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Dyson designer's goal: Solving pain points to benefit lives
DesignSingapore Scholar Kevin Chiam
Senior industrial designer Kevin Chiam won the James Dyson Award in 2018 for his Folks Kitchenware for the Blind. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

This DesignSingapore scholar creates objects that go beyond aesthetics to streamline routines – like the latest 2-in-1 dryer-straightener

Hairdryers and hair straighteners may be two separate gadgets, but in them, Mr Kevin Chiam envisioned an entirely new product. 

The senior industrial designer of new product innovation at Dyson was part of the team that worked on the company’s AirStrait straightener which was launched in the US market in May 2023. It dries and straightens hair at the same time.

“Consumers with long hair wanted to do simple straightening without having to towel-dry,” he shares.

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Identifying and solving problems – or what his industry dubs “pain points” – is why he ventured into industrial design. 

“It’s about designing something that benefits and improves people’s lives while also making it look appealing in someone’s home,” says the 31-year-old.

At Dyson, he does “a bit of everything for the full journey”. He brainstorms with researchers and engineers to understand who they are designing for, conducts stress tests to determine how robust a product is, makes presentations to stakeholders – including Sir James Dyson himself – and sources for post-production feedback. 

As a child, Mr Chiam would take toys apart and reassemble them. 

“The process of questioning things and taking them apart got me going and gave me a lot of joy,” he says.

This early curiosity was further nurtured by his father, a handyman who would repair broken furniture at home.

“Once, when he removed the upholstery from a sofa, I saw the springs in it and was very fascinated by how things are put together,” he recalls. 

“As I grew up, I realised that design is about adding science and engineering to art, and giving it an additional layer.”

Exposure to global perspectives

Under the DesignSingapore scholarship, Mr Chiam enrolled at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London where he graduated with a Master of Arts in Innovation Design Engineering.

The DesignSingapore Scholarship is the only one in Singapore that provides funding for students and industry professionals in the widest range of design disciplines – from industrial and product design to visual communication, design research and service design.

The DesignSingapore Scholarship cultivates undergraduate and postgraduate talent for Singapore’s increasingly dynamic design landscape. Since 2015, the DesignSingapore Council has nurtured around 70 scholars. Some of its illustrious recipients include textile artist Tiffany Loy and President*s Design Award Singapore recipient Hans Tan.

Like his predecessors, Mr Chiam was drawn to how the scholarship gave him the flexibility to serve his bond in any design-related role in a Singapore-registered company. 

“Industrial design isn’t limited to a physical product, but it is about designing solutions… The ‘why’ is very important as it allows us to understand how to intervene and improve areas while sparking innovation and new experiences.”

Mr Kevin Chiam, recipient of the DesignSingapore Scholarship

Besides financial support, the scholarship also offers access to networking opportunities through the DesignSingapore Associates Network.

“Once or twice a year, past and present scholars meet to share experiences from Singapore and other parts of the world,” says Mr Chiam. 

“Being from different cultures and backgrounds, we can learn more about how different design disciplines are executed across the world.”

He also benefited from a mentorship programme where he was paired with an interactive design professional who helped him navigate through his career decisions.

While attending RCA, he went on a one-month field trip to Nairobi where he developed a way to educate youth on sex. 

Mr Chiam and his schoolmates designed an app and SMS system so that students could consult about these taboo issues discreetly and conveniently.

Asking the right questions to spark innovation

This experience showed him the importance of industrial design in creating helpful solutions beyond products. 

“Industrial design isn’t limited to a physical product, but it is about designing solutions that may be a system,” he explains. 

“It’s about understanding the current context. The ‘why’ is very important as it allows us to understand how to intervene and improve areas while also sparking innovation and new experiences.”

Mr Chiam drew inspiration from this when designing a range of kitchen tools that enable both the elderly and visually impaired to prepare food safely and confidently. 

The Folks Kitchenware for the Blind, which won the James Dyson Award in Singapore in 2018, included a knife with a retractable guard to prevent injuries and a chopping board with a special tray to minimise spillage. 

On why he thinks he won the award, Mr Chiam says: “My invention wasn’t high-tech and it didn’t require a charger. It was all about simplicity and accessibility.”

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