Band-it started trading in April 2017 and has come from my vision for a world with more thoughtfully designed products for all people, regardless of age or ability. Here is the full story.
I was in my second year studying Sustainable Product Design BA at Falmouth University in Cornwall, and we were all set an inclusive design project for the month. As part of my research, I visited a local mobility centre and was struck by how different the products are there as opposed to in any other shop you might walk into on the high street. These were functional, practical products that do a job and work but aren’t especially desirable. Where was the attention to detail and to aesthetics that you would expect in any other area of design? Surely this could be done better!
I began researching the inclusive design and assistive products for my dissertation, which was eventually entitled “How can good design reduce the divide between mainstream products and assistive products, in aesthetics and acceptability? How can we make products that are truly inclusive?” which is something I wanted to do in my practical work as well. A story that resonated with me was about Roger Coleman from the Helen Hamlyn Centre asking his neighbour, a lady with MS, what she most wanted from a new kitchen she was having designed around her needs. She said “I want the neighbours to be jealous!” which showed him, and me, how important it is that we design for the whole of a person and not just to meet a functional need. Aesthetics and emotional attachments to objects are important.
I decide one of my major projects for the year is to design products for people who are visually impaired and begin to make contacts with individuals through the local sight centre and societies that work with people who are visually impaired, and through a shout out for volunteers on BBC Radio Cornwall.
My coursemates and I were spending too long researching and not enough time designing, so we were set a one-day design project within our chosen briefs. I made the first prototype Band-it out of brightly coloured plasticine and stuck it around a shampoo and conditioner bottle as an improvised label. I thought this was too simple to pursue further and so left it until the new year when my tutor suggested I should come back to it as an idea.
Applications for the catchily titled Graduate Pre-incubation Programme opened, and I last minute applied for a completely unrelated business idea helping local companies to become more sustainable. I was one of the successful applicants, and thankfully during the one-week business startup course, I was advised that Band-it was a much better idea! I think I agree.
Our graduation show was in the Eden Project, and my prototypes were on display for the general public for a few days. A couple of graphic designer friends helped me to come up with names and logos for my products including Band-it. Lots of people commented and wanted to know if it was something that would ever be available, which was reassuring! The only problem was it was too complicated to use for someone with little sight – the fastening method for the bands left something to be desired!
I realised that my naïve plan to get the product to market by Christmas was unrealistic, and got a job as a Healthcare Assistant with a local agency. I continued working on the design of Band-it and was grateful to be sharing an office space with someone with great 3D design skills, someone with experience of commercial product design and access to a milling machine, which I needed to make all my early prototypes. I’d tried a stretchier elastic silicone, but the tactile shapes stretched as well, making them difficult to identify. A conversation in the office led to rethinking the shapes themselves – why not try 3D shapes on top of the band instead of 2D flat ones? As they are thicker silicone, the shapes don’t distort! Brilliant!
I took the plunge and ordered a prototype from China through a UK company. The prototyping that I could do myself was limited to flat shapes – to get a circular band I needed outside help. The prototypes arrived and I tested them both myself and with my user group. And the feedback was positive! They knew what the shapes were, what the colour was and could easily use it around the objects it was made for. Phew!
Testing how stretchy the Band-its are - remember they shouldn't be stretched this far!
Birmingham Sight Village is an exhibition for blind and partially-sighted people in the UK that happens annually, and so I took my now full set of prototypes with me to have a look around and meet other people working with visually impaired people and get their feedback on my product. It was a mixed bag, with lots of positive feedback on the product but some negativity towards it being a viable business, and it was suggested that it would be better as a free giveaway item. So I left questioning whether this was worth it.
It was getting tiring working on Band-it whilst also being a Healthcare Assistant. I had approached a company which stocks these sorts of products and whilst they had made positive noises about it, it was too big a risk to invest in at this stage. This was a bit gutting as I was at the stage of needing to pay out a lot of money to take it any further and put it into production.
I quit my job working as a Healthcare Assistant at about the same time as I was offered a new job. This wasn’t due to start until the following summer, and whilst I initially planned on getting another job in the interim, I decided to live on my savings and use the time in between to focus on getting the business off of the ground.
I launched my crowdfunding campaign to raise some of the funds towards putting Band-it into production and raised over £5000 from 148 contributors. I’d decided this would be the litmus test of whether or not to enough people thought this was a good enough idea to invest in, and asked a friend called Pip to help me with my media and photography. It was a scary and exciting month of contacting everyone I could think of, being interviewed on the local radio and RNIB connect, and watching the figure pledged gradually go up. 5 days before the campaign closed, it was still £1000 off, but then suddenly in one day over £800 was pledged and the next day a few hundred more. I celebrated with some friends when I realised it was going to go over the £5000 mark! It was then on into production, which took longer than I’d hoped.
The products arrived at my door. It was brilliant to have the finished product in my hands, the only problem was where to store them all, and every nook and cranny in the office had Band-its in their plastic wrap.
Friends helped me pack up some of the bands, in my mail order appropriate packaging, and continued to help over the next few months. The Band-its were sent out to all the people who had pledged for that as their reward. I also was named as one of Cornwall’s 30 under 30 for 2016, an award recognising young business talent in Cornwall.
Cornwall 30 under 30 spread in Business Cornwall
The online website was launched to begin selling. It was interesting to have sold more products outside the UK than inside! I also continued contacting organisations that work with people who are visually impaired, one of which was the RNIB. They were interested in stocking the product. Suddenly my small-scale sales and marketing plan was no longer quite appropriate and I needed some retail-ready packaging. Thankfully Jenny, a friend who is a graphic designer stepped in to help me with this despite too tight deadlines from me.
Band-it's old and new packaging
After the great sticker saga and various other issues with getting the packaging and products sorted, the RNIB stocked and launched the product on their website!
Band-it is now being sold worldwide through the RNIB, and now we’re looking into other uses for Band-it and to begin developing other products to sit alongside it.