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Design from the Heart, for the Blind

Feb 14, 2019

Our 2018 DesignSingapore Council Scholar opens up about his award-winning designs, exciting adventures in dumpster-diving for project materials, and hopes for the growing industry.

Kevin Chiam’s proclivity for design began as a child, where his curiosity about the world around him developed into a habit for tinkering with household furniture and machinery.

Kevin Portrait
 

Partially inspired by his father, an electrical engineer who would repair furniture and fix equipment back home, Kevin’s fascination for design and invention was roused after watching his father upholster their sofa. Intrigued by how and why things function, Kevin enjoyed taking things apart to better understand them, and this inclination to disassemble and re-create drives his design practice today. He is a recipient of the 2018 DesignSingapore Council (Dsg) scholarship for his outstanding work in industrial design.

 

Kevin was also named the National Winner for the James Dyson Award 2018 for his Folks Kitchenware for the Blind designs. The collection of specially designed cookware for the visually impaired empowers them to be self-sufficient in making their own meals – an otherwise hazardous and inconvenient task. The project sprung out of Kevin’s time as an active volunteer with Touch Homecare Community Services. There, he met many visually impaired seniors scarred by scabs and burns on their forearms from attempting to cook. Determined to help, he attended an orientation session with Dialogue in the Dark, where he gleaned an empathetic understanding of the lives of the visually impaired, and the daily challenges they face. The sobering visit pushed him to identify how design could reduce their risks in cooking. He was pleasantly surprised to find that, equipped with the right tools, they could whip up a sumptuous spread.

Folks Kitchenware   

The Folks collection consists of five familiar kitchen tools specially modified to cater to easy use via a primary sense of touch. Mrs Rosie Wong, a visually impaired housewife who used Kevin’s tools, praised them for making her life happier and the act of cooking less of a challenge. Mrs Chua Siew Hoon, a visually impaired tele-operator, also tried and tested Kevin’s tools and liked the collection very much. In particular, the pot alignment tool makes it easier for her to adjust pots on the stove safely.

 

The Folks collection clinching the first prize at the James Dyson Award has certainly given it the recognition and exposure needed to translate it into material reality. The resulting press coverage of the Folks collection connected Kevin with capable individuals in the industry and attracted potential investors, such as MightyJaxx, an award-winning toy manufacturing company, keen to produce his collection.

 

From this experience, Kevin discovered that while funding is crucial for a successful project-to-market translation, access to industrial resources and domain experts are essential too. Most investors are able to translate a project to reality successfully via seed funding; however, they may not have the right experts and connections to develop the project. He thus hopes to encourage cross-industry connections and communication, working towards building a collective network that connects not just innovators to relevant investors, but to professionals who can realise their ideas.

 

The Dsg Scholarship has aided Kevin tremendously in this regard. It supported his Masters education in the Royal College of Art in London, and gave him invaluable connections to other creatives and industries, internationally and locally.

 

The work of an industrial designer is varied, with many exciting moments. For Kevin, projects that include field research are the most memorable as he gets to experience things from being on the ground. A person who thrives on hands-on experiences, he took to dumpster diving to search for discarded materials for another project dealing with industrial waste products. It was hardly smooth sailing but from the adventure-like experience, he found valuable materials to work with, and gained first-hand insights into industrial consumption patterns. Entitled Lunar: Light Vessels From Cling Wraps, the work clinched the core77 Design Award in 2017.

 

Though one might jump through various hoops to fulfil a creative project, the outcomes are always worth it. Seeing people enjoy the fruits of his labour is what keeps Kevin going, and is arguably the most satisfying part of the job. Making a difference in people’s lives with his designs validates the effort invested and affirms the project’s progress and contribution to society.

 

Even in today’s highly digital world, industrial design is instrumental to the development of future equipment ranging from new smartphones to automatic pet tracking devices. Kevin is convinced that industrial design will be an empathetic bridge between people and their environment. Industrial design incorporates trending technology such as Internet of Things, blockchain technology, and artificial intelligence to improve everyday objects such as GPS and health tracking devices. Given this, it is Kevin’s belief that industrial design has and will continue to be relevant in meeting new consumer needs. Kevin proposes design’s main purpose to be making sense of the complexities behind these emergent technologies, and identifying ways which they can be used and incorporated into new designs: tangible outcomes that people can grasp, in the form of products or services.

 

To the aspiring designer, he has these words: “To the young explorers who are keen to join the field, I would humbly suggest that they keep that spark of curiosity alive, do more and hesitate less. Rigour, resilience, and being observant are key traits that are valuable in any creative dialogue.”

 

To discover more about Kevin’s works, visit his website: https://kevinchiam.com/

 

To find out more about the DesignSingapore Scholarship, click here.

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