All Posts By

Toby Whelan

Fighting Digital Colonisation

An experiment in future technology governance

Digital colonialism threatens the freedom, security and democracy of humanity. Technology corporations have amassed ruling control over citizens’ access to key infrastructures, whilst extracting and commodifying the personal data of billions. Fighting Digital Colonialism speculates an alternate system of governance in which public bodies intervene to liberate citizens from colonisation by technology.

An Exploration of Eroding Form

Sanded Wood

To begin my exploration of form over time, I gradually sanded down a single length of wood. I wanted to capture not just the material in its final form, but also the journey along the way; its story. This temporal recording, a time-lapse of the wood’s gradual erosion, expresses the character of the material’s complex physical form and of the erratic method of sanding. Like a wave, the wood’s natural rings roll across its shifting surface. A knot appears, breaking through the rings and surfing over the waves. Loose sawdust is peppered over the metal surface, offering a glimpse at the true passage of time.

In editing, I discovered that the material’s erosion is more expressive when viewed in reverse. Perhaps because we are viewing creation rather than destruction, the wood growing out of the metal surface provides a sense of intrigue.


Melting Styrofoam

For my second experiment I selected a new material: styrofoam. Using a hot air gun, a squared pillar of foam was melted down until little remained. The result was surprising: in contrast to the previous experiment, the material properties were significantly changed by the process. Jagged points made up a brittle structure unlike the styrofoam it came from.

Again time-lapsed, the form in the reversed video seems more alive this time; different strands lurching and swelling as they grow towards the sky. Framed against a static background, the form appears to grow in real-time. 


Dissolving Styrofoam

For my final experiment I returned to styrofoam, a material light enough to be dissolved in acetone. With the addition of a new element, the liquid, the apparent ‘birth’ of new matter is enhanced by the bubbling foam that it emerges from. Whilst the beginning state (a block of styrofoam) and the end state (frothy foam left in the acetate) are not particularly expressive individually, the transition between the two carries much complexity.

Reflections and new beginnings

Next Wednesday marks 12 months from the day that I won the LEGO award for Playful Creativity at New Designers. The year since has been an incredible journey filled with fun, learning, and many late nights. Hearing from so many children, teachers and parents has been inspiring and makes it all pay off. I’ve been proud to watch MAKA grow.

Later this year I’ll be starting an exciting new journey: moving to Northern Sweden to study Interaction Design at Umeå Institute of Design. The programme is 2 years long, plus I’ll be taking a year out for internships. That’s a slightly daunting total of 3 years.

The remote city of Umeå is home to one of the best design schools in the world. Perhaps due to its long nights and icy climate, students at UID seem to spend most of their waking hours in the studio. The programme’s focus is on people, on understanding human behaviour and actively involving users in the design process. Super cool.

For half of the year out I’ll be interning in LEGO’s Creative Play Lab in Billund, a prospect I am beyond excited about. They can’t say what I’ll be working on (top secret, of course), but it will involve developing new ways to play with LEGO. I plan on returning with my weight in bricks.

Whilst I am looking forward to this new chapter, it does mean that MAKA and Fidget for Good will be going on the back-burner. The choice is a difficult one; fidgeting is in the spotlight at the moment and MAKA is ready to make a huge impact.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped and supported me on this journey. The generosity of so many has been humbling. MAKA has grown far bigger than I could have imagined, a feat that I couldn’t have achieved alone. It’s been great.

Until next time,

Fidget for Good

An update on all things MAKA

It’s just week 8 of the year and so much has happened! Here is an update on MAKA and a peek at our exciting plans for 2017.

So far there’s been some (very messy) chewable fidget toy making with St. John’s School, an interview with Toy Tales and a lot of strategising as part of Startup Sussex.

The vision for Fidget for Good is taking shape. We want to teach the world about the superpowers of fidgeting and give schools & workplaces the tools to embrace fidgeting. Over next few months, we’ll be pitching for some social impact awards to help kickstart this vision.

This future is very exciting and we cannot wait to bring MAKA to life. This year the focus is on finalising the details of the product, building a community of fidgeteers (hehe) and working towards production.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Get in touch on social media or by commenting below – let’s chat!

Until next time,

Fidget for Good


A practical guide: user testing with children

Designing for children is a rewarding adventure, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Here are my 5 tips for design students user testing with children.

1. Plan, mercilessly

Plan every detail of your user testing. The more you plan, the more you can concentrate on the workshops. Make sure the first session is not vital, as you can guarantee it won’t go according to plan. This flexibility is important; you’ll learn from it then run the following sessions differently.
You may find that some children challenge the activity – this can be useful. If all the kids were uber-polite, it would be rather boring and detract from the research. Do have fun – whatever activity you do, make sure it’s fun for you, the kids and whoever else is in the room. You want to get invited back!
With the above said, it is a good idea to test out the research with a group of adults first. Before my user testing, I created four detailed personas of autistic children and ran a series of role-playing workshops with friends.  This meant we could test the practical side of the workshop and refine the structure as we went along.

2. Show your passion when approaching schools

Speak with passion about your project, and getting schools onboard will be easy. Think about the value they (as a school, for the pupils) will gain from the research. This initial contact may feel like an interview, but remember that you are interviewing them too. Make sure that staff will be there to support you. They may be able to pay your research/travel expenses – ask them about this! Their reaction will be a good way to find out how much they value research. 
Cold call that obscure family member whose son’s partner’s sister works in the school you’d like to research in, if that’s what it takesIf it means googling and writing to random addresses then this, of course, is fine too – you don’t need an ‘in’ via a family/friend. Go to their website, find the relevant contact details and email away!
Allow time for the schools to be slow at communicating. There may be a lot of back-and-forth before you even have a date in the diary. These teachers are incredibly busy, so your email may slip through the net – be patient and send a polite reminder after a week.

3. Do the legal stuff

Submit your DBS application through your university as early as possible! It should be free. Some schools will allow you to come in without a DBS certificate but require you to be supervised at all times. Use this as an absolute last resort as this is a pain for the school and a pain for you.
You will also have a research ethics board at your University who will need to approve any research before it can take place. This means submitting an ethical approval application containing a thorough breakdown of the research.  Detail every measure you have taken to protect the participants (the children), the researcher (you) and anyone else involved. Writing this application is a useful process as it ensures you scrutinise and consider every aspect of the research.
Free templates and resources can be found online, and your supervisor may help you edit the application. Make sure to write using explicit language and repeat things multiple times to be as clear as possible. The board will likely reject your first application (with some comments on how you can improve), so allow for a couple of revisions to be made when planning! Writing is a time-consuming process and it can take weeks for the board to review each revision, so start as early as possible

4. Help your future self: document everything

This bit is easy. Document everything. Become a ruthless documentation machine. You won’t regret it.
Your phone is your friend here: buy a tripod and video workshops; record interviews so you can transcribe them later; ask a friend or a teacher to take photos of the activity. All this means you can concentrate fully on the research and on the children.
(You need consent from the children and their parents for all the above)

5. Have fun

Try to stay in touch with your inner child as often as possible. This isn’t going to happen at 2am full of caffeine! Go for a day out, do something fun, read a book, exercise, whatever it is as long as it’s not work. If you are a slave to a project it risks ending up dull and adult. It can be hard to stay motivated when working on a single project for so long, so choose something that you enjoy.
Spend time with your course mates, discuss each others’ projects and play-test any prototypes as a group. Experiment with rules and see what different things you can do. Again, do some role-play and persona generation. Spend as much time with your end users as you can. With children, this includes the parents/teachers who will be using the product too!

LEGO Award win at New Designers

At New Designers this year I was awarded the LEGO Award for Playful Creativity – a huge honour that I’m enormously grateful for.

The outcome of my thesis project is MAKA: a make-your-own magnetic fidget toy for children with autism. Designed to empower by letting children create their own toys, the wooden beads snap together with a satisfying clack. The toys encourage fidgeting, taking advantage of its developmental and educational benefits.

Designed to engage but not to over-stimulate, MAKA allows our brains to sustain focus for longer, aiding concentration and easing stress. If there is too much information incoming, focusing on a familiar task can help to filter out the sensory noise.

Last month I exhibited the project at New Designers with the Sussex Product Design team in the Business Design Centre, London. The reception was overwhelmingly positive – it was great to talk to so many people and receive so much positive feedback and advice. The first day was open to awards judges, press and VIPs and the project won the LEGO award for Playful Creativity!

“We really, really liked Toby's project, MAKA. He showed a clear understanding of a research-driven design process and executed it brilliantly. Also, it's just fun.”

James NorwoodSenior Concept Manager, Creative Play Lab, LEGO

Senior designers at toy giant LEGO were impressed by the quality, depth and communication of research that took place, praising how well the human-centered design process was carried out.

It was a huge honour to receive this prize. This is the first year LEGO have sponsored an award at New Designers and there are 3000 design graduates exhibiting, so to be chosen is a massive deal. It comes with a £1000 cash prize to go towards the project’s development and contacts within the LEGO design team.

A large number of parents, teachers, therapists and schools I have spoken to have expressed an interest in buying some of the toys, so I’m currently looking into producing an initial small run through a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter.

Until next time,

Fidget for Good.

Why businesses need to think like designers

tim brown leans on a table

Tim Brown, CEO of global design firm IDEO, spoke at the Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) about the changing economy and how people, businesses and societies as a whole need to think more like designers to keep ahead of the curve.

Ask a room of people what the word design means to them, and you will likely hear a lot about how things look, what they are made of and what colours you can buy it in.  In reality, design encompasses so much more than aesthetics; it is the creative mindset needed to innovate.  Too much effort, recently, has been spent designing things to be as beautiful as possible.  Apple are partly to blame for this, continually releasing new products with hardware thinner and software simpler, at the cost of a huge sacrifice to usability.  Aesthetics are an important part of our interaction with a product, but they should not conflict with the basic Interaction Design principles of discoverability, recovery, consistency and feedback.  Worst of all, these products will simply stop functioning after a few years.

Tim wants the value of the designer to be recognised for what it is.  Design philosophies and techniques are valuable tools at every level of business, and are in fact essentials in order to not stagnate. This idea is not new to Tim; his book Change by Design, published in 2009, outlines how design thinking can allow companies to problem solve from a human-centred approach.  This innovation is vital to ensure businesses don’t fall into the dangerous trap of continually ‘giving customers what they want’.  Products and services that don’t evolve will quickly become mediocre, mundane and undesirable.

This movement is not just coming from the bottom, however, there are big companies pushing for design to give them a competitive advantage.  Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said in a 2004 interview that “The fracturing of trust is based on the fact that the consumer has been let down”.  Our current economic model is approaching the point of failure.  For widespread change to take place, this action can’t just be sole businesses adopting change.  A total transformation of culture is required.

Apple Watch owners: look away now. Your shiny £600 watch is a danger to us all

The Apple Watch has been on shelves, wrists and bedside tables for 6 months, but has the landscape-changing product we were promised really come to life? I don’t think so, in fact I think the watch could represent a scary change in society – one that we need to keep a close eye on.

I’ll start by saying that I am by no means an Apple critic.  It is far too easy to slam their latest products online, and people have been doing it for years.  The Apple Watch got its fair share of unfounded scrutiny on launch, so here I will be as fair as I can.  I am, however, wary of buying into the hysteria that often surrounds Apple product launches.

Walk into any small design studio, tech startup or boutique coffee shop and you can guarantee there’ll be a beard-wearing creative tapping away at their MacBook, glancing down at their wrist between sips of black coffee.  Ask them about their watch and they’ll excitedly tell you how this £600 device has greatly improved their lives.  They’re drinking more water, running more miles and – according to Apple’s ad ‘Date’ – having more sex.

The benefits portrayed by Apple’s marketing appeal to our fundamental human needs.  Through the beautifully crafted adverts, we convince ourselves that we need an Apple Watch to fulfil our dreams and take a meaningful step towards our life goals.  At this point, the product that arrives really doesn’t matter at all.  The oath has been sworn: we are devotees.  Like the people of Kickstarter who believe an IoT-connected water bottle (yes, that is actually a thing) will improve their lives, Apple Watch users have bought into the idea that every element of our lives needs to be tracked, traced and analysed. And all it takes is a nice video.

Apple product launches are reliably polarising.  There is always a crowd that adore them and a crowd that despise them.  As Apple’s market share grows it is clear that the home team has far more fans, yet the away team still manage to make more noise.  Whether you are attacking or defending Apple’s products, it is time to set these differences aside.

Information mined from smartwatches gives companies like Apple and Google a level of access to the personal intricacies of our lives never before possible.  The power held in this big data is terrifying, yet we are queueing up to give it away.  Not only can targeted advertising now appeal to our (previously) deepest kept secrets, but government departments can wirelessly track us and sell that information internationally.

If the smartwatch is accepted as an integral part of our lives, we are saying “I’m okay with this”.  This lack of privacy is a hairs width away from becoming the precedent, but if we reject it now, it is not too late.


Designing better things with Mark Shayler

Mark Shayler is an eco designer and writer of the DIY disruption book Do Disrupt. Mark gave an inspiring talk at this year’s TEDx Brighton. The theme of the day was ‘Losing Control’ – and that’s exactly what he wants us to do.

The message Mark Shayler left us with (which also happens to be his personal motto) is that we need to “design better things, not design things better”.  This didn’t make any sense to me at first, but I have since gotten my head around what he meant.  It feels like a very important message, one that I’d like to share with you today.

Mark’s main job involves consulting for companies, saving them money by eco-auditing to find weak spots in their production line, packaging, or manufacturing processes.  He then works with them to refine processes and make things simpler.  He claims to have saved his clients £10 million pounds by doing this, over the years.

But for Mark, this is not enough.  Taking something that is unsustainable and improving it, polishing it up nicely, this doesn’t chop his broccoli.  To truly innovate, we can’t just design things better, we have to completely start over – we have to design better things.

Mark has been doing this with some huge clients, including Nike and Coca-Cola – ‘Positively Disrupting’ business models to the point where they actually change the status quo.  On his website Mark quotes Sir Ian Cheshire, saying “if you don’t disrupt your business model then someone else will.”  Also, someone you might not associate with disruption, Jony Ive himself said that “complete intrigue with the physical world starts by destroying it.

This is clearly something we must take seriously, and as much as Mark presents it with cheeky humour, is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to not fall behind.  I will leave you with one of Mark’s powerful analogies: a sailing boat is safest where?  In a harbour.  What is it built to do?  Sail the seas.  So get out into the wind, he says, and take a risk to do something big.