WHEN SMART PEOPLE DO COOL STUFF
Part Two of the Hungry Lucky Country was first published on March 8, 2015 on Beacon Reader, the now defunct crowd-funded journalism platform. An edited version was published in Issue 25 of Kill Your Darlings, a quarterly Australian literary magazine.
How does a food truck go from being an idea in Patrick’s brain to being an actual truck selling produce to the asylum seekers and the general public? Featuring interviews with the skilled and hilarious tradesmen from Vehicle Modification Specialists and eco design renegades Brett Capron and Lorrin Windahl from industrial design firm CobaltNiche.
‘Design can only succeed if guided by an ethical view’ – John Vassos
Patrick Lawrence from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre asks me if I want to go and look at the Food Justice Truck- it is being built somewhere in the industrial part of Geelong. I say yes because I am trying to be a shoe leather reporter- one willing to wear out their shoes walking around talking to people- but also because I can sneak in a mid week surf. According to their website Vehicle Modification Specialists do refurbishments, repairs, camper-van renovations and disability fit outs. But the reality is they are a group of coach builders and electricians who can make anything. At first I’m just asking questions to be polite but curiosity gets the better of me, soon I’m on the ground under the near complete Food Justice Truck, marvelling at the finesse with which Dan has welded the chassis.
VMS is a massive warehouse with eight tradesmen and about a dozen vehicles in different stages of chrysalis inside. The Manager, Andrew Blair, shows me a motor home they’ve just renovated and I’m blown away by the precision of the interior woodwork. Brett Capron, an industrial designer from CobaltNiche and Russell Shields, Food Justice Truck Manager at the ASRC are here too. Russell is standing on the floor of the truck interior wondering something about shelves. Brett is deep in thought looking at a sketch. Andrew introduces me to three other VMS staff. They have the dust blackened face of the coalminer- it is especially noticeable on Workshop Manager Darren Owens who has the same eyes as Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke.
Daniel O’Hara, the youngest, has been coach building for 5½ years. He shows me the holes in his tee-shirt caused by the sparks thrown by a welder and Richard Hawkins points at a red patch of skin on his upper arm from the welder and proudly announces, ‘suntan’. When I ask, ‘Aren’t you meant to wear safety gear?’ they point to the underside of the truck and Dan says, ‘Under there, it gets real fiddley with big gloves.’ Dan did all the welding on the underside of the truck bed. The Food Justice Truck is a green safe hybrid which means it runs on electricity (solar panels on the roof) but uses fuel to start. It also means that they had to be careful using welding equipment because the welders can fry the computer of the truck. Dan was so proud of his work he took photos to show his wife.
Darren and Richard grew up near each other in Nottingham, England. They have been coach building for 26 years. Richard jokes that he has been Darren’s apprentice for 30 years and says that coach building is ‘a trade that goes back 1000 years or more.’ I ask them some of the fanciest stuff that they have built, ‘A science truck that had a roof that opened and a laser would come out to monitor the air for pollution,’ ’jail cells,’ ‘mobile dentist clinics’, ‘Centrelink trucks’, and the one that piques my interest, ‘surveillance vans.’ Darren tells me that if there is a weird plastic looking lock on the sliding door of a van that is one sign that you are being watched. ‘What’s that?’ I point at something being built by two blokes across the workshop. ‘We can’t tell you.’
The Food Justice Truck is nearing completion. CobaltNiche designed it and the eight tradesmen at VMS are bringing the designs to life. When I point out how innovative they have to be as they build Richard laughs, ‘We are accidental industrial designers.’ When I ask Dan The Younger how he feels about the truck he echoes how everyone involved in this project is feeling, ‘Absolutely wrapped.’ On the way out Andrew shows me a van they’ve pimped out for disabled passengers with a massive flat-screen TV, sub woofers, and a fancy piece of wheelchair equipment from Holland. He laughs and admits VMS took it out for a night and the tradies fell asleep drunk in the back on the ride home.
As I drive through the farm land between Geelong and Barwon Heads I get to thinking about how inspiring skilled tradespeople are. Since seeing close hand the work at VMS I can’t walk past a truck without grabbing the sleeve of the nearest person and pointing and saying, ‘So much goes in to making that.’
Email Received from Brett Capron Friday 6th February
It was nice to meet you yesterday at VMS, how did you go at beach? Catch any good waves?
I have attached three presentations that show the process we worked through:
1. Initial research and preliminary thinking
2. Design Thinking creative problem solving workshop (involving a broad range of stakeholders)
3. Preliminary concept sketching (based on workshop insights) and sketch based design refinement
As I mentioned yesterday the idea of having the 2 levels of crates hanging on the side of the vehicle was not in anyone’s thinking prior to the Design Thinking workshop and two separate groups independently arrived at the same idea within the session – it must be a winner!
Until today I hadn’t thought about industrial design before. The closest I had come was a share house where I needed scrap paper and an aeronautical engineer gave me a stack of propeller sketches. I’m mates with some textile designers so I’ve seen some CAD stuff. My sister’s friend makes sustainable bamboo surfboards and that seems design-y. My cousin designed the Lou Lou perfume bottle and my best friend is a permaculture designer- that was it for me and design but now- after speaking to Associate Principal Brett Capron and Senior Project Manager Lorrin Windahl from CobaltNiche- I’m hooked on design, and sad because I’m not a pro bono industrial designer.
The wall of the CobaltNiche boardroom is lined with awards for products like a blood analysis system, an EXIT sign and a computer monitor arm. These guys designed the Keep Cup, a reusable take away coffee cup that has become a global phenomenon. Brett explains, ‘Primarily we are a product design consultancy and that means essentially industrial design and mechanical engineering of physical products is essentially our core business.’ They advocate socially responsible design. Lorrin says, ‘At the core you’re producing products that are improving lives and not just products that are filling the gap of consumerism. There are lots of different fields of socially responsible design; you can look at the lifecycle of a product, or making its carbon footprint lower, you can also look at people and how it impacts them.’
CobaltNiche’s blog Less By Design makes for a great read. Lorrin says, ‘I didn’t want it to be dry. We’re trying to get as many people to contribute as possible. It’s good to get other people’s interests…We’ve got Jo, for some reason he’s interested in insects as a viable food source so he’s got that slant on it which is really interesting because I would have never thought about it before.’ My favourite parts of the blog are profiles of designers such as Victor Papanek ,‘godfather of socially responsible design’ and of materials like coconut and bamboo.
On the commercially and environmentally successful KeepCup Lorrin says, ‘Replacing disposable cups with a re-useable one is a more sustainable and socially responsible way of doing things.’ Brett explains that environmentally sound practice underpins everything they do, ‘Whenever we’re thinking about what materials to use, whether it’s a scientific instrument or a sporting product or a kid’s toy, we’re always thinking about minimising materials usage… I think in Europe they’re a lot more aware of resource issues because some of their resource limitations are far more pressing than ours…things like scarcity of water, scarcity of energy… are far more pressing issues in their communities. I think CobaltNiche are one of the leaders in Australia as far as Lorrin being the editor of the blog, and sort of investigating these broader issues and trying to be at the forefront of thinking in that space. It’s definitely something that we’re passionate about.’
Brett crosses the boardroom and returns carrying a mass spectrometer, a piece of scientific equipment that CobaltNiche designed. I ask what their favourite material is and they both speak lovingly about cork. Lorrin explains, ‘The sustainable element of cork is in its manufacture. The cork oak tree grows big and approximately every ten years the bark has to be stripped off it and the tree continues to live and you just take the bark off.’ If anyone reading this has to buy someone a present might I suggest the KeepCup Brew limited edition cork would make a fine sustainable gift. ‘The best thing about cork from a product point of view is its tactility, it’s just nice to touch and feel,’ Lorrin adds.
When I ask them who their favourite designers are they laugh. Brett says. ‘This is where our diametric opposition comes in.’ Lorrin who has volunteered in Uganda and worked in Botswana cites, ‘Paul Polak. He works a lot with developing countries. He doesn’t have a design background. He’s got a psychology background…He makes a lot of products using local materials that can be maintained by local people so in the end making a sustainable product.’ At this point Brett looks at his phone and yells, ‘HOLY SHIT!’ and beams, ‘My little brother just had a baby girl!’ Congratulations abound and then Brett says, ‘Back to business’ and admits, ‘I don’t even know who Paul Polak is! I’m far more superficial. I like designers who make stuff that looks cool. I’d go with Scott Wilson, Marc Newson, um who else? Ah Dieter Rams, and I don’t actually like his designs but I’ll say Philippe Starck just because I think he is cool.’
I ask how CobaltNiche came to be involved in the Food Justice Truck project. Brett says they didn’t want the Less By Design blog to ‘be a superficial add on to our business. We are actually trying to effect change. So [the truck] was one of the big things where we thought well rather than just writing articles and talking about it let’s go out there and try to do something.’ Lorrin says, ‘We were looking to do a pro bono project. I had a friend who was a previous board member of the ASRC who mentioned something about the Food Truck and gave me the contact details of Patrick and it all went from there really… It was kind of just an idea in Patrick’s head at that stage.’
CobaltNiche were involved in the Food Justice Truck from early on in the process. Brett says, ‘There’s a bit of a trend in the US and Europe for designers to have a more strategic role in business whereas traditionally design has been more of an execution role. Strategic direction in a company is set by managers and then designers design a product to fit that strategy. But there’s a trend internationally, and it’s very slowly starting to take root here in Australia, where – similar to the Food Truck project – designers are employed very early on in a project to assist in setting the tone of where that project could lead. [For] the Food Truck project we engaged a lot of people. We were in at that ground level to help formulate the direction. Rather than taking a fixed brief from someone saying, “We want you to design this, this, this and this,” and then simply executing it, we were actually involved in formulating that plan and using some of our design thinking and methodologies.’
CobaltNiche ran a one day workshop at the ASRC. Brett says, ‘There were so many different stakeholders, whether they be ASRC volunteers, asylum seekers, stakeholders, the general public. There were issues around logistics and food suppliers. The end result was a whole series of thinking, creative ideas, potential solutions. They were all scribbles, notes, ideas written on bits of paper. One of the things we do as industrial designers is take ideas and thinking and start to turn it in to a reality through sketching and foam and CAD modelling.’ Brett explains that from the workshop they cottoned on to a new idea , ‘One of the big takeaways from the design thinking workshop occurred when we split into two groups to mock-up physical solutions. Completely independently both groups arrived at the same solution – two levels of crates hanging off the side of the truck. It was an idea that seemed so obvious after both groups arrived at it, although it was something that no one had thought about or discussed prior to the workshop.’
As Brett and Lorrin answer my questions it occurs to me that they are those people that use both sides of the brain. Unlike writers who can’t put together an Ikea shelf without getting drunk and getting someone else to do it, these two have neural pathways firing across both hemispheres; like those glowing lightning plasma orb things Scitech sold in the 80s.
Brett is very complimentary when talk turns to the tradesmen down at VMS, ‘They seem like a really switched on crew, happy to think things through on the fly and prototype as they were going to work out the details. On a project of this nature the handover that we did was kind of conceptual in nature with a design intent , like a high level design direction but we didn’t work out all of the details of how every little hinge and door and section was going to work. So it’s great that they’ve been able to fill that gap.’ Lorrin points out, ‘Sometimes people that have a lot of experience have a set way that they do things and if you come in with a concept that hasn’t b
een done before they can be obstructive and say “No, no this is the way we do it” so it is really nice that VMS took it on and they’re proud of it.’
They take me in to the office to show me the award winning computer monitor arm which is ‘completely tool-less. A lot of the competitor products you had to have tools to be able to put it together.’ The monitor arm has a dial that you turn to change the spring tension and is the perfect example of CobaltNiche taking something complicated and making it user friendly. Lorrin points out that the arms are made from components that are kept separate for ease of recycling. I watch someone drawing something using CAD software, ‘What is that?’ ‘We can’t say.’ (It is the VMS truck workshop all over again!) Brett is grinning as he shows me a bike CobaltNiche designed. You can adjust it as your kid grows. Lorrin adds they don’t need training wheels after using the CobaltNiche balance bike.
Could I be more impressed? I don’t think so. I wonder how many take away coffee cups never made it to landfill because of these two legends. If the ASRC’s Patrick is the patron saint of chickpeas, these two are the patron saints of non- existent landfill. I want to ask them to help me figure out a portable raised vegie bed on wheels and how to stop plastic soy sauce fish forever but they look like busy people. I leave CobaltNiche feeling excited that these two brainiacs have used their superpowers pro bono to help feed asylum seekers.
The ASRC Food Justice Truck will launch on Friday March 20th at Footscray Primary School.
PART ONE was an interview over chickpea curry with Patrick Lawrence from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre about a groundbreaking initiative to feed asylum seekers. The idea for the Food Justice Truck started a year and a half ago when founder and CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis said, ‘But what about the others?’
PART THREE is an interview with ASRC’s Food Justice Truck Manager Russell Shields and a profile of the launch of the truck.