" Please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study Interior Spatial Design?
At the age of about 7, I remember at school break time drawing up floor plans and elevations of my future house. It may have had some structural impossibilities but my father, as a building surveyor, would help with those. From a young age I was surrounded by my fathers work and how homes are made. I decided at the age of 14 to gain some work experience at an architects firm over the summer holidays, to learn about the job and I fell in love with it. I felt that I had found my calling and went on to take some pretty bold jumps which, undoubtedly made my parents nervous, but they finally agree that it was all worth it. I had always lived and studied in the countryside of Essex and Hertfordshire and I vividly remember being told by my design foundation tutor (and biggest supporter Brian Barton) on the first day, that if you are aiming to go to a good design university, the hardest courses to get onto are … and the UAL Chelsea in particular and thus I had to leave my rural home. Anyone who knows me knows how competitive I am, so I took on the challenge to get to the UAL! I got to College early, stayed late, learnt how to use all of the machinery, took on extra projects and I even participated in competitions, winning an award from the Royal Opera House. I later discussed this at my first interview at Chelsea College of Arts, to my luck, with one of the Architects of the Royal Opera House who happened to be my future tutor! Then it all began, I moved to London to pursue my dream at Chelsea to become a designer.
How did BA Interior Spatial Design and the tutors help you and your practice grow?
The course really promoted unconventional spatial design, which was far from my work experience designing office toilets and stairwells. Having said that, this design work is a kind of initiation in the industry of interiors - you have got to work your way from the bottom up (..excuse the pun)! The tutors on the course had such a range of different spatial practices from set design to designing for disasters which leant it to be such an amazing opportunity to explore the different parts of the industry whilst in the supportive environment of the university. However, one project changed my life despite not being part of my course requirements but simply by catching my interest. The brief was based in Japan and only open to 4 students in the whole of UAL. The design aim was to redesign tsunami escape routes on the coast of Kamaishi, Japan. There were hundreds interested in getting a position on the project, so I made sure to get noticed by tutors who were picking the team by attending extra lectures and workshops and it was worth it when I got the invite. This project was completely life changing for me by offering the opportunity to work in a new country with a completely different culture and approach to design. The tensions between the designers providing “aid” and the very capable community “receiving aid” became hard to ignore. I found that it was easy to get lost in the design, creating something beautiful that could be monumental for the community. However, this was a rabbit hole that had been proven to have a hugely negative impact on the community. To give some context 20,000 people died in the 2011 disaster in Japan, but a further 30,000 committed suicide in the following months. I used this trip to collect first hand information on the psychological impact of post disaster relief to form my dissertation which was later passed on to the United Nations President. This was the start of my future as well as a huge frustration of mine that still haunts me, as the architectural project was never completed. This had a huge impact on me and I still aim to go back and finish this project (in fact, I have recently received word of this opportunity and am ecstatic!).
What did you do for your degree show?
For the final show I created an instillation concept for the Courtauld Gallery, which used a visual narrative to depict the impact of macular degeneration on Degas. It was so far from my work in Japan, but it was an opportunity to push my skills in design communication. The architectural details were exhibited as well as a video of the space. I also used this opportunity to work with some other students and to design the exhibition too. We came up with a waste free solution to exhibiting by using scaffolding and we had great feedback from many visitors. Not for the faint hearted, however, it was an amazing experience and I was happier with the show itself than my own work within it.
Since graduating we have seen that you are now the CEO and co-founder of Helm Innovation. Firstly, congratulations! Secondly, how did you come to co-found Helm Innovation?
After graduating UAL, I had a job lined up with an architects firm and although grateful for the opportunity, I felt a bit underwhelmed by it. I had been doing such amazing briefs at UAL with interesting partnerships that I knew I wouldn’t feel fulfilled doing commercial interiors at that time. So, I pushed back my start date and booked a flight with my photographer to Italy (September 2016), to research the impact of and response to the earthquakes. At the same time, I got approached by the Royal College of Art Head Tutor of the Masters course in Information Experience Design. I was presented an opportunity to keep on researching and I jumped at it. Whilst at the RCA, I took every opportunity to work with anyone to do with aid and safety. In the process, I worked within a team for a competition set by the RNLI and Lloyds Register. The brief involved making pilot transfers at sea safer - something I openly admit that I knew nothing about at the start! However, within a year, we had won 5 awards including “Most immediate lifesaving potential” and “Best innovation and business plan”. That was when things escalated quickly! I was asked by another team that had won awards in the same area, to bring our products together to form a company. I had two weeks to formalise the company and figure out a business plan to present to a group of investors, Dragons Den style. It was intense! I was appointed the CEO and my Co-Founder, Marcus was appointed Head of Design. The other 6 designers that took part in the projects chose to pursue their carriers elsewhere (but are still very much a part of the company’s foundations). After two rounds of nail biting pitching, we won!
Helm Innovation Ltd is now a product innovation company that takes on life saving challenges on a macro scale and utilises a human centred design to find solutions. Helm Innovation’s current products were created by 8 designers at the Royal College of Art, addressing the design competition from Lloyds Register to making pilot transfers at sea safer. Over two years, we worked with pilots and industry professionals intensively to understand the whole process as well as the day to day risks involved in transfers. With approximately 1.5 million vessels globally demanding pilots’ services, speed and efficiency, has resulted in dangerous conditions frequently. In most cases, incidents are a result of dangerous ladders or dangerous rigging of the ladders. Don Cockrill, (secretary general of the UK Maritime Pilots Association) has raised awareness of this issue with his #dangerousladder campaign. From this, the scale of the problem has been highlighted: 20% of vessels were deemed as “unsafe for use” - that is 300 thousand potentially life-threatening situations. The cost of resulting delays to the ship can reach £20,000 a day, excluding labour, medical costs and the cost on the economy. Helm's Dynamic System removes 80% of the risks involved in transfers and has been awarded as having "Most immediate life saving potential" by Lloyds Register Foundation, amongst other awards. Our solution gives pilots the safety and respect they deserve and keeps services running smoothly, thus saving ship owners money and saving lives at sea.
What is it like being the boss of your own company? Do you have any advice to current students with dreams of setting up their own companies?
Being the boss of a company at age 23 was not something I thought would ever really happen! I was recently told by my first boss that when I was 14 and went for work experience, he asked me “What do you want to do in 10 years time?”, to which I said “Have my own company”. In reflection that was an obscenely bold statement! I am grateful to Ian Miller, my boss at the time, for everything he taught me about being a great leader and always telling me his honest opinions - something I hope to carry with me forever. I have been lucky enough to have been inspired and influenced by lots of Directors and business owners to be able to determine the kind of “Boss” that I want to be.
The best advice I can give to students is to be proactive enough to see the opportunities that they think they are missing out on, and to do something about it themselves. As soon as I walked into the doors at Chelsea, I would change my “thinking hat” (major credit if you get the reference), to open myself up to anything that I could possibly take from the experience. I made opportunities open for myself by talking to the visiting lecturers and the tutors about how I can develop my practice. This is a great skill to develop and is very employable, so its a good one to learn early on!
Another piece of advice is everyone around you is there for a reason and looking for something. Therefore, the quicker you can be at reading them, the quicker you can ask the right questions. I remember a guest lecturer coming in, and he made it very clear that the kind of person he wanted on his team was someone young, dynamic and inquisitive. So I made sure to be the first student down at the stage to ask about his company and to show my interest in joining his team after his lecture and from this I got the interview. No-one else can make a great first impression for you, so be confident in what you know and honest about what you don’t.
Something I am still working on, and constantly remind myself, is that it is ok to be wrong. We can all too easily delve deep into a project and idea to then loose perspective. Taking that step back to truly see yourself and that you are wrong, can be hard. However, it will save you a lot of time and effort. Even a project that is a ‘failure’ or ‘wrong’ is just another push in the right direction. Keep your head up!
What inspires you to do what you do?
What inspires me to do what I do is the people I have met throughout my life. The survivors of disasters are truly inspirational to me. The people I have met during my work were so kind, warm and generous and each of them changed me in a different way and will always be in the back of my mind with all of the decisions that I make. This is why I am working with the charity Atlantic Pacific (formed by ex UAL staff Robin Jenkins and Kate Sedwell) to finish off the student project that I started in Japan 5 years ago, and to use our company’s gains to support us both on our shared goal of saving lives at sea.
Designers have so much potential to change the world and impact peoples lives. I have somehow managed to form a company focused purely on doing that and I am so excited about the potential. I will forever keep in mind all those who supported me on my journey, and will repay them in every way that I can. As well as this, I hope to inspire young designers the same way that I was inspired by so many others. That’s why it is always a privilege to be invited back to UAL to talk to the students, as well as mentoring those bold enough to ask for help.
Are you currently working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?
We are always open to new briefs and challenges! We recently got approached by the British Governments Defence and Security department with regards to our products, as well as the BBC Technology lead. So there are lots of exciting things going on! Not too much I can tell you about yet - all very hush hush! I am truly ecstatic to be invited to finish my design work in Japan which started me on this journey all those years ago, and to tick that one off my list of unfinished briefs. I am always looking for innovative, fresh talent to expand the team and so I hope to be coming back to UAL to present some interesting opportunities with Helms partnerships in the not too distant future. "
(This is an interview done for Chelsea College of Art Alumni)