale for the client to hold in their hands. Now the concept was signed off, we needed to get them produced.

Testing the CNC path in Fusion 360

I worked with the talented Jonathan Pang to make the final pieces. Jonny has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to timber, and crafting bespoke items which delight and surprise. I worked closely with him to understand the limitations of CNC cutting, and we were able to run computer aided tests which helped refine the final concept. The main constraints were how deep the hill shapes could be, and the angle at which they curve.

Jonny’s process, from raw timber, to pre-cut blocks

Jonny used a single piece of timber which he planed, and cut to size. The timber was cut in half and laminated back together to achieve the required thickness. He carefully aligned the grain, and laminated it in a bag press. We only had one shot at this so to ease strain on the CNC blade, he pre cut the top face at an angle to give the cutter a head-start. A lot of craftsmanship went into the trophies, and a marriage of hand working techniques and computer aided manufacture gave us the finished product.

‘A watched pot never boils’ — Keiron Calder (left) & Jonathan Pang (right) watching the CNC router

Jonathan recommended Tulip wood as the ideal strength to softness ratio. We were cutting into the end grain, so we needed a timber which could deal with a high level of friction. We were pushing the CNC to new limits as no-one at the workshop had used it for anything like this before. Along with excitement came troubleshooting, and getting the initial set up was difficult. It was a group effort from technically knowledgeable people, and patience and perseverance that got us a successful end result.

CNC Router cutting the hill-scape

The 3D model was imported into the CNC software, converting it into data. The CNC machine runs the cuts gradually, line by line, breaking the model down into co-ordinates. The cutter blade leaves beautiful stepped edges as it spins, representing the topographic data from those original maps. It takes hours to finish, running a final pass to give it a smooth edge.

Lining up the awards, post laser engraving, pre staining

Once we had 10 blocks cut to shape, the artwork phase began. We used a laser engraver to etch the winners names. For this part we once again took advantage of the Eagle Lab in our building. I created the final artwork and Hannah set up the laser to test run on some scrap timber. She tweaked the settings, and once we were happy with the quality of the finish, we ran the final 10 awards. After giving them an overall sand down, we moved onto finishing.

Applying the Sumi Ink (very messy business!)

To achieve the blackened timber effect, I used Sumi Ink (Japanese Caligraphy Ink). This part was relaxing but time consuming, and I painted each award by hand. Once fully dry I fixed any blemishes and then coated them with a natural finishing oil to protect the surface. I repeated this process over several days, as the drying requires time and patience. The last thing we did before handing them over was document them. Matt Beech Photography captured them on a dark background, producing the dramatic images you saw earlier.

Behind the scenes of the photoshoot with Matt Beech Photography

This was one of the most interesting and fun projects K_N have had the pleasure of working on, and a huge amount of love, generosity and community went into it. We ticked a big goal off the design bucket list, stretched our creative muscles, and got to collaborate and develop new friendships along the way. Above all, we had the privilege of marking the importance of the Tech industry in Scotland. Rewarding talented innovators for their achievements, for pushing boundaries, and doing things differently. Shaping a better future for us all. I thank them sincerely for that.

Our logo up on the big screen, in very good company at the award ceremony!

Thanks for reading! To learn more about K_N, and check out past projects, visit our website below.