Sir Kenneth Grange tells Dyson: “Competition makes us creative”

From parking meters and food mixers, to razors, cameras, lamps, and taxis, Sir Kenneth Grange has designed some of the most iconic industrial products of the past 50 years. As one of the 2018 James Dyson Award (JDA) judges, here this icon of design explains what he thinks young inventors should be trying to do to fix the world’s problems…

Sir Kenneth Grange pictured in his London studio | Photography Getty

Originally published in Dyson on:

Should you feel intrepid enough to scour one of the truly blighted areas of Earth don’t be shocked to stumble upon something quite remarkable. For I will guarantee that you will discover at least one individual, even in the most wretched environment, who will give you plenty of reason to be astonished.

Perhaps through basic necessity or desperate need for survival they will have thought through, planned, designed and implemented an idea.

From an acorn in their mind that idea that will have changed their day-to-day life and perhaps even had a profound effect on the existence of those around them. There will be some tiny part of life that he or she has been able to improve significantly -simply by the magic of invention.

It is quite extraordinary that something should suddenly spring into the human mind which, once it is made real, makes a person look at something in a completely different way.

It is a gift. Some people have it and others have it a little less so. There is simply no rhyme or reason as to why one individual may possess this gift and another does not.

Due to rapid technological advances we are more aware than ever before of ideas rising up in far-flung corners of the globe. We are becoming more dependent on new inventions to move society forward in so many fields.

It is clear that where you discover a demand, competition to meet it will always quickly follow.

Sir James Dyson’s annual design engineering award offers the type of unique opportunity an aspiring inventor should look to grasp with both hands. Such competition between young inventors is essential to capturing the public imagination every bit as much as headlines. It will spark a groundswell of interest that will attract a wider range of those who possess a wicked interest in developing their mind and ideas in this field.

It will, in turn, make richer the influence of this branch of design. There is nothing more universal than invention. Yet not enough has been done to encourage competition until now.

In the medical trade there is continuous and intense worldwide competition with medics of all variety constantly looking to publish a paper that is of vast interest to the pharmaceutical industry. Every week somebody somewhere is ferreting around creating a medical PhD, which is competitive.

This brings fantastic advances every year, saving lives and giving renewed hope to millions of people who suffer from afflictions or crippling disabilities.

A company like Dyson provides an open-minded, inviting and generous society for inventors, which is bound to make best use of budding minds in a similar way and still encourage them to think with freedom.

The electric toothbrush | Photography Getty

They are likely to be less inhibited. It is far more of a can-do society than a make do society. Key to developing and nurturing the raw, mainly untapped, talent is the company they keep. They will rub shoulders on a daily basis with the best on show and thrive on the natural competition such an environment creates. They will ask themselves what is available for them to improve, not just the job they are charged with carrying out to earn their money but what they do when they leave work, when they go home or go shopping.

They will become a functioning creative animal. We are all creative but some of us have the good fortune to make a living out of it.

Winners of the James Dyson Award (JDA) competition will be provided with the chance to launch design solutions, will be approached by big brands and able to seize the moment to build their own innovative start-up companies from scratch. This year’s winners, O-Wind have already been approached by the architecture firm, Foster + Partners.

Yet, they will have many issues and challenges to confront.

One of the continuing problems we face is a matter of education — not only formal education but also experience. Annually human beings develop more and more skills, dexterity and strengths. However, in all our lives there comes a point when one suddenly realises our dexterity is being eroded or slowing down. We will become a little less strong and almost certainly a little less witty.

This guarantees that there is a terrific span of users for almost everything that is invented. This spectrum will include age, experience and strengths.

Now as we marvel at the high standard of the creators and inventors we have today, we must also note that it is highly likely that they will be on the younger side of life. By that I mean they will be younger than 30-years-old.

As they cross over that threshold of midlife they will discover another set of deeds that perhaps they never realised were necessary.

As one gets older everything gets a little less easy to use and therein lies a significant problem for the inventors of the day. So how do they make modern inventions accessible to every age range?

If you were to create something with a clear mind to it being used by people with a degree of infirmity, it would almost certainly make it better to use for all.

There is almost no downside to extending the care with which you design things. This is obviously not being done at the moment. Now there is no doubt that the advance in tooth cleaning technology has been remarkable.

We now have our teeth cleaned by little baby motors and it scrubs them with far more efficiency. This has seen astonishing results over a relatively short period of time.

More recently, dentists have agreed that flossing between the teeth has raised not only the level of hygiene but people care for their teeth far better on a daily basis.

Yet when I go to open a packet of these baby-sized brushes or tooth floss kits I find I need an extremely sharp knife to get into the packaging and put my hand in extreme danger.

This is symptomatic of the widening gap between the inventor and the care considered of the eventual user. This isn’t an age thing. It affects everyone.

When style and the persuasion of the buying process become more important than simple function it creates undue difficulty and problems.

For example, when you attempt to get into almost any motor car today you will find that the angle of the windscreen has narrowed and narrowed. It looks from the outside of the design far sleeker and guaranteed to allow the vehicle to travel much faster.

There will be an argument which states that the motor car is more aerodynamic due to the windscreen itself. However, one of the consequences — and there are many — is that the shaping of the front door hinge and the whole of the front door geometry makes it more difficult to actually get in and out of the vehicle.

The door itself has been made into less of an opening. This is one of the many consequences of style, promise, and the theatre of the “buying” world. It is something I would ask a young inventor to consider.

Around 10 or 15 years ago, Mercedes amongst other car designers invented a very clever little arm, which when you got into your car came forward and offered age seat belt to you in order to ensure that you used it more conveniently. On getting into the car, this little arm would swing forward and present the belt to you.

It persuaded people to use the belt for better safety and also meant that the fixing of the strap was easier.

Yet, despite the obvious advantages, for some reasons, which I suspect were to do with style, it can no longer be found on their manufacturing floor.

Again, this is an obvious example of a problem in need of solving.

It matters even more in the case of the London black cab, of which I had much to do with.

From a safety point of view, being in the back of a black cab is one of the most vulnerable places one can be. You are sat in a very big space behind the driver and should they get into a bad accident you would be flung forward inside a large space.

This would be far greater a danger than that of most rear passengers in a normal motorcar where the amount of space is far more refined. These days most people insist in belting themselves in when sat in the back of a cab, yet again fixing the belt securely is one of the most difficult things imaginable.

Yet changes would make a huge difference to demands on the economy, such as the strain applied to the NHS from road traffic accidents.

A “cat’s eye reflector” being placed | Photography Getty

There is a huge comparison to make between the private car and the hired car. In the cab there is no obligation to use the seat belt and a simple survey of the first 100 users on any London street would show the high percentage — probably around 25 per cent — of people who do not wear one despite the dangers. This is something that could be solved with a simple invention regarding the humble seat belt.

The nub or cornerstone of invention is how to make things easier and better for people to use.

Of course, much of this will be focussed on commerce. The more that competitions such as the JDA touch a public nerve and seize the moment, the more people will enter.

From all different spheres and walks of life. There will be someone out there, simply waiting to be discovered, who will have possibly a world-changing idea or invention in their mind waiting to be mined. The great thing about competitions such as these is they allow that magic to flourish.

Take for example the cat’s eye — the reflective safety device used in road markings — which remains one of the great inventions of all time.

It is more than possible that a student late at night could have stumbled upon an idea like this, which from the original idea in 1934 is today used the world over. The beauty is in the simplistic nature of creating an obvious solution to such a major problem.

How many lives it has gone on to save? Yet people still take it for granted on a daily basis.

Sir James Dyson has such magic attached to his name as an inventor that it rubs off onto this prize and most likely the winner. His signature underneath the winner ensures that the competition will attract great interest from the international media.

If you are inquisitive and persistently dissatisfied with pretty much everything around you then you start with the right frame of mind to follow in his footsteps.

Words: Sir Kenneth Grange, industrial designer and judge of the 2018 James Dyson Award in the UK

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