Nick Rhodes of Central Saint
Martins on Product Design
and Brand Expression.



Students of the world-renowned London based art and design college Central Saint Martins have been given the opportunity to experience a real-life product design project. The brief was fairly straightforward: to design an innovative, simple, inspiring gift item that could be sold in bookstores, and that fits within the Kikkerland line of design products. Nick Rhodes, Programme Director: Product, Ceramic & Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London — sat down with Kikkerland Design for a conversation about design in general and the Design Challenge in specific.


What was your approach in working with the students on the Design Challenge?

We want to help the student unpack their design and look underneath what the product needs to do; it's not solely about offering people utility but also an expression or some sort of meaning. Gift products are largely about what you’re saying with them: an interpretation of what Kikkerland the brand expresses as a company, the location in which these products will be found (in this case a bookstore), and how you marry these ideas together in one object. It's a pretty sophisticated and complex thing to do, especially for younger designers. The next step was to do some Ethnographic work. Seeing how people behave in and around the products we’re talking about in the particular context that we’re talking about. The third part was to invite one of my senior colleagues, Professor Ball to work with us. He came in and asked, “What are the layered meanings you have in an object?” And how does your product express that? So the students have quite a lot of stimulation and opportunity thrown at them. The extent to which they can negotiate these things successfully within the given timeframe is a key challenge for them. The object has to be rendered in a way that you don't feel the need to decode it - it just speaks to you. For instance, the Kikkerland Luchador bottle opener, what is it about? It is about strength. It’s about wrestling a cap off a bottle. There is a linguistic link with that which is really cool. But it’s a fairly complex thing to do; and then to turn it into something that you can manufacture at a reasonable price? There’s a lot involved with that.

“What are the layered meanings you have in an object? and how does your product express that?”

There is a Stationery/Bookstore aspect to this specific Design Challenge: Did you visit bookstores with the students to research the current retail climate?

We sent the students to several bookstores and tasked them with drawing their own conclusions. Modern day bookstores like Waterstones can have extensive gift sections with unexpected items. Kitchen items and coffee preparation items. It’s interesting because it makes you think about what items surround the behavior of reading a book. Also, the price points of these gift items is something to factor in. There has to be a price range that is deemed “accessible” for these gift items and that in turn influences the materials used for the design. There is certainly some educated guesswork involved.

"You aren’t just making products, you’re effectively making culture."

What makes the students’ design proposals a fit for Kikkerland and not another company?

There is a slightly tangential way of looking at the world that the Kikkerland brand expresses in its most well-recognized products. For instance, the waving Solar Queen and Solar Pope figurines are rendered in a way that is playful but not critical. It would be very easy to make a design like that about “rejecting forms of authority” - which it is a little bit, but in a gentle, playful and reverential way. There are layers rather than a gag or a one-liner. There is a definite worldview there to unpack. What is the essence of this brand? What is its personality? How can that personality morph and change as society and circumstances change? Where is the line between a comical product and a witty product? The students have to consider these things as I imagine the company as a whole does. A Design Challenge is a great way for Kikkerland to hold up a mirror and see how others perceive what you do. Do they understand what you’re about or are they telling something you need to know? The young designer’s point of view is incredibly helpful for a company like Kikkerland. You aren’t just making products, you’re effectively making culture.

"Does the product induce a smile or a sense of self-fulfillment?"

When judging the students’ designs, what are some of the things you look for?

In a project like this it’s really about “fit”. Does it answer the questions being posed and does it have the right nuance to it? Kikkerland is a very nuanced company. What is the message you’re sending by giving someone a Kikkerland product? Some of those things are culturally determined as well. That's what I mean by, “Does it Fit?” Does the product induce a smile or a sense of self-fulfillment? What is it saying about you both as a recipient and about you as a giver?

Does each of the students’ designs get discussed in the larger student group?

The students are working independently on this project but they’re also being taught in small groups so there is interaction and discussion. In my department we have around 500 students from probably 40 nationalities. They’re living in London in their twenties just soaking up the zeitgeist, the energy. So when they come back and show you a design, its full of very interesting insights. We are very keen to observe and discuss what the students find relevant and important. We ask them, “Why is this something you’re addressing and is this the best way of doing that?”

Do you notice any of the differences in cultural background in the expression of a student’s design?

I don’t think I can locate it based on nationality but the differences are definitely there. What makes someone smile or grimace? People perceive things in different ways. But I don’t think the way to address that is to be as broad as possible but to be as focused as possible. That is one of the biggest risks I find running a project like this. Occasionally a student will try to please everybody with their proposal. They try to make it commercial and end up diffusing the basis of the insight they started with so that is a bit of a challenge but it's part of the learning process. Being commercial can be cool, but does it work with this design? It should be commercial but your interpretation of what commercial means. Does commercial mean highly acceptable, which means “blanding” things out rather than presenting a really strong idea and pushing it as far as you can? But overall that hasn’t been an issue with this group.

"The students are committed to sustainability and our department has a sustainability specialist who helps them sort those things out."

With all the current talk about sustainability, what is CSM’s approach to the use of certain materials in the students’ designs?

Sustainability in design is so widely talked about and practiced now that we don’t need to point it out. It’s a given. The difficulty isn't to identify what materials to avoid but more what materials will impact the chain of relationships down the line. Production, shipping, time and labor invested and other factors that the designer isn’t necessarily in control of, like what happens at the end of the life of that product? Is it biodegradable? Sustainability isn’t just about your ecological impact, but also how you work with communities and with your staff. Social sustainability. There’s a lot going on. It isn’t always straightforward but the students are committed to sustainability and our department has a sustainability specialist who helps them sort those things out.

Now a question for you on a more personal level: are there any design items that you always travel with, items that make you happy?

My Huawei phone. It has a Leica camera that takes better photos than an iPhone. Then my laptop which is super light and compact. The other item isn’t something that makes me happy, but I do always travel with this doppel bag full of all the adapters and chargers I need. It's ridiculous how many adapters you need – now there is a design opportunity. Actually, one of the adapters is from Kikkerland: the 3 in 1 Cord, it works really well!

Nick Rhodes

Nicholas is a Designer and Educator with some 20 years experience in practice. He is currently Programme Director: Product, Ceramic & Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and has taught at institutions elsewhere – in the United Kingdom, the United States, China, the Caribbean, and Australia.

Central Saint Martins, UAL

University of the Arts London offers an extensive range of courses in art, design, fashion, communication and performing arts. Its graduates go on to work in and shape the creative industries worldwide. UAL is ranked number two in the world for Art and Design in the 2019 QS World University Rankings.

Kikkerland Design

Kikkerland Design was founded in 1992 in New York City by Netherlander, Jan van der Lande. Since then, Kikkerland has established itself as one of the leading product design companies in the world. Kikkerland proudly supports and represents independent designers. Additionally, our in-house design team creates, develops and markets new ideas to make life easier and more fun. At Kikkerland Design we pride ourselves on giving back to local and global organizations, ranging from ecological restoration projects to creative writing programs for inner-city youth.