Final major project
The final major project is a big deal for students of Product Design. If you’re a student reading this who is currently deciding what to do your final major project on. It’s stressful… I get it.
- It’s pretty much THE deciding factor on your degree result
- It will determine whether you are selected to go to the best exhibitions
- It will massively affect the job you land (or don’t land) after graduating
- It will play a big part in what sort of designer people perceive you to be at the beginning of your career
If you’re passionate about a career in design, you’re probably a little nervous about what the project will be. In this post, I’ll try and give a few approaches that you can potentially use as a starting point.
Work backwards from your goals
Some people only want to work in the area of healthcare. Some purely want to work with new materials and technologies. Some aren’t interested in re-designing a mechanism to be more cost effective and would rather design an art installation. Some only want to work for one particular business that they worship. Whatever you’re working towards, be strategic with your final major project to help get you there. The following is a breakdown of different goals you could work backwards from.
Start with the aim to save lives?
For every kettle and concrete speaker, there’s a student who has tried to identify a deeper problem or human need. The final major projects that tackle prevention of death are hard to ignore.
Self-directed student projects tend to start with an area, maybe a hobby, and it’s explored in order to find a problem. For example, the area of football might lead you to think of training aids for dribbling, target practice, storage of kit, cleaning of boots, carrying balls, etc. You might observe users to develop insights and expand it from there to clarify a problem. It takes time, and there’s no guarantee of identifying a meaningful issue that you can really sink your teeth into.
The truth is, there are a shit load of problems that already exist. Plus, your project is more about the ability to design a solution to a problem (as opposed to the ability to identify a problem). You don’t want to end up 8 weeks down the line with no decent starting block in sight. So, instead of spending months on trying to unearth a problem, how about choosing a significant problem that already exists? And I don’t mean macro level thinking like ‘global warming’. I mean getting very specific. For example, it has been reported that 5 babies drown in UK baths every year. This should NOT be happening, and design can help prevent it. (You can keep that one).
If you are passionate about design as a way to contribute towards saving lives, then you need to look at causes of death. This could lead to looking at a whole host of diseases, but it can also go down the route of accident prevention. E.g., saving babies from drowning. A great starting place for your final major project is RoSPA. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. You can find accidents sorted by type, with links to accident reports and publications which often include references to relevant articles and statistics. You can get very deep into an existing problem in a very short space of time. If you want to read more on the drowning example I gave, click HERE.
I’m not saying that this approach replaces research techniques like interviews, focus groups, user observations, etc. The point I’m making is that when you use this approach AND follow it up with your own research, you can be in a very good position very quickly. Especially compared to a student interviewing football coaches asking open questions like “What problems do you face when coaching?”. Or even worse, asking leading questions or manipulating an answer. E.g., “Don’t you think training aids for dribbling could be improved?”
Start with a new technology?
The flip side to the approach of starting with a problem could be to use a technology as the starting point, and figure out a practical application. You could research emerging technologies that currently have limited application, technologies that are currently out there but are too expensive right now for use on a mass scale, or you could choose an established technology and look to combine it with a product category or industry sector where it isn’t currently used.
Itero was a short conceptual project by Tony Elkington at Loughborough. I spoke to Tony recently about the project during a portfolio review – you can check it out HERE. He came across laser toner-removal technology and the project evolved into a printer that removes toner from a used sheet of paper before printing back onto the same sheet. It’s a good example where the starting point was a technology, as opposed to starting with “How can printers evolve?” or “How else could printed paper be utilised?”.
Bose is an example of a business led by technology. Through innovation in acoustics, they are experts in vibration. This led to them developing seat suspension systems for tractors and truck drivers. Did the Bose leadership team sit round a table and decide they were going to move away from headphones and start solving problems for truck drivers – and develop the technology from there? Probably not. It was a case of figuring out an application for a new technology they had developed. Bose are not a headphone business, they are a technology business.
Some actionable points you could take:
- Ask your Course Leader for an introduction to any Material Scientists that work at your University
- Find out who the key contacts are at your University who are doing research into Bio-Chemical Engineering, Electronics Engineering, etc. Basically, any individuals who are consistently exposed to or developing new tech. (These people probably won’t let you in on what they are working on right now, but they may talk about their previous projects or offer insight into the most recent technologies globally that very few people know about).
- Identify businesses that have a technology you are interested in. Is it possible to meet with them and ask if they have considered other applications of the technology? Is there a chance they have but aren’t putting work into it due to lack of resource or because it’s a low priority for them? Is it in their roadmap to look at other applications for their tech in 3 years time, when YOU could do work for them on it NOW? Could it manifest into a sponsored final major project for you?
- Follow all tech blogs, podcasts and influencers intensely and pro-actively seek out cutting-edge developments. You may already be subscribed to a few, but are you intensely trying to pull out potential final major projects from them? Futurism is one worth checking out.
Start with an employer in mind?
If you absolutely love Innocent Drinks as a business, and you know they are the number one company on the planet you want to work for, then it makes sense to put 9 months of work into something they care about, right?
Well, nobody is reaching out. Very few students reach out to their heroes and think BIG about their project. Instead of seeing it as something academic, see it as something REAL. As in, forget you’re a student trying to ‘get a high mark’ – how could you be adding real value to a business right now by solving their design challenges?
How about trying to get the attention of a Director at Innocent Drinks with the aim of meeting them and understanding the problems they have and the issues they care about most. In particular, issues where design can add value.
Do this with the top 5 brands you love most and BOOM……. a project is born. (Assuming you can break through and get the meeting). Talking with these people will just arm you with a problem for you to then dig deeper. If you’re top 5 consists of Nike and Apple – maybe throw a few smaller, local brands in the mix! The best part is, the project will have derived from a REAL need from a REAL business. It also gives you a chance to build relationships with the people you WANT a relationship with. There is NOTHING to lose.
September to May. That’s 9 months. It’s unlikely you will get the opportunity again to go this deep with this amount of time on a project that YOU choose. You might as well do it on something you LOVE and use the opportunity to help get you to where you want to be, and help you land a job doing what you want to do long term.
In terms of getting hired, this approach also shows total commitment and genuine care for a brand. You’ll also build market knowledge in those 9 months. If you’ve got the chops – then there’s a good chance you will have an edge over an equally talented graduate whose project was unrelated to that brand.
Another good strategy to use if you are starting your final major project with an employer in mind, is to be aware of the skills required to be a designer at that particular business. Doing a project on something that they care about is one thing. Being suitable for a job there as a designer is another. So, look up Industrial Designer job postings at the companies you want to work for. Whatever skills they list, try to integrate this with your project. It will also give you enough time to learn a piece of software that they may list as a requirement that you may not currently have any experience in. If you’re final major project addresses one of their most significant challenges AND you integrate everything they look for in a designer into the execution of the project – then you’ll come across as someone who can totally hit the ground running (and probably land the job).
Start with an industry sector in mind?
Do everything mentioned above but only target brands within the industry you want to break into. For example, if you want to get into designing products for the nursery industry then you’ve got Mothercare, Silver Cross, Mamas & Papas and Cosatto right here in England. If you want to keep yourself open and not do a project specific to one brand then figure out the challenges that some or all of those brands face and create a solution under a fictional brand.
Start with a product category in mind?
Now obviously, I’m not blowing anybody’s minds with this approach. It’s probably the most common. However, I don’t think it should be. If you absolutely 100% know that you want to design kettles and toasters for the foreseeable future, then by all means design a kettle. However, most people aren’t in a position where they definitely know they only want to design one particular type of product. If this is you, I would definitely try to start with a problem, not a product.
The other issue with starting with a product, is that you know a lot about the outcome at the beginning of the project. It’s safe. In my opinion, the best final major projects are the ones that aim to solve a problem, and the individual undertaking the project has NO IDEA what the outcome will be. The direction it could go in and the format of the product is wide open. It means the exploration phase is REAL. The development is REAL. They are seeking the unknown. It’s unnerving at times and you have to put faith in your ability as a designer. Personally, these are the projects that excite me.
The opposite end of the spectrum is a student wanting to know pretty much what the solution is at the beginning of the project. They might even create some bullshit exploratory work to make it look like they got to the solution in an organic way. They’re working backwards. ‘Playing the game’ if you like. Don’t do it.
However, if you ARE someone who is really passionate about one product category, I would urge you to step back and look at the fundamental reason that product exists. Question the likelihood of it staying in it’s current format in the next 10 years. As in, a kettle boils water. Instead of thinking about designing a kettle, get to the root. I.e., why do we need boiled water in a container that allows it to be easily poured? This leads to more exciting questions. Dig deeper, and the project might lead to the redesign of a tap, a thermal mug, or the teabag! Who knows? But going wide and getting to the root of why products exist will lead to an exciting project – as opposed to assuming current products have got the fundamentals right and improving them by one degree.
Speak with people you don’t usually encounter, and ‘TUNE IN’
I mentioned this earlier in the post, but you’ve got to constantly be in a mindset of thinking how everything you think, see, hear and experience could potentially be a final major project. You’ve got to ‘tune in’.
Speak to as many people as possible. If you want to go more commercial, make an effort to speak to Brand Managers, Marketing Managers within different industries and people in Product Development. I’d also urge you to speak to niche audiences. Blind people, deaf people, amputees, wheelchair uses, mothers of people with autism or other disabilities. What about people in specific jobs? Dentists, opticians, midwives, construction workers, factory/warehouse managers or an air hostess? People who use specific types of equipment or those in extreme environments? Self-directed projects are incredibly open. Going niche can normally bring a bit of focus to a project and help create some parameters.
Get out. Get talking. Introduce yourself. Make calls. Arrange meetings. Think big. Read. Listen. Watch.
… and Tune in. A project WILL present itself.