Jen Botezat tells us about her experience with PAN Studio, following her completion of a Get Started in Product Design course at Makerversity, through the Prince’s Trust. Here’s what she’s been up to:
How did you find out about Makerversity?
I was interested in learning technical skills after I graduated from my Master’s programme full of theory. This brought me to the Prince’s Trust website where they were running “Get Started with Product Design”, a week-long course based at Makerversity, and it sounded fascinating to me. I looked up previous Product Design projects they had done —one was building your own custom skateboard— and I thought it was amazing how you could go from an idea in your head to a finished and functional product just using some tools, none of which I had any idea about. To me, it was not far short of magic.
What were your impressions of the space?
I really enjoyed the central location of Makerversity in Somerset House. It was easy to get to, and I could go out to explore Covent Garden during lunch. But it did feel very tucked away. To find it, you must descend into the depths of the basement, which doesn’t receive much natural sunlight, especially in the Vaults. It has an industrially rough look, but it also feels like a bustling hive of activity where designers and makers can interact and share ideas. I think the designers and other people who work there feed on this type of environment and enjoy it much better than working alone in a secluded space. Although most of the time, people are fully absorbed in their own projects.
“[Makerversity] feels like a bustling hive of activity where designers and makers can interact and share ideas”
On Prince’s Trust
During your Prince’s Trust week, what did you work on?
Our brief was to design a useful product that would help Makerversity members organise their workspace. Initially, I didn’t know what to create, but I trusted the design process and the Makerversity team to lead us through the steps. I had no idea where to start otherwise.
Ultimately, through an evolution of my concept and designs over the week, I created a shelf inspired by natural materials such as stone, wood, and glass, as well as sunny outdoor colours. I wanted my product to be like a piece of the outdoors inside your room, brightening your day and at the same time, serving a practical purpose.
What did you learn on the course?
As a first step, I learned to design a mood board. This was really rewarding to me as it enormously helped crystalise my final design and exude my own style. I also interviewed Makerversity members to find out what they felt they needed in their environment to help them work better.
Then, it was on to making sketches of our initial designs. We did some useful exercises that loosened up our creative thinking and generate fresh ideas. Before long, I had tons of different designs to work with to prototype my designs. I really enjoyed Paul Sohi’s lesson on Fusion 360, where we all made digital models of objects for the first time. We even made them look life-like with a digital surface finish.
Next, we built our prototypes using cheap materials like foam board. This was useful to me because I realised you don’t have to make your prototype in the same materials as your actual product.
I didn’t really know that I was making the final version until way into it, but the design process was so seamless, a natural progression from the cheap prototype. We were guided so well, that each step was very clear and useful. I learned how to use a lot of tools in the process: laser cutter, vinyl cutter, vacuum former, and spray paint. I was very pleased with the result, and it was hard to imagine that I myself had made it — seemingly out of thin air. It jumped from an idea in my head to a sketch on paper and sprung to life in the real world. A real product I could hold and keep — how crazy is that?
On the placement
What made you apply for work experience?
I wanted to continue learning about the world of design and how designers work on a day-to-day basis. We only had a glimpse of this during Product Design week, when the designers came to us to speak and give some lovely presentations. But I was interested to see how a career in design actually panned out.
During your work placement who did you work with? What drew you to that company?
I worked with PAN Studio. They are designing a fun and handy app called Run an Empire, which gets more people onto the streets to run. But this isn’t your typical run tracker. In Run an Empire, you have territory to defend. By running along streets in the real world, you “conquer” them in the virtual world of the app. That is, until someone runs through them after you and conquers them back. By gamifying running – an exercise that gets pretty mundane, pretty fast – the app helps people lead healthier and more active lives. And who doesn’t love a good game?
I had a synergy with PAN, because of my interest in sport. I started a project to get people playing more tennis by connecting them with local tennis partners a few months ago, and I’ve been learning the ins and outs of the tennis industry for almost a year. In that sense, I felt I could also learn a lot from Run an Empire’s success. They have gone very far with their product design, conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign, and attracted a large community of users. They have also built relationships with other app founders, contractors, investors, and sports brands — and I was interested to see how these relationships could be useful in building the product.
Tell us a bit about your placement
I learned to brainstorm new ideas for products and generate a business model canvas to see if the idea was viable. I worked on an on-demand printed brain concept and an internet-of-things connected device. In both cases, I scoped out the field through research and created a report with all the information I found.
I also helped run a focus group for a mental health animation commissioned with the studio. The focus group brought together a diverse group of people from several parts of the UK to create visual journeys about mental health and how they perceived the information already out there. This user research helped create the new mental health animation, and we learned a lot simply by asking people what they wanted to see and what was useful to them. Again, user testing came up and showed great results.
I then worked on a design brief to make Croydon easier to navigate and more attractive to residents and visitors. I scoped out the brief and presented to the whole team during our brainstorming meeting. We thought of how we could respond to the brief in an innovative way. I found this really useful because it helps generate initial ideas and makes you imagine the possibilities.
We spent a day in Croydon and see the main streets for ourselves. I thought this was a great idea to connect with the town’s residents and see what was important to them.
What was the aspect that you most enjoyed about your work there? What was the most challenging?
I enjoyed learning about new things through my research. For example, I learned about the luxury goods industry, which I didn’t even know was a separate industry initially. I also enjoyed the guidance I received during my placement. I caught up with the founders almost every day, and they would find out what I had been working on and made sure I was on the right track.
I really liked interacting with users through the animation workshop and with the environment in Croydon to see how we could make it a better place to live and visit. I thought it would have also been useful to conduct interviews with the residents there to get their perspective on the town’s changes. I found that getting feedback from others was the most important and instructive part of the design journey.
I found it challenging to sit in the office at my computer all day during the research days. I think it would have been easier for me to be more active physically and interacting with potential product users. A lot of preliminary research goes into designing a product. So there is a tendency to spend much more time finding out what else is out there than actually designing. Having design commissions means you are constantly changing gears from one project to another. Although this keeps things fresh and makes you create products for different industries, it also means you are constantly switching your focus, which can be mentally taxing.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects on the horizon?
I plan to continue working on my project to bring tennis to more people. This will involve connecting people through the app as well as during organised tournaments. I’d like to learn from making this project possible, even if that involves making some mistakes initially. I really believe in the importance of tennis today, and it is sad to hear the statistics that less and less people are playing tennis each year. Tennis is a sport for all ages and physical abilities, and I want to make it easier for people to find each other and play as much as possible.
If you could offer advice to anyone wanting to get started in creative work, what would you say?
Anyone can get started, you don’t strictly need a diploma in design in order to make great products. The most important thing is to keep your eyes open and take inspiration from the world around you, rather than walk by, too busy to take notice. It’s about spotting a gap in the market or something that you can make better and — importantly — actually making it.
“[Design is] much more connected to people, their environment, and how they interact with it. I don’t think this is something you can learn on a computer.”
To make great designs, you should spend as much time as possible out of the office, enjoying what the world has to offer and learning from it. There is a tendency to take yourself too seriously, as if design was a corporate job, full of design jargon. But it isn’t. It’s much more connected to people, their environment, and how they interact with it. I don’t think this is something you can learn on a computer.
Life is a game, play it.