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One to Watch: Ursula Ankeny

Ursula Ankeny studied BA Product Design at Sheffield Hallam University with Tutor Nigel Ball. She believes that colour is a powerful communication tool that can be used to attract attention, stimulate behaviour and play on our emotions. She certainly uses the power of colour in her work as a force for good. Find out why she became a truly worthy winner of the Judges ‘One to watch’ prize at New Designers part 2 this year.

Where did you study and what was the course title?

Sheffield Hallam University: BA (Hons) Product Design

Name of your lecturer – course tutor?

Nigel Ball

How important is colour in your work and how do you choose and narrow down colours?

Colour is very important to me, it’s what draws people in, they say you should never judge a book by its cover but aesthetics are a driving motivation in a product attracting attention. Not only can it make something pleasing to look at, but it can also stimulate and play on emotions. Within my work, it is this relationship that I played with when designing my product range for children. A bold and energising orange was contrasted with a vibrant blue for a physio tool, focusing the brain towards activity. A calmer approach was taken with a pain management device using a dark blue to soothe and emphasise feelings of comfort.

I also played with colour as a communication tool. Physio stretches are something many of us are told to do, but often don’t because we don’t have time or are bored by them. For children, this boredom is even greater. As a result, my physio tool combined lighting and colour changes to act as motivators, rewarding the user as they progressed, stimulating them in an otherwise dull activity.

When choosing colours, I look at the emotions that they can provoke, using these to create positive or calming associations to help solve problems.

Tell us about your creative process – where do you find inspiration?

I always start with a problem, unpicking it to see both who it affects and how. I listen to and empathise with the users, putting myself in their shoes, seeing the issue from different perspectives, allowing me to understand the factors and drivers at play. It’s these insights that spark my inspiration, unravelling the challenges with pen and paper in hand, analysing as I go. I often find that I can get stuck on a problem, and then whilst doing a totally unrelated activity, I suddenly see a way forward – I sketched out a crucial part of my major project on my water bill for this very reason!

What is the best bit of the creative process – journey or destination?

A bit of a mix. For me the user is the most important factor in design. I love discovering the insights of how users interact with products or how they adapt things to make them work effectively. My latest project focused on designing for children with arthritis – initially approaching it as a product to purely help the child. However, through user research, it became clear it wasn’t just the child that it affected, but also the parent, the healthcare professional and the teacher- all of whom had very different ideas of what they thought the priority was. It was seeing the condition from these perspectives and drawing out the differences that meant the end result was meaningful.

Presenting back to these groups, especially the children, was a real highlight. Seeing them interact with a tangible outcome that helped solve a problem they had emphasised was hugely rewarding. I love learning about problems and challenging myself to find solutions but I also love seeing the impact those can have on the people I design for.

Creative high point?

My creative high point was seeing the children that I had designed for, interacting with my products. It was amazing to see the positive effects that they had, particularly the physio tool and how the children wanted to keep playing with it due to the colour change. Designing for children can be quite daunting as they don’t tend to hold back if they don’t like something, making it even more rewarding how positive they were when testing my designs.

Creative low point?

My creative low point was in the design development stage, working out how to make my designs a reality. It felt like I was continually exploring different technologies or routes, only to discover that they wouldn’t work in this or that context, putting me back at square one. It definitely tested my perseverance, but it allowed me to learn to see each no-go as a challenge rather than a complete dead end, turning the thought from ‘that doesn’t work’ to a more blue sky ‘how could this be manipulated’. As a result, I came to see each dead end as a stepping stone towards the solution.

Where do you want to be in 3 years’ time?

Healthcare design is my major interest, so I would hope to be working within that field, designing to make a positive change in people’s lives. I would also hope to be in the process of taking forward my product range for children with arthritis as there is nothing like it currently on the market, largely because most people don’t know children can get arthritis so they are an ignored cohort. From all the surveys, interviews and interactions that I have had with these children and their parents, I would love to be able to take these products to market, creating something that could make a real difference. It would seem a shame to not do something with this body of work.

Is there one person during your studies/life who has really made a difference to you? – Maybe in terms of encouraging you when you were at a low point, pushing you in different directions unlocking your potential etc.

I have been lucky enough to have had a lot of people who have supported me both in life and in my design ambitions so it’s quite hard to pick a standalone. It may seem cliché but from a young age my parents have been an inspiration and a source of continual support. My dad has always encouraged me to take risks and be adventurous, instilling a confidence and an attitude of ‘I can do it’ rather than ‘what if it doesn’t work’. My mum was the main earner in our family and seeing her excel in her field allowed me to see how you can achieve almost anything if you put your mind to it and work hard giving me a sense of ambition as a positive attribute. From a design perspective, my product design teacher M O’Shea at school was instrumental in unlocking my passion. I was the only one to do product design at GCSE, and I was given a lot of independence allowing me to explore my different interests. It’s also why I loved studying it at university because it was the first time I had been surrounded by a community of designers and it was an amazing thing to be a part of.

What is your favourite colour?

Red has always been my favourite colour – I just find it so energising and vibrant, particularly more of a crimson, it makes me want to get up and go. When overused it can be quite overwhelming, but when used as a subtle accent, particularly with a darker colour, the contrast can really make the object pop.

Image credits: Ursula Ankeny

Contact details

Instagram: ursula_ankeny

LinkedIn: Ursula Ankeny

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