We sat down with BA (Hons) Design and MA Design Innovation course leader Franziska Conrad, creator of ‘Quick Pitch Tent’ the pop-up festival tent, rated 89 on Steven Fry’s list of the 100 greatest gadgets.
Quick pitch tent started as a student project in 2004, how did the idea for it come about and did you think it would become such a popular and widely used product?
In my final year project at university, I was stuck with an idea that didn’t really work, and a really exciting conversation with one of my tutors at the time came about on what I wanted to get out of the degree, and how I could make my project more exciting. Being young at the time, I loved festivals and had recently wrestled with a really unruly tent the summer before I started the project. So, the idea stemmed from here.
The exciting element about the project is that it was then developed into something that was sustainable. It was designed as a tent that was made out of a biodegradable membrane, with a structure on the inside that could be taken out and recycled. The whole concept was that as a festival goer, you would buy your festival ticket, buy your festival tent, and you wouldn’t have to drag it there on the train, you would arrive and pick up your tent, you could sit on it, you could sleep in it at the festival.
Another thought was that it would be branded, so example ‘Glastonbury 2005’ and that you wouldn’t leave it behind. Tens of thousands of tents get left behind at the end of every festival every year, and this was something that needed addressing.
So, we designed it so that it could be taken to an industrial compost heap if people didn’t want it anymore, and turn it back to soil, one of the things that would make this tent amazing. The other thing was if you had it branded ‘Glastonbury’ or ‘Isle of Wight Festival’ you probably wouldn’t leave it behind; you’d probably take it with you.
So how did you take this idea and this great creation to the market?
The university I was at had a really good department, that was solely responsible for helping students and their staff commercialise their intellectual property, that was the start.
I was approached by them and asked if I wanted to do something with the tent, and I said yes. Then there was an exchange between this department of the university and myself, in terms of intellectual property, in terms of viability of the design, and they helped me do the research.
We did was a year and a half of research, approaching potential buyers, and having prototypes made, there were two student prototypes done and there were two prototypes made commercially.
We found out in the process that we couldn’t patent the design, for a number of reasons, but we could register the design. The registered design was put into the registered design base and was then accessible to the world, then the whole world approached us and said ‘we saw your design and it fits with our range and we would like to be doing this, would you like to sell it to us’.
So, people reached out to you?
We got approached by a company we worked with for many years. They came to us and said ‘this is exactly the design we want in our new range’. Instead of selling it we ended up making a deal with them on the licence agreement. So, they had the rights to all the intellectual property and continue working with us over the course of ten years.
The initial design was produced by and distributed by them, and the first business to stock it and originally make the link was Oswald Bailey, who were based in Bournemouth. The first 5000 tents coming into the UK was to Oswald Bailey.
How important is it for products to be designed sustainably?
Very. I think the fact that we’re talking about design and sustainable design is a travesty. Every product that is designed today and, in the future, should go through an analysis that determines whether it is a sustainable solution or not.
In fact, we shouldn’t be talking about it, it should be a given. A designer should think about the sustainability of the product they are designing, or the sustainable choice might be that there isn’t a product and it should be as simple as that. I think the design industry is in a really exciting phase at the moment, we might be designing ourselves out of a job in a way.
Do you feel students are now more aware from the start of university for the need for products to be designed and produced sustainably?
I think now with the climate emergency so prominent, especially supported by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth 2, having such people talking about a climate emergency and the issues with single-use plastics.
It’s so in the mainstream media now that students and young people are aware of it. The likes of Greta Thunberg leading this teenage revolution and this urge to make something better of this planet, than what we are doing at the moment is really important.
I think the students that are going to come in to design out of 2018 and 2019 are going to be really exciting students, because they have the environment and our planet at their heart
How many different ideas does it take before you get an idea that comes to fruition?
More than one idea. However many it takes, sometimes the first idea is the one you do come back to and it is the right idea, but very rarely is that the case.
It’s going through many iterations, changing the perspective, looking at the narrative of the problem you’re solving, listening, talking to people and having the ability to evolve that initial idea, or forget about it and start something else.
So, do most of the ideas come from observation of real life?
I think it’s very important. Talking as an educator rather than a designer when you speak to design students there is a common misconception, yes, we all want to change the world, but there is a limit to the amount of time you have for these projects.
If you’ve got the ability and the time to observe the space around you, you don’t need to go to sub-Saharan Africa to solve water or hunger issues. They are big issues, but we get to them when we build a rapport as a designer. I often say when someone gets really stuck on a project ‘go and spend a day outside, take the bus, have a walk around the town centre, go shopping, observe, see what people are struggling with’ and that’s where your great ideas come from, your relatable ideas come from.
What do you hope the new Design courses (both BA and MA) will bring to AUB, that will set it aside from other universities?
We all need to change, we all need to move on from the traditional product design, industrial design, that segregated side of thinking. I think it is really important that we are truly trying to do something that is more collaborative with these courses.
For the BA, hopefully, it will allow students to be a bit more experimental and a bit more explorative and a bit riskier with their designs, because hopefully there will be less box-ticking in terms of what the need to achieve over the course of the years that they are spending with us.
The other slight difference to long-established running design courses is that we are looking from a skills point of view at being more open to negation when it comes to projects and final year projects. So, there’s that desire to give students the opportunity to work more in teams if they want to, because that’s what they are going to be doing when they go into the professional world, very rarely are they going to be working as an individual, trying to crack this massive problem.
The other is to understand that not all designers have the same skills. There are designers who are great at the front end and who are full of ideas that are really not so good at the execution and the making of things. That doesn’t mean they are bad designers, it means they are good at one part of the design process and not so good at the rest. Giving those people the opportunity to explore their ideas at the start, and then giving them alternatives to solving their project further on, or, maybe giving them the opportunity to write about it rather than getting them to produce the finished artefact.
The same on the MA, looking at the giving students the opportunity to explore the theory of design. Yes, they have the opportunity to make and if that’s part of their exploration, and we have the facilities and we welcome that. If you are a designer who’s not a maker you still have the opportunity to come up with a great project, through exploration and investigation, but without the physical creation of an artefact.
There’s lots of different levels to being a designer aren’t there?
It’s very very complicated, that’s why when people ask ‘what is design’ I just can’t answer that, it’s impossible. I think it needs to be in you, I can’t teach someone to be a designer, you have to have that inquisitiveness in you to start with.
A massive part of studying at AUB is cross-course collaboration, is this something that will be available on either of the MA or the BA design courses?
Every course is different every year, there’s a core element that stays the same every year, but the courses themselves are quite fluid. With the BA and the MA we are looking quite closely at working with the modelmakers for example, because modelmaking and design are so intertwined in so many ways. There are definite opportunities to teach modelmaking and design students at the same time can share content, but also looking at sharing projects, setting a project where the designers have a role and the model makers have a role and they can work together.
The big aim for both programmes and for the future of the masters is collaboration across campus, not just between industry and the course.
Is learning how to be an entrepreneur a big part of both the courses and is looking at starting your own business touched on?
I think so, specifically the MA. The MA for us is an opportunity for someone who wants to create their own creative business, the focus is closely entwined with entrepreneurship.
The BA is first and foremost about becoming a designer.
There are also elements of collaboration, there are also elements of team working, elements of what it takes to run a business and set up a business. We want to introduce people to the idea that they don’t have to come out of university and find a job, I think it’s the encouragement and giving them the security that even a third year BA Design student has the ability to create their own future and pave their own path.
Of course, there will be great designers out there, that will design products with that in mind, but there are also designers that probably don’t care as much and it’s just about making money.
I think it goes beyond the designer at that point, I think the design industry in itself is quite a way off what’s going on.
As a society I think we have become so accustomed to everything being accessible all the time, we turn up at the supermarket, you didn’t bring a bag, so you buy one, what would you do if there wasn’t a bag available (reusable or not). You’d have to get into the habit of bringing your own one, or you’d find a box to put your shopping in.
I think it’s a slow process, it took us a long time to get here and hopefully we get the support. The multi-disciplinary element, where legislation, design and education all need to come together to come to really quick solutions.
I think it will come together sooner, there’s been a massive drive recently in people becoming more aware, so hopefully.
Hopefully, we can keep the momentum, we are in a spike at the moment, and it’s going to take a lot of energy and a lot of persistence to keep this going, it’s fashionable in a way.
Do you think old consumer trends and habits can be changed? Are they already changing?
Yes, I think they can be changed and I think they are changing. The problem we are having is when you look at the sustainable choice vs the affordable choice, we have a real problem. I think there are more people out there who would love to be more sustainable, but simply can’t afford to be and again, that is a societal and governmental problem.
There’s a design industry out there that design beautiful sofas for £5000, we are not talking about that, we are talking about the fact that an organic chicken is £14 from the supermarkets and a chicken grown in terrible conditions is £4.99. If you don’t have the income you don’t have a choice, that’s three chickens you can buy for the price of one.
Unless we find a solution to making sustainability affordable, nothing is going to change.
Do you think it is possible to design sustainably for an affordable price, or do you think naturally with the territory of being sustainable it is a more expensive process?
I think we need to understand, after having gotten used to everything being available so cheap, that’s not sustainable. That’s one element of it, we need to travel back to the days where everything wasn’t just available, it wasn’t possible. I think as a societal change, that’s a massive thing to ask, when people have grown up, looking at a generation of twenty-year-olds that have grown up with everything available to them, in fact, forty-year-olds, I’ve had everything available to me my whole life.
The big questions are, does that have to stop, how does it have to stop and all the big corporations are going ‘woah, we can’t change the world as it is, because no one will have any work anymore’.
It’s very, very complicated and I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly.
Learn more about BA (Hons) Design.