Solving the unsolvable: Alex Jones, product design consultant

“it’s a lot more about understanding people than just designing a product” Alex Jones

Welcome to the first in a new series of articles, where we get inside the heads of successful and highly talented mechanical engineers and industrial designers, and really find out what makes them tick. In this article engineeringclicks.com talks to Alex Jones, Director of award winning design consultancy, Cambridge Industrial Design.

Alex graduated in 1994 with a BSc in Engineering Product Design. Following that he worked in Sydney, Australia designing ticketing and vending machines (and a popcorn machine!) Since then he’s worked as a design consultant, firstly with Product Partners and then with Cambridge Industrial Design. In 2007 Alex took over the business and still loves designing.

Why did you decide to become a product design consultant?

It’s quicker than designing a skyscraper and not as flat as a graphic designer

If you weren’t a product design consultant, what would you be doing instead?

I would either work in special effects (woohoo! Lightsabers), be a photographer for Magnum (my photos aren’t always in focus), or be a car designer (okay this is a last resort I admit)

What inspires/motivates you as a designer?

Really difficult problems that can seem unsolvable. Not knowing how you can solve them is the interesting bit.

What makes a product design consultancy successful?

Still working that out… Listening to the client and then understanding what they actually want. That’s a good start. Not always easy. Since running my own consultancy I have come to realise that it’s a lot more about understanding people than just designing a product. I think I’m getting better at understanding interactions and hopefully interpreting requirements more efficiently.

Will manufacturing come back to the UK?

Some will, some won’t. Two problems I encounter at the moment with UK – Slow quoting or tooling, and disjointed production options. Money is not so much of an issue, certainly in lower volume projects. We have recently started to use UK toolmakers again after many years of just using China. We have found some really great people who can rival or better timescales from China. There are so many variables it’s difficult to find a clear answer on this I think.

What advice would you give a young person starting out in the industry today?

Get some experience in a manufacturing company and get networking. It really doesn’t matter if you have a 1st or not. If you know how to design a plastic moulding or a sheet metal box and make it look good – you are heading in the right direction. How can you be a design consultant to a company that wants to make stuff if you yourself have not experienced this first hand?

What have you designed that you most proud of?

A laboratory robot for the Genome centre here in Cambridge, UK – a 2 tonne robot that carries out multiple tests on DNA, basically replacing a number of machines with one modular system. We worked on the exterior support structures over a two year period. I always enjoy getting involved in local ground breaking work like this.

exterior-support-structureExploded view of the external support structure for the Genome lab robot

Do you have a favourite design trick/technique you use when doing appearance design or mechanical design.

Yes, it’s different every time. It’s the one that works for each unique project.

Do you ever not know where to start with a new project? If so, what gets you out of the rut?

Ahhh… designers block. Usually solved but doing/thinking about something completely different. Going for a walk, staring blankly at the white board, designing something else. Also – time pressure focuses the mind wonderfully.

Are you a mechanical design engineer or an industrial designer?

I am a bit of both I think. I have always enjoyed learning from both disciplines. With mechanical engineering I certainly know my limits and really value an engineers input. Finding a good one is the real trick. In some parts of the world they don’t worry so much about titles you know… they are both vitally important.

What’s your favourite piece of design?

Depends what mood I’m in. Anglepoise lamp at the moment as it lights my desk at home (new model) and the office (1960 model) interesting to see the detail developments between the two.

Most overrated consumer product?

Can I have “Rubbish consumer product” instead? Water-pick devices for teeth –I have tried a couple of devices and they all seem to be badly designed. Pathetic battery, poor design for the required IP rating. I think they spend a lot of time designing a wonderful ergonomic case that wins design awards. Shame they don’t spend equal time on the engineering. Can you tell I have just gone through two in less than 6 months?

How many projects do you work on simultaneously, and how do you cope?

Varies – 6 on occasion, often 3 or 4. I cope by having lots of bits of paper and a large white board.

What manufacturing process do you most enjoy designing for?

None – I enjoy the variety.

What’s your favourite part of the design process?

Seeing the final production item. We design cat flaps for one of our customers and I usually find a grateful cat owner at the family gathering/dinner party/networking event saying how great it is.



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