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How Design Council Spark kick-started a difficult design project

How Design Council Spark kick-started a difficult design project

1 February 2018

Nick Rawcliffe is a mechanical engineer who joined the Spark programme with his innovative folding cycle helmet. An idea he’d been kicking around for a while, Spark gave him the impetus to move the project forward.

Nick is a keen cyclist, he’s been pounding the streets of London for nearly twenty years. He’d never been much of a helmet wearer, much to his mother’s often voiced consternation. But as the years went by, the streets became fuller and correspondingly more hazardous. Nick became more aware of the danger and started looking around for convenient cycle helmets.

“I’d seen a load of folding helmets that people had designed” he says, “but although they were perfectly legal, I felt they were lacking in the safety aspect. I knew I could design something better.” He bought a few of the products on the market to try them out, and was disappointed. “The way they all folded meant that they didn’t make a solid shell – like a hard hat,” he says. “If you stand on a hard hat it doesn’t collapse, but a lot of them just folded when you did the same thing to them. I had an idea for a folding mechanism that would make a solid helmet when unfolded and that wouldn’t collapse under pressure.”

Nick trained as a mechanical engineer and has 15 years running his own business under his belt. He designs and manufactures an eclectic range of furniture, lighting and homeware products ranging from chess sets, to hanging chairs, and lights that look like the moon.

So he was fully aware of what designing a cycle helmet would entail, “The regulatory side of it is a big deal for a start,” he says. “But then to build something like that you’re going to be using plastic injection techniques, it’s not easy to manufacture.” Nevertheless, Nick continued developing his idea, making some rough mock ups, including one from a watermelon. “Well, they were cheap in Lidl, so I ate them and then used them to test the ideas,” he laughs.

Design is by its nature a collaborative process, so to take my project forward I needed to find a way to get input from other people

Nick Rawcliffe, Designer

When the opportunity to apply for the Spark programme came along Nick immediately saw the potential to use the programme to take this difficult idea forward – and to stop his Mum nagging him about when he was going to get on and make his helmet.

“When you’re someone like me, who designs and builds – who is trained to think through ideas – the trick is to be constantly alert for opportunities to take your ideas forward. You can’t do everything on your own, you have to be flexible, not precious.” It wasn’t just the £15k of funding that was attractive to Nick, but the chance to air his idea amongst other people.

Yes, that’s a cycle helmet made from a melon…


“I mostly work on my own,” he says. “I have a lot of design experience, but anyone who thinks that means you don’t need any help is wrong. Design is by its nature a collaborative exercise so to take the project forward I needed to find a way to get input from other people. Spark was a great place to get that, to think the product through, not just from my own point of view.”

Like many who take part in Spark Nick found that the programme broadened out his vision of the product. “It might just be a cycle helmet,” he says. “But to get something like that to market you have to go through so many stages, there are so many possibilities and things to consider. You have to work out a way forward, making decisions whilst keeping as many options open as possible.”

The guidance offered by the Spark mentors is an invaluable help for participants picking their way through this difficult path to get their product to market. “It validates your idea, which is really important,” says Nick. “Even when I got on the programme I was still asking myself whether I should be there, but taking part in Spark is a bit like running through a validity checklist for your product. You look at it from every angle, you formalise your ideas and put them down on paper. All things that it is hard to do on your own.”

Taking part in Spark is a bit like running through a validity checklist for your product

Nick Rawcliffe, Designer

That ‘validity check list’ as Nick calls it is one of the ways that the Spark mentors ensure that products are being properly brought to market with a realistic plan for the future. “Even at the point where you are nowhere near selling stuff, you need to be getting prepared,” says Nick. “The mentors on Spark help you to do that, especially in the areas where you are not as confident. For me that was things like the sales and branding side. Working out how to define value, and what the channels to market were. They provided me with a second opinion on my approaches and strategies that was invaluable.”

Nick has now finished the Spark programme but, as with all ventures who are supported by it, he remains part of the Spark Network who will take a keen interest in his continued development. With the aesthetics and mechanics of the helmet almost completed, he is now raising the support to take the project into the manufacture stage and is still in contact with two of the mentors to help him do that.

“I think this programme is perfect for people like me, designers and makers who work predominantly on their own,” he says. “I would say to anyone in that position who has an idea that they’ve maybe been thinking about for a while, to apply for the programme. You will get so much more out of it than just design guidance and it is a brilliant kick up the arse to get on and actually do it!”

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