Time spent volunteering with Touch Home Care opened Kevin Chiam’s eyes to the world of the frail elderly, a number of whom are visually impaired. The 26-year-old design graduate from National University Singapore participated in many home visits, and realised that many of the elderly struggle with chores, especially in the kitchen. That set Kevin thinking and devising ways on how to make day-to-say living “easier” for the visually impaired, a thesis project-turned-labour of love.
The result was Folks, a kitchenware trio (knife, chopping board and teaspoon) that snagged the top prize at James Dyson Award (JDA) in Singapore. Kevin’s design was chosen from a pool of 26 Singapore entries, and wowed judge Made Artha who said Folks Kitchenware “is a great example of using design to solve a problem that others seem to ignore” and, through its design, Kevin proves that “simple solutions can be powerful and inventive.”
We catch up with Kevin before he sets off to London on a scholarship to pursue his postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA).
What did you learn during your volunteer stint with Touch Home Care?
While delivering meals to the to the less-privileged seniors, I came to learn of the challenges they faced when it comes to daily tasks such as meal preparation. Getting burnt and cut are the two main challenges that those with failed or failing eyesight face. I was spurred to do something, using my passion for industrial design to solve some basic problems. I was also inspired by Christine Ha, the first blind contestant and winner of US Masterchef.
You worked on the folks project for a year. What was the process like?
One of the first things I did was to sign up for Dialogue in the Dark to put myself in the shoes of those with visual disabilities. I gained an insightful, yet sobering, glimpse of the challenges they face. The loss of sight for me was just temporary, but not for the blind.
I also spent time getting to know the people at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped — I followed their daily routine, which allowed me to observe the challenges they face will going about their tasks. My earlier stages of design had some challenges; while earlier designs were functional, it wasn’t quite “intuitive”. It took awhile to get the details right. I’ve learnt that the simpler the idea, the harder it is to perfect it.
Elaborate on the concept behind Folks.
Cooking and prepping food is therapeutic for many of us, and not just for those with sight. Folks was conceived to help the blind prepare food safely, with convenience, confidence and dignity. I could have come up with a gadget that does the task with the press of a button, but technology is not something that the lower-income elderly can embrace or afford easily.
When you want to create something to help solve issues for the marginalised, you have to start with empathy, not just sympathy. Technology has come a long away and our society is highly dependant on it, but it is not the only way to solve problems and issues.
Any advice for budding designers?
It is important to keep an open mind. Don’t view things throughout your own lens as you may inadvertently bring in stereotypes when working on your design. Be sensitive, culturally.
HOW FOLKS KITCHENWARE WORKS
CHOPPING BOARD: Comes with a side tray that pegs freely to its sides. The tray acts as an extension of the hand to gather ingredients, and helps the user to scoop up contents.
TEASPOON: An integrated float rises as liquids are added into a vessel. Tactile feedback of the float coming into contact with the user’s fingers lets the person know when the glass is near-full.
KNIFE: To address the problem of odd-shaped ingredients and poor hand posture, the knife features a retractable guard that guides the fingers during the cutting process.
Kevin will be pitching Folks to companies, manufacturers, and distributors. Let’s hope we will see his designs in homes and beneficiaries across Singapore, soon!
Article by Jacqueline Tan.