A career as a product designer

 8 February 2011

Jethro Macey made his mark in 2005, transforming humble concrete into covetable decorative flooring. His work caught the attention the New Designers Showcase in London and developed into continued success.

Jethro Macey's ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ showcased the secret collections of everyday people.
Jethro Macey's ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ showcased the secret collections of everyday people.

An award-winning designer

Jethro Macey has gone on to win numerous awards, including an Elle Decoration British Design Award and a NESTA Insight Out development award. Recent projects include work with the Design Museum.

In 2008, Jethro was selected as one of The Design Museum’s five ‘Designers in Residence’, an annual showcase featuring emerging designers.

He was commissioned to design and build an instillation based on the notion of ‘Collections’. His ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ was a showcase of the secret collections of everyday people. Macey tracked down 40 individual collections from around the UK.

“I was interested in showcasing the non valuable, obscure, collections (such as squashed drinks cans, wishbones and toothbrushes) alongside more traditional collections, (china shoes, Take That memorabilia, statues of Liberty)”.

Starting out as a 3D designer

At school, Jethro had a passion for art, but he didn’t quite fit in with the traditional drawing and painting. “I knew what I wanted to do, but couldn’t explain it. When I was about 19, I enrolled on an evening course for 3D Design, and from there I went on to study for a degree.”

“Learn as many skills as you can whilst you are in education. The minute you leave, you realise how expensive training can be."

He studied 3D Design at University College Falmouth, which provided him with a great experience.

“I chose to explore materials and processes, as opposed to designing on the computer (the course offered both options). I also studied in the Netherlands for three months of my degree. I’d recommend studying abroad to anyone – you learn so much from doing it”.

Career support for designers

Following graduation, Jethro was given continued support from the University through their business incubation programme. This enabled him to have office space and business facilities at a subsidised rate. “I’m still in touch with my college tutors and occasionally teach on the 3D course”.

He also acknowledges assistance from other sources: the New Designers Showcase, which was the catalyst for his initial success and exposure; NESTA (The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts); Unlocking Cornish Potential, which have given much on-going support; and Hidden Art, a members organisation for designers and design-makers.

“Without being a member [of Hidden Art], I don’t think that I’d have done so much in such a short period of time. Membership has enabled me to exhibit at a number of events for a fraction of the price normally charged.

"I also entered a number of competitions through Hidden Art, the competitions enabled me to produce prototypes very quickly with assistance, and I was also helped with routes to market. I was part of their e-shop for a while, and I sold enough to make it worth my while. The designer’s individual page gave me a web presence before I had my own website.”

Jethro has also been inspired by, “other designers, crafts people and companies I have met along the way: Jonathan Tibbs, Nicola Malkin, Johanna Basford, Gareth Neal, Decode London, We are Scene, Lucy Turner. The Design Museum”.

Working as a designer

Jethro enjoys the freedom and variety that comes from working for himself. “I don’t really have a typical day. I am currently preparing for a big trade show, and I’m designing a few new products for myself and for other companies. Prior to this I have been taking the time to step back and look at how I organise my business and life, as the last few years have been extremely hectic.”

“I have realised that I definitely spend too much time thinking how to communicate my ideas clearly. Any working day will involve answering and sending emails, driving and putting off doing my accounts. One downside is that if you aren’t careful, you can end up neglecting your personal life.”

Jethro lives and works in Cornwall, often travelling to London for work. He says that the contrast between the two places enables him to benefit from both.

“Living in Cornwall enables me to have a great network of local manufacturers and suppliers who all know and trust each other. There is also a real sense of community within the design profession here.  I look forward to leaving Cornwall, but I’m just as glad to return.“

Building a career as a product designer

Progressing and finding new projects initially came through exposure in magazines, exhibiting at trade shows, and through word of mouth. But recently Jethro has taken a much more active approach, re-writing his CV and contacting key companies.

“Membership of Hidden Art has enabled me to exhibit at a number of events for a fraction of the price normally charged. Without it,  I don’t think that I’d have done so much in such a short period of time."

“The current climate has affected the industry in a couple of ways. Firstly, consumers are buying less non-essential goods, so interior products, furniture and accessories sales have slowed down. Also, because of the slowdown in construction, retail and residential sectors there are fewer opportunities for your products to be specified by an architect or interior designer.”

“The knock-on effect takes time to filter through, so when the economy picks up it will take time to work through the chain and for the orders to increase. It’s a tough time and it’s really made me consider how and why I am following this career path. I’m making changes to my business to reflect the economic situation. I’m actively seeking work more, rather than waiting for it to come to me. It’s about being active and keeping up the momentum that a creative business needs to survive.”

Looking further ahead, Jethro believes that the main issues facing product designers in the next ten years are sustainability, ethical production, adopting new technology, retraining traditional skills and the increasing competition in the market place.

His personal plans include launching new products at 100% Design, and growing his business. Jethro wants to continue learning: gaining further Computer Aided Design skills, and exploring possibilities in surface pattern alongside product and furniture design.

Advice to other designers

Jethro lists the qualities necessary to be successful as a product designer, “Imagination, hard work, persuasion, technical skills, negotiation, perseverance, multi-tasking, enthusiasm, budgeting, confidence, self-belief, constructive criticism, creative thinking, and communication skills.”

For anyone wanting to get into product design, “Learn as many skills as you can whilst you are in education. The minute you leave, you realise exactly how expensive training can be. Visit galleries, trade shows, craft fairs and museums.

"Read design magazines and internet blogs. If full time education isn’t your thing, then see if there are any part time or evening courses you can study. Apply for work experience placements; you’ll learn so much by working for someone else”.


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