interview :: james molkenthin

Katie | July 21, 2015

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This is the seventh in a series of interviews with young designers identified by the Design Council as “Ones to Watch“. James Molkenthin’s redesign of the household kettle gives blind and partially sighted people a sense of assurance, control and normality in their own homes. Its stylish look also helps to remove the stigma around specially manufactured ‘blind products’. James’s project was selected in the Rethinking Reality category alongside Chloe Meineck’s Music Memory Box which gives familiarity and comfort to people with dementia and Rory McLaren’s educational game, which embraces augmented reality, allowing people to access digital information, including pictures and video, through objects.

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What’s the most important thing to know about you?

That I’ve moved to Japan. It’s the third country I’ve lived in, and it’s a place that thinks so differently from back home. I find it challenges the way I think about my own culture – hopefully that’ll make me a better designer in the long run! That and it’s a pretty bad-ass country!

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What inspires your work?

I’m inspired by outliers – people who don’t sit between the fifth and 95th percentile. That, combined with telling stories, and really creating value inspires me, which I hope is reflected in my work.

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Talk me through your design and making process.

Each project really calls for its own design process, so it’s pretty hard to define. Research and observation is the major starting point, and I enjoy a very hands-on approach; going into homes, conducting interviews, I’ve even done an empathy-day where I spent a day blindfolded going around my town and doing normal things. But that needs to be backed up with scientific research, psychology reports – anything and everything until I have a number of compelling narratives and a good grasp of the issues at hand.

Ideation leads into technology searches, user experience mapping, product or system design and presenting this all back to initial stakeholder, in a kind of feedback loop. This progresses from ideas, to experiments, to prototypes. And in the back of the my mind I’m always considering, “how would I manufacture this?”, “what is my business model?” and “what are the brand and demographics?” Without this, it’s just blue-sky thinking.

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What’s your favourite part of the process?

There’s nothing more satisfying than producing something, a real working ‘thing’ that you can give to others, that conveys that initial spark into a form, and the sense of achievement from the mental and physical hurdles of ‘making’. I love being in a workshop, for the potential it possesses, the smell and being able to shape things around me – heaven!

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What’s your favourite tool and why?

A really smooth Biro. It’s immensely satisfying to take an everyday item, something everybody uses, and do something extraordinary with it. The power of having only one shot to lay down a line is empowering. I find working like this gives me confidence in my design abilities, and eliminates second guessing of my own decisions.

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Tell me about a really good day and a really bad day in the life of James Molkenthin.

Sex and bacon. If there’s time, maybe a coffee? Saying that, a day that’s not like yesterday is also a good day. Meeting new people, trying new activities, and making something so that I feel I achieved something that day. A bad day? No sex or bacon! Add into that a stroppy CAD-modelled or rebellious program, and you’ve the makings of a day from hell!

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What defines good design?

If your grandchildren still want it, it tells a compelling story, and/or is appropriately designed for its life cycle.

What are you most proud of?

All my travel. I love the challenges of getting from A to B, the people you meet, and the perspective this gives. I spent a year living on the outskirts of a rural Ugandan village, working as a primary school teacher, and travelling around during the school holidays. At 18 years old, it was one of the hardest, most isolating, and scariest things I have ever done, but it taught me so much about the human spirit, increased my resilience and gave me the confidence to believe in myself and lead life on my terms. Most of the other achievements I’m proud of stem from what I discovered during that time.

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What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?

Don’t take it too seriously. The more interests and exposure you amass, the more you have to draw upon as a designer. Like with products, people are drawn to things with compelling, and interesting stories.

What did it mean to you to be selected as one of the Design Council’s Ones To Watch?

It’s given me validation as a young designer. It’s incredibly inspiring and humbling to get a pat on the back from the industry, has given me the self-courage to follow my own career path, and to explore the world and gather my own experiences to make me a better designer.

And finally, what’s your favourite colour?

(Neon) Orange! It’s so difficult to use as well, but it’s so fresh! It’s my go to accessory colour – headphones, notebooks, and socks!

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Further reading for the especially geeky:

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Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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