From a knife with a safety guard to a chopping board with a side tray, the utensils Kevin Chiam has developed could be helpful to the blind and visually impaired, if he can resolve one problem.
Singaporean designer Kevin Chiam developed a set of cooking tools for the visually impaired in his final year at the National University of Singapore. The problem? Finding someone to help him bring his product range to market.
While volunteering at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), Chiam was puzzled by the numerous scars on the hands and arms of one of its members, Rosie Wong.
When he saw that this was not uncommon among his other visually impaired friends, he decided to ask her why. Her answer started him on a journey to design a special set of kitchen utensils called Folks.
His kitchenware has already helped Wong. However, despite his best efforts to put it on the market to help this community, he has been unable to do so because of a lack of funding and availability of manufacturers.
Chiam says that he will need at least $40,000 USD in capital to produce it and bring it to market, the “biggest leap for any designer,” he told Made in Singapore, a series about local inventors.
“The responses from companies were definitely constructive,” Chiam said. “However, in most of these conversations, the capability to manufacture was a hurdle that’s hard to cross.”
Today, he is a prolific inventor, having designed some 40 different projects, with a quarter of them launched for the market. Four of his projects cater for those with special needs or the elderly. None of these, however, have been fully commercialized yet.
“Most of the projects are at the stage where I’m ready to manufacture but they haven’t been launched,” Chiam said. “I need a little bit more time to test, and also the money to push it through production.”
It was at university, where he was exposed to a number of volunteering programmes, such as delivering food to seniors and fetching them to their appointments, when he thought of doing more with his knowledge of product design.
For his final-year project at the National University of Singapore, he approached the SAVH, to see how he could help the visually impaired in their homes.
“I wanted to design something that was considerate to them, yet at the same time, something that was helpful and could impact their lives on a day-to-day basis. So that started the conversations with them,” Chiam said.
Folks is designed to assist workflow and enhance the kitchen with a system of tools that provide necessary tactile cues in the preparation and cooking process. More importantly, they are affordable, help the user to become self-sufficient, and are not high maintenance like battery-operated counterparts.
With all this in mind, he designed a range of prototype cookware to make food preparation more safe and convenient: a knife, a cutting board, a stove ring, a pot lid, and a teaspoon. Chiam devised a set of tactile cues, feedback from each tool that helps to prompt and inform the user during the cooking process and reduce the risk of injury. He also implemented bold visual contrasts (yellow safety guides flush against the grey body of the utensil) to differentiate and accentuate the form of the tool and how it is used.
The lid provides a convenient nesting spot for kitchen tools and helps the user to identify the steam outlet with ease, avoiding risks of burns or scalds.
The teaspoon’s integrated float rises as liquids are added into a given vessel, e.g. cup. When the float touches the user’s fingers, which are normally situated near the rim of the vessel, it informs the water level and prevents content from overflowing and finger-liquid contact.
The stove ring’s terraced profile allows the user to effectively recognize the burner’s boundaries, eliminating unnecessary probing. It also centralizes and secures cookware in place during the cooking process, preventing it from toppling over and potential spilling.
The chopping board allows modular arrangement of trays that helps transfer ingredients.
A knife with a retractable guard, which protects one’s fingers from the blade while one is cutting the ingredients.
Chiam has noticed a trend towards designing for social impact, whereby designers look at providing value and service for the less fortunate with products that can improve lives.
“We grew up in a very developed country, and we’re financially stable. That’s when people start to see how we can give back to society and how we can do more,” he said. “I’m very interested to see how much more I can contribute in this area.”
For all his good intentions, however, he faces problems with the business side of it. “Number one; whether you have the funds to support these projects, which usually aren’t small,” he said.
Number two is, I think, whether or not you’re able to find the more suitable manufacturers or people who can help you produce your concepts. I think these two are the most challenging.
He is now exploring the idea of licensing Folks to companies or individuals who can take ownership of the project and develop it.
Another option is to obtain grants from organizations like the Tote Board, which he said is supportive of social entrepreneurs. Either way, the project is about “making a statement as a designer to say we too can have an impact”.
While Chiam is now in London doing a double master’s degree in Innovation Design Engineering, he said he will continue to work on Folks and look for development opportunities.