Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh is the Irish mastermind behind Sugru – ‘the most exciting product since Sellotape’. Over a cup of tea in her company’s HQ in Hackney, east London, she shares her thoughts on reimagining education systems, diversity in design, dishwashers and funky clothes.
Sugru was born out of an inner-crisis. Jane was studying product design at the Royal College of Art, but battled with the thought that there were already too many products and too much wastage in the world.
She imagined a magic material – a sort of sticky and durable space-age rubber – that would fix, improve and reimagine everyday items. After significant interest in the prototype product at her graduation show, she knew she was onto something. Six years and 8,000 lab hours later, the formula for Sugru was complete.
The pliable, waterproof and heat resistant substance comes in a variety of bright and bold colours, and sets to form a strong, glue-like product. Around the world Sugru has been used to fix cables, walking boots and fridge drawers, as well as to hang shelves and make window herb gardens.
For Jane, the power of design reaches far beyond the creation of a new product or a restyled garment, it’s also about the impact that piece of design work has on social, economic and environmental systems that shape our world.
When and why did you decide to go into design?
I studied Fine Art (Sculpture) for my degree. After that I thought I was going to be an artist and started a studio with some fellow graduates in Dublin. In that year though, I found that all the fun I was having in art college didn’t really continue afterwards – there was no money and no context for the work I was doing. I actually found it very lonely.
Artists are outside of society in a way... and I really wanted to be part of something, work with other people and make a difference in everyday life.
What does ‘design’ mean to you?
It’s such a malleable term and you can use it in so many ways. In its most powerful sense, design is an ability to rethink things and to be able to observe and understand the world, and then propose and imagine ways it could be different.
What do you think the role of design is today?
There are aspects of design that are being used extremely positively and there’s been progress in the inclusion of designers in service design, design of social systems and making the world a better place.
However, there is a huge part of the design industry that is creating things that we don’t need – ads and marketing materials to make people think they need things that they don’t. There is a real tension in the design industry and the students now coming up into it are faced with a choice. More and more of them are choosing to have a positive impact, rather than just to work for commercial gain.
February 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time – what does this anniversary mean to you?
Oh gosh, how long it is taking for change to actually happen?! If that was happening 100 years ago, is it going to take another 100 years to get where we want to be? It shows the scale of the challenge. We are still marching for lots of the same reasons that people were marching in the 60s, 70s, and so on.
What has been the biggest challenge or difficulty you’ve faced as a woman in your career?
It’s difficult to pinpoint something directly to do with being a woman. I definitely think women tend to have more confidence issues than men. Often it’s our instinct to be more humble or play down our abilities or ideas. Personally, I’ve always struggled to push myself to go up onto a stage or a room where it’s very male dominated. I’ve made myself do it but it is a constant challenge.
Do you think there is genuine equality for women in the design industry today? There have been high profile reports across the media recently of a gender pay gap across certain sectors and industries. Do you think this is reflected in the design industry?
I don’t have specific insights on the design industry but I’m pretty sure it’s the same as any other industry. This is a society-wide problem and it will run from politics to Hollywood, to public sector jobs, the advertising and design industries. It’s a bigger issue than any one industry.
We know that equality is not just a discussion about gender. What does true equality, including diversity and inclusion mean to you?
The piece that worries me the most in terms of equality and diversity in design is a very worrying trend in terms of access to the industry for young people. I was able to come to the Royal College of Art when there were no fees. Today, people are burdened with debts. Design isn’t a career you go into knowing that you’re going to make a lot of money. The design industry is so diverse that people are often going into jobs that aren’t particularly well paid, and that’s not why they’re going into them; they’re going into them to make a difference.
There needs to be structural change in education from a young age if we really want to have diversity in design. We must find ways to fund the creative subjects, which are being completely cut in schools. These are crucial subjects that nurture the imagination. If we’re not nurturing curiosity at a young age, and making the creative industries accessible to everybody – not just the people who have enough money to pay for university fees – it is a sad situation.
Is talent being hindered from coming into the industry because of an assumption that people should have a degree or formal qualification of some sort?
So much of design is about skills and imagination, and a talent for creativity – and much of that can be nurtured on the job. Shoehorning design into a degree may or may not be valid actually in terms of the value it gives to the individual or, later, the employers. I would love to see more practical and accessible routes into design.
What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in design?
Here at Sugru we work with young people on creative projects, encouraging them to find ways to fix things for example. As an industry, we can be inspiring and encouraging to help people find ways to be creative, but we do need to be campaigning for the bigger, structural change in education systems too.
We should also always be checking ourselves and any unconscious biases we may have. It is essential to have awareness when building a company or team of ensuring people of different ages, genders and backgrounds are represented. We have 24 nationalities working here at Sugru and it’s one of the things people talk about as being a really positive element of the team.
If you were to start all over again, what would you tell your younger self when you started considering your career pathway?
I would say trust yourself and enjoy yourself. I have been lucky to come through a path where I’ve had incredible opportunities and I was able to make the most of them, but I worried and stressed out a lot along the way. I was always worried about my ideas – were they good enough? It’s good to push and question yourself, and there’s a big role for self-doubt for sure, but I would say enjoy it. It’s an incredible privilege to work in the creative industries.
Which woman leader or designer are you most inspired by and why?
Josephine Cochrane: the inventor of the dishwasher.
She invented something for a very practical reason – to wash dishes – and I find the social impact that such a practical invention can have, in terms of freeing up women’s time to do other things, amazing. She invented the dishwasher in 1886 and scandalised the people around her by going out and selling it by herself, without her father or brother.
What does the future of the creative industries look like to you?
I’m a naturally hopeful person. I always believe that we can do better and while things are looking very challenging at the moment, I can see so many positive things happening.
If we can do our best to make design an attractive path – the work environment, the culture of it, and the routes into it – then younger people will be more and more inspired to get involved.
It’s an amazing opportunity when there is a moment of unrest and a ‘Time’s up’ mood in the atmosphere. This is an opportunity to seize and make change for the next generation.
Read more about Jane’s background and the story of Sugru here.
In this series, our interviewees are asked to choose three objects or pieces of design that are special or hold some sort of meaning for them.
1. The dishwasher
“Josephine Cochrane is a pioneering person who designed something that has helped make a lot of people’s everyday life a bit nicer.”
2. Marimekko garments
“I just love wearing the brand. They make me happy because they’re bold and generally quite colourful. I also really appreciate how long lasting they are. I’ve owned the dress I’m wearing for four to five years; it’s in constant rotation out of the washing machine!”
“Catherine Greig and her team at Make:Good are showing the way in terms of involving communities and young people in the design process of their own neighbourhoods and built environment. They use creative and imaginative approaches to how show how places and social housing in particular can be more functional, happier places.
“Catherine’s an incredible example of somebody seeing design as a holistic discipline. It’s not just about how we build the structures, it’s also about the way we consume them, the people involved and the emotional system that exists before, during and after the product is created.
“We’re seeing lots of grassroots projects finding their role within the education system and public realm. If those kinds of collaborative design projects find their place that makes me very hopeful.”
Read the series
Check out the full Leading Women in Design series.View more