Beyond the Realms of Product Design?

by Alex Hill on May 4, 2009

I’m new to participating in forums but have spent time following them. Now I have something to write about and just about have the time to write about it. One thing is for sure; when my interest in design started and when I began to study Product Design at Bournemouth University I did not see myself a few short years down the line doing what I do now. I saw myself designing consumer goods, working with plastics and electronics, following a career path much like many of my University peers are.

So here is my story in a brief, looking at how I have put my skills as a Product Designer into designing and now manufacturing a 6 tonne (ish), steel-framed, demountable Lifeguard Tower.

Well, I obviously had an interest in design and particularly making things from a young age so chose to study Product Design at Bournemouth University. Where it would take me I had no idea but this was a decision that was to be rather significant in my future and was a course based itself on a design philosophy that I feel is most relevant! Our course’s catch phrase, if you like, was “Jack of all Trades, Master of Design”.

Starting as a fresher in 2002, outside university I quickly became involved with the RNLI Lifeguards and spent every summer working in Poole Bay. The equipment used and the fact that the service was in its infancy, still developing and sourcing equipment for use quickly sparked my interest as a designer. This led to me basing my degree project around Life guarding. I designed and prototyped a new medical pack intended for use by Lifeguards and Emergency Services.

Having graduated I began to try and pursue the “Rugged Responder” (As a student that seemed like a passable product name!) I did presentations and had meetings with the powers that be at the RNLI in an attempt to secure a job within the technical department. Unfortunately it was not felt that it was a financially viable project to pursue and I quickly discovered that without a marine based engineering degree I had little to no chance of breaking into the technical department. Facing rejection from a number of other Design Engineering positions I took a job as an exhibition designer working on some notable events for a small agency.

It quickly became apparent to me that although I enjoyed working in a small company I was unlikely to develop and fulfil my ambitions; working as a creative exhibition designer really wasn’t for me. However, in a slightly cruel twist of fate, having worked for no more than a month in my new job I was approached by the RNLI to design a prototype Lifeguard Tower. I accepted and worked on the job through the company I worked for.

I tackled the project the only way I knew how, following the design process as I had been taught. Presenting a full and reasoned design with a range of concepts and options, it turned out the design I had scribbled on a scrap of paper as soon as I had been asked to undertake the project was chosen. In late 2005 a prototype was commissioned for use during the summer of 2006.

My influence beyond concept design was limited and again I found myself wanting more. At the beginning of 2006 I left full-time employment as a designer to lifeguard and pursue work for the RNLI. Over the summer I developed the prototyped tower, kicking right back to concept work, with a full revision of manufacturing processes and the steel sub-structure. I was certainly beginning to push the realms of my University knowledge. However, to me this is pretty much what design is all about and I successfully applied the processes I was used to.

In late 2006 I got a step closer to my ultimate goal and began working full time as a design consultant. During this time I worked on a range of projects, from brochures to new lifeguard facilities. The most successful of these projects was a Mobile Lifeguard Station now manufactured by Marco Trailers, a “Mobile Board Bin” now manufactured by me and, of course, the Tower also now made by me. The original concept for both the Mobile Lifeguard Station and Board Bin were both developed overnight for presentation at a conference the following day. (So please excuse the visual of the Board Bin!)

As this period of work came to an end I was given the opportunity to tender for the manufacture of the Lifeguard Stations. It was starting to become apparent that the deep end was a place I liked, so I set about pricing the project. Much to my surprise I won and in January 2008 received an order for 5 Towers, 6 Board Bins and 1 Trailer all for delivery by May!

OK, so the deep end, we have established, is a place I like but on this occasion I think I missed the deep end and piled face first into the side of the pool! I work well under pressure; I think this is a valuable asset for any designer and I don’t think I would have even completed my degree if I didn’t.  But this did push the boundaries.

However, in 5 short months I succeeded in starting my own company, registered as IT (DORSET) LIMITED, trading as “design it”, “make it” and most recently “weld it”. I succeeded in moving into, tooling and staffing a workshop and in building 4 towers inside the deadline, despite working with a steel contractor who could not make anything that went together. One tower and three board bins missed the deadline, despite several months of long days and sleeping in the office.

2008 saw us put lifeguard towers on Bournemouth, Great Yarmouth and Gorleston Beaches. Following the downfall of our steel contractor I brought all manufacturing in?house and I now run a team of Joiners and Welder Fabricators.

By the end of 2008 I had successfully developed and improved the initial design, developed our manufacturing techniques and built a total of 7 Towers (2 to the new design).

2009 will see 9 Towers on Beaches from Dorset to North Norfolk and by the end of the year we will have manufactured 12 Towers with orders continuing into 2010.

So is my story relevant to anyone out there, does a 6 tonne tower that requires transport on 2 lorries and heavy plant to move count as a product, is this relevant for discussion on a Product Design Forums? I think it is. After all it was designed and manufactured by a Product Designer, it’s a new take on a now rather iconic design, fulfills a purpose and is aimed at a specific market. (Albeit, a rather Niche one!)

What was the purpose of me sharing this with you? I’m not totally sure. However, I hope anyone out there well established within the world of design has found my tale vaguely interesting; anyone trying to develop their own thing can take a little motivation to stick at it.

But most of all I hope this may be of interest to people in a situation that, being only 26, I can most relate to. Anyone studying or recently graduated from a Degree similar to mine, anyone with twice the lectures of all their mates and pulling frequent all-nighters, any postgraduate struggling to find a job that fulfills their ambitions. Stick at it, keep doing what you enjoy and someone will take you seriously eventually!

About the Author – Alex Hill is a former freelance designer who now runs a company based on the manufacture of his own design work. You can contact him on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or find him on the net at

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nat Dodd September 2, 2017 at 12:51 am

Dear Alex,

I am a student about to start my final A level year and was fascinated by your story. I have a real interest in Marine Biology and have chosen 3D product design at A level along with Biology and Chemistry, to broaden my mindset. I wanted to link my final year Product design to the world of Marine Biology, and started researching whether there may be an overlap with Lifeguard stations and information capture.

My initial thought was to design a small prefabricated lifeguard station and, as part of my digging through the www, I came across your article. At first my heart sank a little as I didn’t think that such a thing existed in the UK (I assumed that it would be restricted to the likes of America and Australia!). Then I thought that I might use your work as part of a historical examination and precedent study into where the “state of the art” facilities are at the moment. I wanted to extend the deign brief to include sampling and data capture for wildlife and plantlife.

We are tasked with finding people in the real world industry, that can offer constructive feedback during the year and I wondered if this is something you would be willing to do and whether you had any background information or useful web links?

Regardless, thank you for taking the time to read this and inspiring people to even put pen to paper (so to speak).



Nathanial JT Dodd
Ponteland High School,

PS I tried the email address in the article and got a bounce back


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