On rigidity and eye-catching ideas

21 Mar

One of the the things I liked best about growing up in Douglas’s household was the sense of infinite possibility that comes from looking at the world and saying, I don’t like that, how can I make it better? The idea that, just because something is a particular way now, doesn’t mean it was always that way, doesn’t mean it has to be that way, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better, and, most importantly, that it is within our power to apply our skills and experience to change it. If something doesn’t work, why not try doing it differently? It doesn’t matter who’s got the idea, or if it doesn’t work, but why not give something new a try? It turns out that this is not necessarily how many people grow up, and as I get older I realise it gets me into trouble in my own work as I ask questions such as ‘well, what are we trying to do here?’ and ‘couldn’t we try something else?’ and get shut down by confused, or worse, fearful expressions of people who have not had this sense of possibility instilled in them from such an early age. I realise that many people are tied to routine, structure, history, safety in a way that I am not, and that much of that comes from watching Douglas work. Having spoken to some other inventors in the past couple of weeks, I think this openness is inherent to the inventing spirit; Trevor Baylis for example said, very simply, ‘everyone is an inventor’ and talked about his very practical approach to just building and trying new ideas out until something stuck, and when I met Mark Sheahan, director of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors last week, he said he gets all sorts of people coming to his invention clinics, and he doesn’t mind who it is or what the discussion is about, he is always only interested in the how good the idea is and how to make it better. These are people who accept anything, no matter how crazy-looking, as a potentially viable proposition and take the time to explore it further before they accept or reject something fully. However I read this article earlier this week about how most businesses claim to embrace innovation but actually shut down creativity whenever they see it, mostly due to fear of the unfamiliar, and that resonated with me because it is something I have witnessed and experienced since I first set foot in Douglas’s workshop and saw the reaction to his work by businesses all over the world. Last week I wrote about golf putters from exactly this angle, and there is more to say about the golf world, but this week I am going to take a pause to look at another couple of Douglas’s ideas that are a bit more fun.

I am not going to write much about Douglas’s personal life, because I don’t want to intrude  or comment on the lives of his living family members, but I think it is safe to say that Douglas liked having a family, married very young, and had several children. One of the things he insisted on was having dinner altogether as a family every night, and this continued right into his later life. Sitting around the dinner table we all had to share what had happened to us during the day, which seems to be an improvement on the quizzes and factual questions that his older children report as being standard dinner table fare during their early years. My memories of conversations with Douglas during meal times include frequent discussions of his work, sometimes fun, sometimes deeply boring, but in a very democratic way; he often asked for suggestions for names for his new ideas, took all suggestions seriously, and didn’t mind explaining how something worked, although you had to be prepared for the robust criticism if your suggestion didn’t stand up to closer inspection. I still think of him when I drive, because he took time to explain to me how an engine worked, including how to use gears and the clutch, and every time I eat toast, because of an imaginary toast-cooling machine we came up with one day over breakfast, complete with spinning motor, string and presumably some form of clips to keep the toast in place. These conversations, of course, weren’t just confined to the dinner table, and going out and about on errands with Douglas could often turn into musings on how the world worked, as well as complaints about things that could be improved. We often found ourselves in car parks and I remember Douglas, a short man, saying that our car needed a flag or tag of some kind so that we could find it easily within the sea of similar cars. Visual signs and jokes were a recurring theme in Douglas’s repertoire; he worked for some years as a sign-writer and maker, designed sets for the stage, and, as a young boy, got thrown out of the Boys Brigade in Glasgow because he wore his sash horizontally round his waist (on purpose as a protest) when everyone else in the parade worn theirs diagonally across from their shoulders. My mum laughs to think of this, ‘how clever he was,’ she says, ‘that one horizontal line would have really looked upsetting next to all the others.’

Douglas never made a car flag, although I wish someone would, but he did experiment with other flags. Here’s a design he had for a directional flag:

Directional flag

On the face of it, it doesn’t look that radical, but actually, once you start to look at flags and pennants, you realise that there isn’t anything else much like that around in the real world. He also designed something similar that did away with the rigid pole altogether:

Aero Flag

Once again, I look around at flags and similar and don’t see anything quite like it, although the USA has more of a tradition of inflatable characters than we do here in the UK. Douglas had been messing around with the ideas of rigidity and air for some time, partly because we did exhibitions for his work and he had to design the display materials, including how to pack and carry things, and flags with poles are a nuisance to carry, pack and put up/take down, so you can see how the inflatable flag-with-no-pole idea came up. I also found this amongst his sketches:

Table top umbrella

It’s not very easy to read, but it is a simple sketch for a table top umbrella. When I was a teenager, we lived at the top of a hill with a patio that looked out over the beautiful views, and we would eat outside at the patio table whenever possible. We had a large and somewhat showy table parasol named Cleopatra for her extravagant layers of fringing that rustled in the breeze, but she was heavy and cumbersome to put up, so I am sure that this would have been in the back of Douglas’s mind when he was thinking about this; the daily effort of hoisting Cleopatra into place in time for dinner. He did a lot of sketching whilst on holiday, and mum favoured sunny beaches, so it wasn’t long before the idea combined with his surroundings to come up with this:


I’m sad that this idea never got further than this sketch, as I’d actually like to have seen this one in the flesh. After battling heavy, rigid, unforgiving Cleopatra myself for several years, I’d be curious to see if this idea could have actually worked or if it would have simply been another bit of play that ended up as merely an interesting flop. But then, I would say that.



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