For Industrial Design Lecturer Tom Woods, great design is about being disruptive in response to world problems and striving to add value with solutions. It’s also an approach that has served him well throughout his career and a philosophy he aims to impart within his classes.
Tom grew up in the UK, leaving school to start his first job as a welder’s assistant at an oil refinery. Surprisingly, it was this role that provided the driving force for him to study industrial design.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do and pipe work was practical,” says Tom. “While I was working, I saw so many design challenges, such as large gas monitors that were cumbersome to manoeuvre. In my head I would re-design this key safety apparatus to be much more user-friendly and thus repurpose it to the environment.”
Tom left the rig to pursue a foundation course in art and design, before gaining entry into design engineering at Nottingham Trent University. After the course, Tom worked as a pattern-maker building handmade furniture and aluminium casted products, before moving to Newcastle to attend Northumbria University – the best design school in the UK.
But it wasn’t just higher education that Tom had his sights set on, it was also a placement at toy manufacturer LEGO. “I found out that Northumbria had students placed at LEGO, so I worked my way backwards, re-designing my portfolio to look like a toy designer’s. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was re-engineering my own career, using the design process to continually visualise questions and find creative answers along the path to my next adventure.”
His process worked, landing Tom an internship in Denmark that would become a learning ground for user-based design. “LEGO wasn’t just about designing something cool, it was about understanding the user and their perception of fun and play. Then to create a product while mentally considering the engagement with it from the child’s perspective – to understand their world.”
LEGO also taught Tom the importance of narrative. “When children play, they imagine a world within a world, which – within the microcosms of play – reflects the essences of good design. It’s not just about the overall functionality of the toy; it’s also about how you create the story around the product before and after engagement.”
After completing his internship, Tom worked at a Dublin-based design consultancy and then at a marketing consultancy, before returning to Northumbria University to complete his Masters and PhD. This shifted Tom’s career path towards academia, landing a role at Ulster University in Belfast teaching product and furniture design, before making the move to the University of Canterbury | Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha.
To be a good designer, Tom believes you have to be prepared to test your ideas for failure. “If you can’t fail the idea when tested against the set criteria, it’s most likely where it needs to be to add value. By 2030, 80% of the jobs that will be available haven’t yet been created, so we need to help students prepare themselves for a future that doesn’t yet exist. I teach students to think for themselves; to question the world around them and to improve life quality through the power of good design practices.”