The New Science of Genetic Medicine

Nigel Whittle - Head of Medical & Healthcare

By: Nigel Whittle
Head of Medical & Healthcare

9th January 2019

Home » Insights » Life Science » Page 2

With surprisingly little fanfare, in October 2018 NHS England became the first health service in the world to routinely offer genetic medicine in the fight to treat cancer.

From that date, hospitals across England have been linked to specialist centres that can read, analyse and interpret DNA isolated from patients with cancer. Through this service, cancer patients can be screened for the existence of key mutations within their tumours that can indicate the best drugs for treatment or to point towards clinical trials of experimental therapies that may be beneficial.

The move marks a big step towardprecision medicine, which offers more effective therapies that are tailored to individual patients.

What is the science underpinning this move?

Firstly, a quick crash course in cancer biology:

  • Cells are the building blocks of every living organism.The instructions (or genes) that tell a cell how to develop and what to do are encoded in long linear molecules of DNA found in the nucleus of the cell.
  • These DNA molecules can be damaged over time or through exposure to chemicals or environmental changes. Cells become cancerous when specific changes in the DNA, called ‘driver mutations’, tell cells to grow faster and behave abnormally.
  • Many cancers form solid tumours, which are masses of tissue, while cancers of the blood, such as leukaemia, generally do not form solid tumours.
  • As these cancer cells multiply to form a tumour, selective pressure increases the number and type of harmful mutations found within the DNA.
  • The cells may acquire additional properties through mutation, such as malignancy which means that they can spread into, or invade nearby tissues. In addition, as these tumours grow, some cancer cells break off and travel to distant parts of the body and form new tumours far from the original site.

Accordingly, although every cell of a particular cancer is related to the same original “parent” cell, the mixture of cells within a tumour becomes increasingly complex. The idea that different kinds of cells make up one cancer is called “tumour heterogeneity”, and in practice means that every cancer is unique. So two people with, say, lung cancer who are the same age, height, weight, and ethnicity, and who have similar medical histories, will almost certainly have two very different cancers.

By the time a cancer tumour is 1cm in diameter, the millions of cells within it are very different from each other, and each cancer has its own genetic identity created by the DNA in its cells.

This, of course, makes the treatment of cancer incredibly difficult and explains why scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of cancer biology do not always lead to significant improvements in overall survival rates.

How will cancer treatment change?

Precision medicine is an approach to patient care that allows doctors to select the best treatments for patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease. The idea of precision medicine is not new, but recent advances in science and technology have allowed the ideas to be brought more fully into clinical use.

Normally, when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he or she receives a standard treatment based on previous experience of treating that disease. But typically, different people respond to treatments differently, and until recently doctors didn’t know why. But now the understanding that the genetic changes within one person’s cancer may not occur in others with the same type of cancer has led to a better understanding of which treatments will be most effective.

At the simplest level, this understanding allows targeted therapy against cancer, in which drugs (quite often complex biological molecules) are used to target very specific genetic changes in cancer cells. For example, around 15–20% of malignant breast cancers contain cells with a higher than normal level of a protein called HER2 on their surface, which stimulates them to grow. When combined with a suitable test, it means that not only can the drug be given to those patients most likely to benefit, but also the drug, with its associated side effects, need not be given to patients who will not benefit from its use.

So genetic medicine has already transformed the treatment of some cancer patients. The advent of widespread genetic medicine within the NHS is likely to lead to significant benefits for cancer patients, including:

• The identification of patients who are most likely to benefit from particular cancer therapy.

• The avoidance of unnecessary treatments that are less likely to work for specific groups of patients.

• The development of novel therapies targeted at specific tumour cells or cellular pathways.

Not only will precision medicine allow the development of precise and effective treatment strategies for cancer patients whilst improving the overall quality of life, but it will also finally destroy the myth of ‘one size fits all’ cancer therapy.

For an informative chat on how Plextek can assist with your Healthcare technology project, please contact Nigel at healthcare@plextek.com

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With surprisingly little fanfare, in October 2018 NHS England became the first health service in the world to routinely offer genetic medicine in the fight to treat cancer.

From that date, hospitals across England have been linked to specialist centres that can read, analyse and interpret DNA isolated from patients with cancer. Through this service, cancer patients can be screened for the existence of key mutations within their tumours that can indicate the best drugs for treatment or to point towards clinical trials of experimental therapies that may be beneficial.

The move marks a big step towardprecision medicine, which offers more effective therapies that are tailored to individual patients.

What is the science underpinning this move?


Firstly, a quick crash course in cancer biology:

  • Cells are the building blocks of every living organism. The instructions (or genes) that tell a cell how to develop and what to do are encoded in long linear molecules of DNA found in the nucleus of the cell.
  • These DNA molecules can be damaged over time or through exposure to chemicals or environmental changes. Cells become cancerous when specific changes in the DNA, called ‘driver mutations’, tell cells to grow faster and behave abnormally.
  • Many cancers form solid tumours, which are masses of tissue, while cancers of the blood, such as leukaemia, generally do not form solid tumours.
  • As these cancer cells multiply to form a tumour, selective pressure increases the number and type of harmful mutations found within the DNA.
  • The cells may acquire additional properties through mutation, such as malignancy which means that they can spread into, or invade nearby tissues. In addition, as these tumours grow, some cancer cells break off and travel to distant parts of the body and form new tumours far from the original site.


Accordingly, although every cell of a particular cancer is related to the same original “parent” cell, the mixture of cells within a tumour becomes increasingly complex. The idea that different kinds of cells make up one cancer is called “tumour heterogeneity”, and in practice means that every cancer is unique. So two people with, say, lung cancer who are the same age, height, weight, and ethnicity, and who have similar medical histories, will almost certainly have two very different cancers.

By the time a cancer tumour is 1cm in diameter, the millions of cells within it are very different from each other, and each cancer has its own genetic identity created by the DNA in its cells.


This, of course, makes the treatment of cancer incredibly difficult and explains why scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of cancer biology do not always lead to significant improvements in overall survival rates.

How will cancer treatment change?

Precision medicine is an approach to patient care that allows doctors to select the best treatments for patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease. The idea of precision medicine is not new, but recent advances in science and technology have allowed the ideas to be brought more fully into clinical use.

Normally, when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he or she receives a standard treatment based on previous experience of treating that disease. But typically, different people respond to treatments differently, and until recently doctors didn’t know why. But now the understanding that the genetic changes within one person’s cancer may not occur in others with the same type of cancer has led to a better understanding of which treatments will be most effective.

At the simplest level, this understanding allows targeted therapy against cancer, in which drugs (quite often complex biological molecules) are used to target very specific genetic changes in cancer cells. For example, around 15–20% of malignant breast cancers contain cells with a higher than normal level of a protein called HER2 on their surface, which stimulates them to grow. When combined with a suitable test, it means that not only can the drug be given to those patients most likely to benefit, but also the drug, with its associated side effects, need not be given to patients who will not benefit from its use.

So genetic medicine has already transformed the treatment of some cancer patients. The advent of widespread genetic medicine within the NHS is likely to lead to significant benefits for cancer patients, including:

• The identification of patients who are most likely to benefit from particular cancer therapy.

• The avoidance of unnecessary treatments that are less likely to work for specific groups of patients.

• The development of novel therapies targeted at specific tumour cells or cellular pathways.


Not only will precision medicine allow the development of precise and effective treatment strategies for cancer patients whilst improving the overall quality of life, but it will also finally destroy the myth of ‘one size fits all’ cancer therapy.

For an informative chat on how Plextek can assist with your Healthcare technology project, please contact Nigel at healthcare@plextek.com

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Being Your User

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

19th December 2018

Home » Insights » Life Science » Page 2

One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

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One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

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The Importance of Concept Generation

By: Ehsan Abedi
Product Designer, Product Design

28th November 2018

Home » Insights » Life Science » Page 2

In a modern world, people are often overloaded with information and new products. Effective concept generation allows for the exploration of new ideas that are both novel, commercially successful and of value to the user.

Concept generation is a vital part of the engineering design process. This comes early on in the product design or design engineering process and is essentially a procedure that begins with a range of technical requirements and user considerations. It ends with a multitude of product concept designs.

There were several interactions I had throughout the recent Engineering Design Show which highlighted the importance of concept generation within the modern design process. In a conversation with a manufacturing company based in Hong Kong, they expressed their frustration with receiving part designs which were often incompatible with each other or whole products that are almost impossible to manufacture without significant modification. With better implementation of concept generation and selection, these issues would be less likely to be encountered at such a late stage in the design engineering process, saving companies time and money.

This was further highlighted in Steve May-Russell’s talk on design thinking where he demonstrated that for every 50 concepts there are 10 that successfully meet the whole design brief. Of that 10 it is likely that only 2 would go on to be the successful product.

These interactions clearly indicate the job of a designer is not only to rapidly generate a range of feasible product design concepts but also have the ability to effectively select and develop the best concepts further.

The next time you find yourself tackling a problem ask yourself, “how many alternative ways can I think of solving this issue?” and then think which idea is most effective. It is unlikely to be the first one that popped into your head…

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In a modern world, people are often overloaded with information and new products. Effective concept generation allows for the exploration of new ideas that are both novel, commercially successful and of value to the user.

Concept generation is a vital part of the engineering design process. This comes early on in the product design or design engineering process and is essentially a procedure that begins with a range of technical requirements and user considerations. It ends with a multitude of product concept designs.

There were several interactions I had throughout the recent Engineering Design Show which highlighted the importance of concept generation within the modern design process. In a conversation with a manufacturing company based in Hong Kong, they expressed their frustration with receiving part designs which were often incompatible with each other or whole products that are almost impossible to manufacture without significant modification. With better implementation of concept generation and selection, these issues would be less likely to be encountered at such a late stage in the design engineering process, saving companies time and money.

This was further highlighted in Steve May-Russell’s talk on design thinking where he demonstrated that for every 50 concepts there are 10 that successfully meet the whole design brief. Of that 10 it is likely that only 2 would go on to be the successful product.

These interactions clearly indicate the job of a designer is not only to rapidly generate a range of feasible product design concepts but also have the ability to effectively select and develop the best concepts further.

The next time you find yourself tackling a problem ask yourself, “how many alternative ways can I think of solving this issue?” and then think which idea is most effective. It is unlikely to be the first one that popped into your head…

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Visualising Ideas

By: Nick Burman
Graphic Designer

25th July 2018

Home » Insights » Life Science » Page 2

Songwriters, architects, chefs and engineers have at least one thing in common.

They all need ideas.

There are as many (if not more) sources of ideas as there are individuals, and the process of developing those ideas can be lengthy and involved, or instantaneous and effortless. But often it is necessary to communicate ideas to others to develop them further, explore them deeper or involve others to bring the ideas to fruition.

Ever since Alex Steinweiss created the first album cover in 1939, musicians have depended on visuals to help sell their music. Architects use illustrative renderings to show how a building will look, and chefs even find the need to pictorialise their recipes. Not only do people eat with their eyes first, we also (arguably) trust and retain visual information more.

From a business perspective, turning ideas into visuals is a vital step in developing ideas and engaging other people such as investors, clients or work colleagues. You could write an entire report with text, but since 65% of people are visual learners, you would be reaching less than half of your audience.

Two effective methods for transmitting ideas are photography and illustration.


Photography

Photography works well at portraying the visible. It might be in situ, in a clean environment like a seemless background or mocked up in an ideal surrounding. Using plain backgrounds and a well lit subject helps to remove distractions from the point – the subject of the photograph.

Visualising ideas, photography, medical application


Illustration

Illustration aids the portrayal of ideas and subjects that may not currently exist (or only exist in part) in the real world. Filling in the gaps photography simply can’t capture in front of a lens, such as computer generated imagery for backgrounds and other elements within an illustrated image.

In the medical field for example, there are lots of cases where illustration is the only way to present an idea or concept working as intended in a real-world environment, due to stringent regulations and other market specific pressures en route to productisation.

illustration, infographic, visualising ideas

In a technical environment, accuracy has to be key. To this end, a workflow that includes a number of rounds of revisions helps to make sure the illustration or photograph communicate to the client what they want to see.

Also important are the aesthetic points, or what could be considered the discretionary aspects. Colour choices, font usage, spacing and style.


Colour

The right colour palette allows the important aspects of an illustration to be prominent while conveying the right mood (and certainly avoiding the wrong one).Colours are an instant way to create mood and evoke an emotional response. Since a vast proportion of buying decisions are emotional, colour has a very important role to play in visualising ideas. It might be tempting to use bright bold colours for anything that is meant to stand out, but if the overall scheme is jarring, you can easily turn people away.


Type

The correct font can be more subliminal. With longer piece of copy (like the one you’re reading) the right line spacing (leading) and letter spacing (tracking and kerning) can make the copy easier to read and guide the eye from line to line and word to word. Sentence structure and even line length can have an effect, and tire the reader quickly causing them to lose interest in what they are reading.

With short copy, and text that accompanies images, the right font also has the power to convey the right mood. The right font can imply power, style, excitement or nostalgia, and the wrong one can make even an international corporation look like a corner shop.

visualising ideas, font choice, graphic design

While we know that images help break up text – especially in lengthy Powerpoint presentations – knowing how to present ideas and communicate them effectively with the audience in mind can be key to a project’s success, even if you’re not Richard Rodgers.

 


1image source: http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/steinweiss/slideshow/

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Songwriters, architects, chefs and engineers have at least one thing in common.

They all need ideas.

There are as many (if not more) sources of ideas as there are individuals, and the process of developing those ideas can be lengthy and involved, or instantaneous and effortless. But often it is necessary to communicate ideas to others to develop them further, explore them deeper or involve others to bring the ideas to fruition.

Ever since Alex Steinweiss created the first album cover in 1939, musicians have depended on visuals to help sell their music. Architects use illustrative renderings to show how a building will look, and chefs even find the need to pictorialise their recipes. Not only do people eat with their eyes first, we also (arguably) trust and retain visual information more.

From a business perspective, turning ideas into visuals is a vital step in developing ideas and engaging other people such as investors, clients or work colleagues. You could write an entire report with text, but since 65% of people are visual learners, you would be reaching less than half of your audience.

Two effective methods for transmitting ideas are photography and illustration.

Photography

Photography works well at portraying the visible. It might be in situ, in a clean environment like a seemless background or mocked up in an ideal surrounding. Using plain backgrounds and a well lit subject helps to remove distractions from the point – the subject of the photograph.

Visualising ideas, photography, medical application

Illustration

Illustration aids the portrayal of ideas and subjects that may not currently exist (or only exist in part) in the real world. Filling in the gaps photography simply can’t capture in front of a lens, such as computer generated imagery for backgrounds and other elements within an illustrated image.

In the medical field for example, there are lots of cases where illustration is the only way to present an idea or concept working as intended in a real-world environment, due to stringent regulations and other market specific pressures en route to productisation.

illustration, infographic, visualising ideas

In a technical environment, accuracy has to be key. To this end, a workflow that includes a number of rounds of revisions helps to make sure the illustration or photograph communicate to the client what they want to see.

Also important are the aesthetic points, or what could be considered the discretionary aspects. Colour choices, font usage, spacing and style.

Colour

The right colour palette allows the important aspects of an illustration to be prominent while conveying the right mood (and certainly avoiding the wrong one).Colours are an instant way to create mood and evoke an emotional response. Since a vast proportion of buying decisions are emotional, colour has a very important role to play in visualising ideas. It might be tempting to use bright bold colours for anything that is meant to stand out, but if the overall scheme is jarring, you can easily turn people away.

Type

The correct font can be more subliminal. With longer piece of copy (like the one you’re reading) the right line spacing (leading) and letter spacing (tracking and kerning) can make the copy easier to read and guide the eye from line to line and word to word. Sentence structure and even line length can have an effect, and tire the reader quickly causing them to lose interest in what they are reading.

With short copy, and text that accompanies images, the right font also has the power to convey the right mood. The right font can imply power, style, excitement or nostalgia, and the wrong one can make even an international corporation look like a corner shop.

visualising ideas, font choice, graphic design

While we know that images help break up text – especially in lengthy Powerpoint presentations – knowing how to present ideas and communicate them effectively with the audience in mind can be key to a project’s success, even if you’re not Richard Rodgers.

 


1image source: http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/steinweiss/slideshow/

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4 Steps to Designing Products That Delight Your Customer

4 Steps to Designing Products That Delight Your Customer

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

7th February 2018

Home » Insights » Life Science » Page 2

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

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