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Get to Know: Kevin Chiam, 2018 Singapore Winner of the James Dyson Award

A chat with the 2018 winner on his plans for 'Folks' kitchenware

30 March 2021

Many of us do not give scabs and scars much thought. To us, they are but reminders of our occasional bouts of carelessness. This is not the case however for people who suffer from visual impairments. For them, the simple, everyday act of preparing food in the kitchen can be fraught with danger. Handling sharp objects and hot liquids without important visual cues can result in injury.

After noticing the numerous scars that visually impaired people sustained from kitchen work, Kevin was inspired to come up with a solution – ‘Folks’ kitchenware. In 2018, Kevin participated in the James Dyson Award and earned the title of National Winner. Three years on, we sit down with him as he reflects on his journey, and shares about his latest plans with Folks Kitchenware.

  • Q: What is your invention? Where did you get your inspiration from?

    The simple task of preparing food can be difficult for visually-challenged individuals because they lack important sensory cues that help them use kitchens tools safely and effectively.

    ‘Folks’ is a series of familiar kitchen tools that uses natural, sensory feedback and tactile cues to help the visually-challenged prepare food safely with convenience and confidence.

    Through voluntary work, I’ve met many elderly people who suffer from visual impairments due to medical conditions. Many of them have scabs and scars on their arms. This is evidence that they’ve hurt themselves from just preparing food in the kitchen.

    Being curious, I decided to attend an event that allows people to experience what it is like to be visually challenged. Following that experience, I was inspired to develop products that would help them live out their daily lives at home with safety and dignity.

How does ‘Folks’ kitchenware work?

Cutting food is dangerous for the visually-challenged because of poor hand posture or irregularly-shaped ingredients. To counter that, I designed a knife with a retractable guard. The guard serves as a physical anchor that guides the user’s fingers to minimise the risk of self-injury.

Transferring chopped ingredients off a chopping board can also be challenging. Ingredients tend to spill when they are positioned incorrectly on the board. To solve this problem, I designed a chopping board with a tray that pegs freely to its sides. It acts as an extension of the user’s hands to gather and transfer ingredients off the board confidently, and with less spillage.

Finally, visually-challenged individuals risk scalding themselves or spilling liquids when filling up glasses. This is because they are unable to reliably track the speed at which water is being poured into the glass. Planting a finger in the cup won’t work in many situations, as they risk their hands getting scalded by hot beverages. To solve this, I designed a spoon with an integrated float that sits on its handle. As liquid fills up in the glass, the float rises and eventually comes into contact with the user’s fingers. This way, the user’s fingers does not need to come into contact with the liquid at all.

Why were you inspired to enter the JDA?

To me the James Dyson Award is a great platform for designers to share their creative endeavours. I also wanted to raise awareness of the challenges that visually-challenged individuals face, and to create opportunities for ‘Folks’ kitchenware to be commercialised.

How did winning the James Dyson Award in 2018 help you?

I was the 2018 National Winner of the James Dyson Award in Singapore.

Winning the award has really helped ‘Folks’ kitchenware gain international visibility. Thanks to the publicity generated, I was able to attract the attention of investors and collaborators.

It was this exposure that led me to partner up with MightyJaxx – an award-winning design studio specializing in art collectibles. We’re currently in the final stages of collaboration, and I’m thrilled to share that we are set to launch ‘Folks’ kitchenware this year.

What did you learn from entering the James Dyson Award?

My head is often swimming with concepts and ideas that I wish to communicate. However, I’ve learnt that often the most effective approach to get the message across is to communicate succinctly – to really focus on the product’s key selling points.

What were your next steps once you won your prize?

I began working towards turning ‘Folks’ kitchenware into a business model. This involved several discussions with potential business partners and several manufacturing companies.

What are you up to now?

I’m an interaction designer and UX researcher.

What has been your biggest learning over the past 3 years?

There is so much more design than just an idea, product or solution. You have to also consider a lot of practical aspects such as costs, logistics, business models, and manufacturing. These have a big influence over how successful something is. The experiences I’ve gained through ‘Folks’ kitchenware has shaped me to approach design in a more holistic, systemic manner.

What would you say to someone thinking of applying to the James Dyson Award this year?

Just go for it! Don’t be held back by thoughts that question if your idea is good enough. There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ idea because good ideas are borne out of countless iterations over a period of time. Take that leap of faith today! You have nothing to lose and much to gain.

What’s next for ‘Folks’ kitchenware?

I’m hoping to collect feedback on ‘Folks’ kitchenware from the upcoming launch with MightyJaxx. Depending on how it is received, I may look at developing more products that are tailored towards supporting people with disabilities.

What do you hope to see more of in the world of engineering and design?

I hope to see more environmentally sustainable solutions that focus on the health of our planet and its ecosystems. Even as we progress in technology, we should strive to preserve the precious and limited resources that we have on Earth.

Any advice for future engineers and inventors?

Do not be too eager to dismiss silly ideas! They can serve as great springboards to launch you into developing better ones. As an example, the concept of chewing gum began from whacky, nonsensical ideas.

How does it feel to be recognised by the JDA?

I am humbled to have received recognition from the James Dyson Award. It has affirmed all the hard work I’ve put into the development of the project, and my contributions to the visually-challenged community. I feel encouraged to keep on inventing, and to make a difference to peoples’ lives in a way I know best – through design.

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