Category Archives: Research & Enterprise

Gentle Design

There are so many definitions good design! Perhaps the most referenced is Dieter Rams. I personally like The Principles in Design by W H Mayall, 1979, Design Council.
For sheer badness I love the simple truth in Raymond Loewy’s “Good Design Sells”.
For good design method “A short course in Industrial Design” by Erksild Tjalve, 1979 celebrates drawing as a problem solving tool. It is a brilliant thinking book. Probably everyone has a favorite.

But, I am not so sure anymore that the pursuit of good design or attempts to define it helps – anyone. The idea of good design gives rise to the idea of a good designer and that tends to put the whole proposition on the wrong footing.
Those who think they are good designers issue edicts and drawings from white design offices.
Resentment builds in the Engineering Department about the “arty-farty” ones who don’t know how to make anything. Resentment builds in the marketing department who long for a winning product not a shrine to design goodness.
There is arrogance to good design and good designers.

Instead of good design a concept of gentle design seeks excellence in process rather than excellence in outcome. The outcome is not the point. Given time, just like in the design of a traditional boat, an outcome will evolve and fit in with all the people in the whole loop; the shareholders, designers, users, engineers, programmers, environmentalists and the refuse collector. Gentle design is slow. There is time to understand, listen, weigh, balance, compromise, test, evolve and observe. There is no big new idea here, gentleness, slowness, steadiness, call what you will, has been around forever. Nonetheless, to some, especially those in a rush to deliver a new winning product this sounds like letting go of control and ambition, almost giving up. In a highly competitive, technical world the temptation to be good, quick is almost overwhelming. So what goes wrong in the headlong rush for design excellence in design outcomes? What gives? Observation, listening, testing, balance, harmony, beauty. Experience is forgotten. Craft is overlooked. People get trampled over. And then everyone wonders why the brilliant design fails.

10 observations about a University Spin out business

1. You must want this
You are an academic. You have the best job in the World. You are employed, but you are free to pursue your own interests. Every year you are re-energised by a new group of students. Now you have an idea based on your University Research and somehow you are compelled to start a business. Why?

Perhaps you fear becoming institutionalised, maybe it is because you love freedom, because you don’t like or believe in University, because you want to share your project with the world, because you want to be rich, because you are bored, because you want more excitement, maybe someone said: “you cant do that” to you. Maybe it all was an accident but yet here you are, somewhat surprised at yourself, but you still persist. There is a reason, I don’t know what it is, you do.

You now have two jobs, running the business and continuing as an Academic. That is not easy – so you must really want this.

2. Trust is essential
To start a business based on a University research project idea is not a singular activity. You may have singularly thought of the idea but turning it into a business is not singular. There are other people involved. Your spouse, your co-founder, the department, the faculty, the University Research Office or Technology Transfer Office, a private investor, a government support agency, an early adopter customer. To hold it all together you will need some glue. The glue is trust. People say sometime about business “oh it is just business”. Trust is not just business it is personal. You personally must trust the people you are in business with you just as they must trust you.

An investor might like the look of your new business proposition. They are investing in you not the invention. The invention is probably dead without you – unless the investor or the University have lots of unemployed CEO types they can appoint to rescue the operation. Probably they don’t. In effect you are the invention. A relationship of trust is required. You need to feel that the investor or the University will not dump you at the first opportunity, the investor and the University need to understand you and your goals and all need to believe that you are in this for the common good. Probably, everyone needs to know each other. Joe needs to be married to Helen’s sister. The network of trust needs to be tight. You are going on a journey. A trigger happy kid in the team is a total no go. You simply cannot have them. The rest of the people on board are already a pretty edgy bunch. Don’t add a match to the fuel. Trust is a deep, visceral, thing. You need it. A crack in the establishment of trust will certainly become a chasm.

3. The invention is not the thing
The invention is the start point. The business may not sell anything like the thing that was originally invented. The attempt at commercialising the invention will lead to another related thing that will attract some market pull – that is the thing – the original invention is just the start point. Every University start up I have met are convinced that their thing is the thing – often, even though they haven’t sold any.

4. Patience
Perhaps you have a tech start up. It is a fast moving world. Everything is quick. People in the business accelerator programmes and University Tech Transfer offices say things like: “try hard, fail quick”. That is all fine but you need to go at your own speed. That speed might be slow. Be patient. There are lots of ideas about what shape a University start up should be. Your start up might not be that shape. That should not worry you. Be patient with yourself.

5. The pivot point(s)
One day you will be in a meeting when a discussion takes place that changes everything. Perhaps you will be moving out of research into commercial development, perhaps out of hardware into software, changing location, turning down a contract, perhaps not getting paid by a customer, maybe you need more cash, perhaps you have discovered a fatal flaw in your idea, maybe you have been turned down for investment, perhaps you need to go back to consultancy rather than product development, perhaps the University is suing you. Whatever it is it can be a head wrecker! At that point, keep the faith. Pivot, duck, dive, swivel, swerve and keep going.

6. The bust up with the University
Every University says that they are expert in spinning out businesses. They might mention a great success they had in the past. They have technology transfer officers that will help you. They will offer you “support”. They will incubate your business. To a greater or lesser extent all of the above is true and false. But by starting your business and putting a lot of energy into it you will somewhat de-focus on normal University business. Most academics will say: “it is fine, I can manage both my Academic career and my business venture”. However because you are focusing on the business:
– you might step back from starting a new course
– you might dodge becoming a course director
– you might not become Head of School or Dean
– you might chose not to lead a big research project

All this slowly causes tension to rise. At some point the business and the University will part company. You will be in the middle. What are you going to do? Leave? Stay? (See paragraph 1.)

7. Write you own business plan
You are just an academic, you know nothing about business, you need help, so you can become investment ready, etc etc.

Do not accept any kind offers to write your business plan for you. This is your business. If you are clever enough to figure out the invention then you can understand that you need to know who you are going to sell to. If you know that you can write your own business plan. If someone else writes the business plan then who is in charge? Clearly not you!

8. People who are entrepreneurs are different
Hang out with people who have started businesses, those who are running them and those who have sold them. They are different and they are very interesting. They contrast very starkly with your friends in academia. It is like as if there is two worlds!

9. Sell something
The difference between a research grant and a business is that in a research grant you spend money (the project funding). In a business you make money.

The development must stop! Sell something. Do not give stuff away. Charge for everything. There should be no free Beta tests. Ask for money from prospective customers. If they pay it shows their commitment to your idea. Listen to potential customers. You are looking for buyers – not partners or research collaborators or grants or admirers. You need to weigh the success of your idea with sales.

10. Don’t drink the cool-aid
There is a lot of noise about start up businesses. There almost certainly is twitter group about “start ups”. There might be an evening event where start up’s get together to hack and have a few beers. The University might run a Start up meet up on every second Thursday of the month. All of these things are great and are very well meaning and they can make you feel good but they should not be confused with the task of getting on with it. Ask yourself if the community based, tech city, social media, hackathon, star wars, event adds anything to your bottom line. No? Go home instead!

sketch diagrams

I recently did a little sketching project on twitter. It came about as a result of a bit of personal reflection. I did think that I sketch all the time. I keep notebooks, I must be on notebook 89 or something. I was looking through my notebooks to find some example sketch work and to my shock I discovered only a few sketches. I am not happy with that because I think sketching is a great way to work out answers to problems. I would hate to think of myself as someone whose work is just writing based. (A slow creeping truth)

So I resolved to do a sketch diagram every day for 30 days and tweet them day by day. It has been an interesting experience and remarkably difficult.

I was surprised about how difficult it was because I used to produce 30 sketches in a morning when I was working in Industrial Design. I should be able to do this very easily . I have discovered how easy it is to get out of practice.

The sketches concern the work of the day, some are University research work, some are teaching related figuring out ideas with students and some are related to software development projects I am working on.

Generally I am pleased with the sketches and pleased with the thinking they illustrate. Each sketch is an attempt to work out some sort of a problem. I will take a break for a while but will come back to it soon on


Learning Pool – Placement opportunity – Interaction design

Learning Pool are one the most successful software companies in Derry. There is an exciting opportunity for a 1 year long placement with them.

Interaction Designer Placement

Essential skills:

  • UI Development role in a team delivering web based learning materials
  • Keen attention to detail and excellent visualisation and layout skills
  • Understand main web technologies with particular emphasis on CSS, JavaScript and HTML
  • Logical thinking & debugging skills
  • Image/graphic manipulation
  • Essentially the role will involve the extensive use of HTML, PHP, JS, CSS & browser development/debugging tools to manipulate/create a UI (knowledge of the Adobe CS5+ suite is beneficial).

This position is closely directed and monitored by a senior staff member.

The position is ideal for web design based CT and BDes students. This is a great opportunity, please let me know you are interested in applying.


Graphic Design Student placement with DRD


REF:                            IRC190121

SALARY:                    £16,300 per annum


 LOCATION:               ORCHARD HOUSE, 40 Foyle Street, Londonderry, BT48 6AT

 For more detailed information and to apply, please go to

Alternatively, an application pack can be requested by contacting:

HRConnect, PO Box 1089, The Metro Building, 6-9 Donegall Square South, Belfast, BT1 9EW. Telephone: 0800 1 300 330. Email:

All requests must include your name, address and reference number IRC190121.

Completed application forms must be returned to arrive not later than 12:00 noon (UK time) on Friday 14th March 2014.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is an Equal Opportunities Employer