Incubator: supporting Kingston University design graduates

We’re proud to be supporting Kingston University’s fantastic Incubator programme, an initiative set up in 2017 by tutors Zoë Bather and Kieran O’Connor from the Graphic Design degree course, which aims to help students identify, and start to realise, the social and economic potential of their projects.


Life as a graduate

As a graphic design graduate 20 years ago, I co-founded Moving Brands straight out of college with four business partners, two of whom, James Bull and Ben Wolstenholme, were on my course at Central Saint Martins. I loved my time at CSM – the people I met, the skills I learned, the opportunities it gave me – and whilst I can trace many of my current business connections back to that time (either directly or indirectly), the course itself gave us no grounding at all in how to setup a company. What we learned, we learned on the job.

Today, our industry is experiencing – and seeking to adapt to – a rapidly evolving economic climate, in which the 4th industrial revolution promises profound changes to the types of jobs tomorrow’s design graduates could end up pursuing. As freelance design writer Robert Urquhart describes in his article about Incubator for Kingston University:

Arts graduates are entering a creative industry awash with the Silicon Valley mindset; the world abuzz with resplendent buzzwords including ‘agile’, ‘failing forward’, ‘co-working’, ‘design thinking’ ‘collaboration’, ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, and yes, ‘incubator’. These ambitions, concepts and processes are all engrained in the psyche of the young creative.

One student at Kingston School of Art that I spoke to in the midst of writing this article, memorably stated that ‘entrepreneurialism is the new Rock-n-Roll’. If we are to take entrepreneurialism as ‘getting involved in new ideas’ then, absolutely, yes.

Whilst there will be those amongst us who recoil from this analogy, perhaps we should ponder on the fact that the ‘sticking it to the man’ anti-heroes of our time are less of the Steve McQueen variety and more of the Steve Jobs.

It is indeed a fascinating time. It was in this context that Zoë Bather (herself a partner in the renowned Studio8 Design with Matt Willey), initiated the Incubator programme at Kingston University, alongside fellow tutor Kieran O’Connor, co-founder of BOB Design. Incubator began in the 3rd year of the graphic design degree course, when students were challenged to look for the economic or social value of one of their projects. They were asked to define the business opportunity and route to market, before refining their product, marketing strategy and brand identity. They then pitched their ideas to each other, before critiquing and developing them into more fully-fledged propositions.

Beyond injecting something different into graduates’ portfolios, Incubator offered projects a number of opportunities for developing further after graduation…

Incubator Session at Applied Works

Five Incubator projects were peer-assessed by students and selected to present to industry, at an event that we hosted in April 2017. The panel included ex-Kingston student Sam Part, founder of Candy Mechanics; Kuchar Swara, founder of Sekford Watches and Port Magazine, and design director at The Telegraph; Andrew Walker, designer at Jason Bruges Studio; Robert Urquhart, and the team here at Applied Works. We listened to pitches from each of the five projects, before opening up the room to discussion and advice.

The five pitches all drew lively debate and genuine admiration from the audience – to see such a broad, environmentally and socially conscious group of students and ideas at the session was both impressive and inspiring. Robert Urquhart sums up how our expectations were challenged:

If we were expecting to revel in the output of tradition, we were to be awakened. The traditional outpouring of graphics departments was only to be seen in the excellence of presentation and branding. Here we were to be presented with five projects that embraced product design, clothing retail and eco-material innovation. This is no slur on the graphics course at Kingston, forward-thinking courses of all disciplines in art schools around the world increasingly work to the ethic that the output should be unbound from material convention. Cross-disciplinary output mirrors the reality of life, as does cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Creative institutions need to keep a keen eye on the multitude of new career paths that could emerge over the coming decades. To be able to champion alumni who’ve started investable, successful businesses will obviously be extremely appealing to universities, in attracting the best students, tutors and business connections, particularly if it opens doors between courses. For the students, it certainly seems to have been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Post incubator, Robert Urquhart gained some feedback from them:

Rowan Minkley recalls ‘The most memorable piece of advice was ‘why haven’t you got a patent, investors and a mentor yet? We want to be buying/using it already!’ Hearing this from multiple members of the audience really reinforced the fact that both projects are actually viable and something other designers believe in too. Building confidence in your projects is one thing, but having other designers reiterate your beliefs is a great push to keep on going.’

Rachael Archer offers a great insight into life after graduation when she says ‘The pitch at Applied Works was my most confident presentation of Arlo to date and I was very pleased with my communication of the idea. The response I received from the pitch was very positive, as well as being incredibly useful. Receiving such positive feedback has increased my confidence, especially as the feedback came from creatives that have set up their own companies. This has given me additional motivation to go and make Arlo a reality.’

At Applied Works, it’s certainly made us consider how we could bring design graduates on board and support them with their own ventures. As a follow-up to the Incubator session, we offered the students a chance to apply for 6 weeks desk space in our studio, along with mentoring and help getting a product to market. Three applied, with Chip[s] Board being chosen. Rob and Rowan will be here until the end of September, and are currently busy preparing for the Manufactury event at Spitalfields Market next week.

Spitalfields Manufactory

Raum, Arlo and Chip[s] Board will all be at Old Spitalfields Market as part of the London Design Festival in September. Manufactory will see designers turn stalls into live making spaces and transform materials and stories integral to the market into new types of ‘produce’. This live making event will pair the nation’s emerging design talent with the local community, schools and businesses, with each stall/workshop showcasing a material or story going in at one end, a craft or manufacturing process happening in the middle and new inventions emerging from the other side.

The event runs 21-23rd September, details on the website:


One student who unfortunately didn’t make the Incubator session at Applied Works was Josh Ellis, who nonetheless secured a place at the prestigious Makerversity at Somerset House, for his Incubator project Charlie. Charlie is, as described by Josh’s tutor Zoë, “Fitbit meets Tamagotchi” – a product aiming to get kids active by connecting them to virtual characters, who feed off their movements. Josh developed the project by joining forces with Katie Browne, a fellow student from the illustration course at Kingston. We were so impressed by Josh that we offered him a job – he starts this month, working 4 days a week alongside his and Katie’s residency at Makerversity.

The model for Incubator encourages students to think about creativity beyond the context of answering traditional design briefs, and into business ideas that encompass a more end-to-end design process. From a recruitment perspective, that’s a hugely valuable and revealing means of assessing an individual’s approach to creative thinking, above and beyond looking at a portfolio of work, as it helps students to sell themselves, and articulate what makes them different. It’s a great initiative to have been able to support, and we very much hope Incubator will continue with next year’s crop of students.

Featured graduates

If you’re a course tutor and would like to discuss a talk, workshop or industry brief, or learn more about Incubator, please get in touch.