When Geoff Rolandsen discovered his elderly father was having difficulties unlocking doors, he designed a device that would make using keys easier for those with reduced dexterity. Reaching the Design Council Spark 2017 finals has meant Rolandsen can now fulfil his dream of helping ease the daily frustrations caused by deteriorating hand strength. He talks to us about Design Council Spark, catching curveballs and why this project is close to his heart.

It all started with a garden shed. When Geoff Rolandsen’s father struggled to open the doors to get his lawnmower out, it got Rolandsen thinking. If his dad was finding it difficult to use a key, others with reduced dexterity, such as those with arthritis, must be, too.

And so Rolandsen designed the Keywing (then called Workey) to make keys easier to hold, grasp and turn. It saw him become a Design Council Spark finalist in 2017, earning him a place on the 16-week programme, where finalists have access to experts and mentors to gain a full understanding of the design process.

Keywing

The Keywing is the flagship product of the Dext brand, established by Rolandsen to develop a range of innovative products that ease everyday activities. So this year’s Design Council Spark Home Innovation Challenge, which seeks applicants with bright ideas for independent living, really resonates with him.

The door of opportunity

“Everyone takes for granted that they can use their keys,” says Rolandsen. “But if someone was having issues getting into their front door, it could be an unsafe, scary situation.”

Although his father had a key-turning device, it was too bulky to carry around. With a background in design management in the built environment, Rolandsen “started tinkering, doing drawings and making 3D prototypes. But the hurdle for me was the next step, getting my design in front of people. So I ended up doing nothing.”

It wasn’t until a friend texted him about Design Council Spark, that Rolandsen recalled his prototype languishing in a drawer. “Design Council and Arthritis Research UK (now Versus Arthritis) had joined forces on Spark that year,” he explains. “They were keen to see product solutions that might be able to assist those with arthritis. So I entered.”

An open and shut case

While Rolandsen was initially happy with his prototype, things changed over the course of the 16 weeks. Through a series of design-led innovation workshops, one-to-one input from specialists and insight from market testing, his key-turner morphed into something rather different.

“Through the Spark programme I was lucky enough to connect with Versus Arthritis member groups. I’d put the product in front of them and they weren’t afraid to tell me what they thought,” he laughs. “You meet the potential market and they throw you plenty of curveballs.”

The initial prototype was metal, designed to look good on a keyring, but Rolandsen soon realised that “people with reduced dexterity find metal very cold”. Nor did his testers like having to slide the key-turner on and off the key each time they wanted to use it.

So Rolandsen went back to the drawing board: “Spark taught me not to be precious, but to accept as much constructive criticism as I could.” The end result? A colourful plastic mobility aid that clips on to a key, making it easier to hold, control and turn by creating extra surface area and additional leverage. It also had a name change: the Keywing. “I’m confident I’ve got something that showcases good design,” Rolandsen says.

Keywing in action

The key to success

Keywing launches online this spring, so Rolandsen’s priority is now the commercialisation of the product, something he admits wasn’t his forte until he took part in Design Council Spark.

“I very quickly realised that my strength wasn’t in marketing,” he says. “But the Spark mentors gave me really good advice, especially on how to obtain and make the best of any opportunities. And the programme offers great networking prospects.”

If the testimonials for Keywing are anything to go by, the key-turner looks set to open up the door of opportunity not only for those who regain their independence and confidence by using it, but for Rolandsen, too. So much so that he recently left his job to work full-time on the project. “The aim is for Keywing to be available to buy in pharmacies, key-cutting stores and supermarkets,” he says.

“We all use physical products every day. My advice would be that if you’ve got an idea or a concept for a design product, you should definitely enter the Spark Home Innovation Challenge. After all, you’ve nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.”

Got a bright idea for helping people at home? Apply now.

Keywing (£4.99) will be available to buy at www.thekeywing.com this spring

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