The Degree Shows

Although, alas, both were in existence for all too brief a spell and are now long closed, the Made in Brunel 2011 Brunel University Degree Show and Treat Yourself UCA Degree Show showcased some of the freshest and brightest new talent in engineering and design innovation and graphic media, visual communication and branding design (respectively) to emerge this year.

Brunel’s show, presenting its ‘globally renowned’ School of Engineering and Design, was housed in the appropriately industrial-feeling OXO Tower on London’s South Bank, and represented a veritable emporium of wonder and amazement – stacked to the rafters, as it was, with an array of imaginative and fantastically clever designed solutions to those myriad corners of our lives still suffering design-inadequacy (and many thousands more of these had been identified and ‘brainstormed’ than I could ever have conceived of – some distinctly more, er, useful than others…). The four floors of the Tower housed the collected exhibits from four different innovation disciplines: humanistic (products and concepts that improve the lives of people); sustainable innovation (designs and strategies which aim to reduce environmental impact); technical (innovative use of manufacturing, materials and electronics); and digital (online and multimedia based concepts). Each displayed the work of some arrestingly brilliant minds, every exhibit/innovation presented on its own, individual white plinth – and usually in very impressively ‘finished’-looking prototype form – accompanied by a printed exhibition board, introducing the designer and describing their motivation, design process and resultant concept. Some were even augmented by the attendance of their very own real-life creators, who hovered (some more self-assuredly than others…) beside, or within crazily-acute, almost dog-like, hearing of even the softest mumblings of milling visitors to, their designs, poised ready to launch into a pitch (v. disconcerting) or, more interestingly, to be on hand to discuss in more detail their methodology and related interests. The overall appearance, on a first scan of the rooms was, almost, of an art gallery – or something very much akin to one – with its spare, white theme juxtaposed with the crumbling brick and exposed pipework of the Tower, both designed to foreground the excitement and detail of the work on display. It certainly presented a very polished feel and the sense of a show secure and confident in its identity, proud of its reputation and the undeniably high calibre of the ideas it has delivered to this publicly accessible interface. However, as an increasingly curmudgeonly English graduate, it was only moments before this shiny, professional façade was undermined by a sighting of, frankly, inexcusable grammatical crimes on the descriptive board beside one of the exhibits – after which the urge to scrutinize each one and brace for the inevitable jangling pain of spelling/grammatical errors lurking therein was agonisingly irresistible. With some effort, and a stern word from Marvellous-but-increasingly-exasperated Dave, though, I managed to suppress the bile long enough to enjoy the many marvels still to be appreciated; the following are some of my favourites (for a number of reasons):

FireSure, designed by Joe Midgley (Industrial Design & Technology) who has smartly identified the currently somewhat user-averse design of the common or garden fire extinguisher (cumbersome, unwieldy, pin-operated, and pretty heavy – hence why so often used to jam open heavy fire doors in offices and schools, to the eternal consternation of the designated Fire Officer in such establishments…). His solution is a wall bracket holstered extinguisher, with a silicone grip on the main body and a sprung nozzle, so that powder can be ‘fired’ by pushing the handle – the prototype looks rather like a big water gun (I suspect that, behind all the technical gumph on his explication board, that’s where the inspiration came from…). Serious equipment that looks like fun to operate, though, may prove far more vulnerable to ‘improper deployment’ than the existing, awkward version – which leads me to wonder whether fire extinguishers were deliberately ‘mal-designed’…?

Another favourite in the humanistic field was the clutch of wholly unnecessary and a little bit bonkers ‘future concepts’ designed for the brand Typhoo (tea-producers extraordinaire), including a leaf-shaped pendant diffuser, worn as a necklace, that dispenses chosen scents (surely not just leaf-&-hot-water-infusion based, though, presumably…?) to “enhance[s] the consumer’s experience of the world wherever they go”… Similarly, the portable Ambient Sounds emitting device: I ask you…

There were a couple of really ingenious ideas in this segment, though, that I would absolutely endorse: the Compress: Ice Recovery system, designed by Matt Parrish (Product Design) – a totally brilliant alternative to the deeply unpleasant ice-bath treatment espoused by athletes/fitness enthusiasts as the only truly effective muscle recovery method – which involves inserting gel ice-packs into a flexible ‘sock’ (with appropriately ice-pack-shaped pockets) so that after an hour of sprinting up and down flights of stairs, Rocky-fashion, you can benefit from localized ice recovery, without having to immerse your whole self in an entire bath of the stuff! Marvellous. (Not to mention that, sans gel packs, the separate components can be used as ‘performance underwear’ during sport – oddly, no details provided as to how this might work…) The second innovation was an idea for an almost infinitely customizable range of children’s play equipment, cleverly named ‘Constructables’, and designed by Lucy Alder (Product Design). The prototype on display resembled giant, wooden Meccano – which is, essentially, the principle behind the idea, as far as I can see: designed to be both functional – as children’s furniture – and educational – encouraging assembly, disassembly and, crucially, reconstruction – it “aims to free children from 21st century constraints and encourage them to play in a more traditional manner”, i.e. no batteries/modems/touch-screen wizardry required…

There were many other brilliant products in the humanistic portion of the show, including a whole range of devices designed to improve the quality of life for those with motor skill problems (e.g. Parkinson’s, Cerebral Palsy, arthritis) – Simpulo (Katie Henbest), a specially adapted tipping kettle, mounted on a type of swing bracket to allow safe pouring, was one of these; behavioural difficulties (e.g. Asperger’s Syndrome) – Benjamin Whitehead had created Autoy, an illuminating wristband displaying different emotions and designed to help autistic children communicate their feelings/identify particular emotions in others more effectively; and memory or cerebral impairments (e.g. dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease) – a product called Cleo, designed by Kirsti Macqueen, described as ‘supporting self-dental care [dental self-care?] for people with dementia’, prompting the user through the process of tooth-brushing using a complete brush, paste and water glass docking station…

There were collaborations with some major product brands, including KFC – where students had designed unique new ways to package, transport and serve the ubiquitous take-away fried chicken dinner – LG, and future brands (so, driven by the assumption of the availability of technologies still in development or even at the conceptual stage) for Lotus, Royal Mail, Airfix, M&S, Wrangler, Hasbro and AGA (among others). Much of the ‘technical’ arena of design proved some considerable way beyond my distinctly limited understanding of resistant materials (in particular) and Physics (in general) – I’m thinking, for example, of the Carbon Nanotube Field Emitters for Space Applications (*blank, vacant look, with the merest hint of faux-wonder*…!) – but as someone convinced of the existence of tiny shed-pixies with a proclivity to attack bicycle tyres overnight, I was drawn to the Puncture-Proof Bicycle Tyre (Jason Cham) – not an inflatable tube, but a reinforced, spoke-constructed rubber wheel (ingenious – and a registered design…) – and the real-time bicycle tyre pressure regulator (Ross Thompson). There was also an automatic gear-change system (‘bicycle transmission with expanding sprocket”…) for push bikes, SPRUNG, which looked like something of a boon for those whose thumbs fail them at the critical gear-shifting moment on a punishingly steep hill.

Special mention should go to Fish Leather – yes, the skin of fish, stitched into a purse-paraphernalia-transporting fashion accessory (the designer, Unji Moir, had even managed to get Mulberry on board to produce a sample product – admittedly, one of the ugliest items of handbaggage I think I’ve ever clapped eyes on, but I am no fashionista…) – as one of the most weirdly compelling of the ‘sustainable’ bunch, but I think it was the Podoconiosis Prevention Shoe that won our joint vote: Tom Collett has designed a ‘shoe’ that is fashioned from one piece of soft leather, incorporating a section of leather ‘tentacles’ at the front of the designed which, when the leather is folded around the foot, thread through pre-cut holes to form the ‘laces’ which hold it all together. The one-piece design renders it ‘flat-packable’ and cheap to produce – perfect for the Ethiopian communities for which it is bound: podoconiosis is a swelling disease of the lower legs resulting from prolonged exposure to volcanic soil, present in many developing countries – including Ethiopia. Shoes – the wearing of which would prevent the development of the disease – are prohibitively expensive for many of the residents of these communities, so Tom’s shoes were developed as a simple, cost-effective solution. Brilliant.

Overall, a thoroughly inspiring, amazing and frequently intimidatingly awesome show, celebrating and espousing the pre-design-profession designerly ideals of its namesake Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) in a triumphant display of genius, creative and business nous. James Caan, author of the foreword to the shocking orange (the colour of innovation, apparently – I can almost hear a certain mobile phone company rubbing its acquisitive little fingers together with glee…) book accompanying the show, describes the Made in Brunel project as “the incubation platform for a new generation of innovative thinkers” (unsurprisingly, this has been extracted as a rather neat soundbite – in orange type, naturellement – on the page: essence de Brunel, triple distilled for purity and uttered in the almost-audible silky-smooth drawl of the least obnoxious (in my view) BBC Dragon). Incidentally, it would seem that my classification of the Made in Brunel ‘experience’ is incorrect – achingly pedestrian, in fact – so, to clarify, I have the definition from the 2011 Director, Max Wozniak himself: “It is not a yearbook or a prospectus, nor is it an exhibition or degree show…it is our brand”. Rather pretentious in my view, but then I’d probably be somewhat disappointed if it wasn’t…

A spot of lunch, enjoyed in a surprisingly hot sun-trap between the back of EAT and the OXO Tower while the red arrows traced red-white-and-blue smoke across the sky in honour of the Queen’s official birthday and an itinerant hound pestered us for sandwich morsels, then on to The Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, for the Treat Yourself Graphic Media show,

Although this was all very clever and artsy, some of it I found a little too contrived – not aided by the fact that, in order to get to it, we had to navigate our way through several rooms of Fine Art exhibition, complete with nonchalant and discernibly disdainful Fine Art students positioned to sneer threateningly at the uninitiated as they scurried through – the most pleasing aspect of it, for me, being the show’s theme: essentially, pick ‘n’ mix! This ‘branding’ extended to the show goody bags, which were designed as retro candy-stripe paper bags, with fitting typography, and contained a promotional card for each of the exhibitors, each identified by a different sweetie. The exhibitors’ stands also included these take-away pick ‘n’ mix cards in perspex dispensers, reminiscent of the traditional penny-sweet containers, and I noticed a number of bon-bons and jelly beans scattered fairly liberally about the place by way of thematic reinforcement. The ‘Treat Yourself’ show brochure and website identify each graphic artist with a different coloured jelly bean – the individual with whom I most identified (her final project was a full-colour illustrated picture book) was Kirsty Martin, whose material is on display at her blog site:, but there were some other clever, if a little self-aware and derivative concepts on display.

Rather tellingly, I thought, the remains of the preview night refreshments tables were still in evidence at both venues: Brunel’s was still serving glasses of red and white wine, was swagged in blue cloth and was flanked on either side by champagne buckets and crates of expectant, clean glasses. There was a trestle table set up in F block T5 of the Old Truman Brewery with half-empty bottles of Dr Pepper, Coke and a cluster of Milka strawberry milkshake bottles…

Although degree show season is drawing to a close, many of the art and design institution shows listed on the Association of Illustrators website still have at least a few more days left to run (some up until the beginning of July) and are certainly worth checking out if you find yourself in the immediate vicinity over the next week or so – chief, and probably most famous, of these being the Central Saint Martins College of Arts degree shows and the D&AD New Blood shows (running to 2nd and 4th July, respectively)

About illustratedbyamanda

Illustrator and time-fritterer extraordinaire
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