Fixing a hole: Fixperts profile


Every idea has its day, and Fixperts is an idea whose momentum has truly arrived. In 2016, the open-source fixing evangelists picked up a major Blueprint award, and trialled a whole new teaching programme around making for arts-starved UK schools. With the BBC recently launching its Big Life Fix, showing design professionals as they tackle real-life problems, it appears that fixing as a universal act of ingenuity and resistance – countering the culture of empty consumerism and built-in obsolescence – is going mainstream


Words by Veronica Simpson

Fixing is an idea that chimes neatly with the retro zeitgeist of the early 21st century: an era of ‘keep calm and carry on’ through the worst global recession in over half a century; of the rebirth of second-hand clothes as covetable ‘vintage’ items, catapulting charity shops to the cutting edge of fashion and individualism; of growing your own veg in local authority allotments becoming a badge of honour for aspiring ‘slow-food’ aficionados. Fixing is also a natural hands-on cousin to the burgeoning artisan/maker movement. But there’s way more to fixing than a comforting throwback to an earlier, pre-consumerist, more collectively resourceful era.

And the entity that has probably done more than any to demonstrate fixing’s power as a joyous act of creativity and rebellion, is Fixperts. Fixperts’ Vimeo blurb describes fixing as a ‘way of thinking’, and its role as ‘a programme that unlocks creative, problem-solving skills to get the world fixing problems, small and big’. Its declared aim is nothing less than ‘to build the next generation of designers, engineers, inventors, technologists, artists, dreamers and change makers’.

The brainchild of designers Daniel Charny and James Carrigan — the co-founder of Sugru (a limitlessly adaptable self-setting putty) — Fixperts was born in September 2012. It has morphed and evolved over several iterations in the intervening years, with 2016 marking the real paradigm shift, as it was trialled as a significant teaching resource, not just in universities and art schools, who were early adopters, but within the UK’s school curriculum.

Fixperts started out as a simple way of celebrating and clarifying the ingenuity and problem-solving power of design. But its genius was to spread this appealing and accessible message via online ‘how to’ films — luring participating design professionals to share their innovations, step by step, via Fixperts’ online portal. Early outcomes included a device, which allowed an MS sufferer to put in her own earrings, and the repair of a broken joystick to revive an electric wheelchair.

From the film Bottle opener for Milly by James Turner, 2012. One of two projects that came out of a one-week, in-house innovation workshop at the branding agency Imagination. . Image Credit: James Turner/Imagination LondonFrom the film Bottle opener for Milly by James Turner, 2012. One of two projects that came out of a one-week, in-house innovation workshop at the branding agency Imagination. Image Credit: James Turner/Imagination London

An October 2012 Guardian article placed Fixperts at the vanguard of ‘a trend that is slowly beginning to counter the commercial culture of obsolescence’. Fast forward to December 2016, and Daniel Charny is sitting in his Kennington office with Fixperts managing director Dee Halligan, and their newest recruit, a lively puppy who keeps having to be wrangled from chewing up the architectural models strewn around the studio they share with long-term studio-mates, architect Mowat & Company (formerly Urban Salon).

Charny and Halligan’s day job — apart from teaching — has been their consultancy, From Now On (FNO), which operates from this base. FNO combines Halligan’s expertise in exhibitions, multimedia design and cultural engagement with Charny’s experience as a designer and educator, helping to clarify and enhance what a whole variety of clients do — from the new Design Museum (with whom they developed the overarching ethos and programme) to the National Trust — and how they reach their target audiences. FNO has been vital in Fixperts’ evolution, in more ways than one: from ensuring a flow of cash from consultancy work while Fixperts was going through its various evolutions, through providing a premises for the fluctuating cast of associates and volunteers, to, ultimately, having the skills needed when the time came for reviewing Fixperts’ aims, ambitions and strategy in 2015, so that it could gear up to become the fully resourced, mission statement- to-the-fore, open-source teaching tool it is today.

Right now, however, they are basking in the glory of their recent Blueprint award and what it means for them: an acknowledgement from their peers that fixing deserves its place within the design cannon. Halligan is an architect, and Charny’s background is industrial design, so Blueprint is embedded in their professional DNA. But Fixperts was pitched against the design star-power of the Bouroullecs and Hay for the Blueprint Award for Design. They insist the win was a total surprise. 

From A set of utensils for Heidi by Maya Alvarado 2016. Heidi is 18 years old and has cerebral palsy. She loves cooking but finds it difficult to use cooking equipment in her weekly class. The bespoke utensils by Maya Alvarado, who was a year long Fixperts-inresidence at Benchmark Furniture, make it easier for her to grip and stir. Image Credit: Maya AlvaradoFrom A set of utensils for Heidi by Maya Alvarado 2016. Heidi is 18 years old and has cerebral palsy. She loves cooking but finds it difficult to use cooking equipment in her weekly class. The bespoke utensils by Maya Alvarado, who was a year long Fixperts-inresidence at Benchmark Furniture, make it easier for her to grip and stir. Image Credit: Maya Alvarado

‘It was a serious delight,’ says Charny. ‘Teachers from around the world, from Johannesburg to Cologne, said this is brilliant, we can show this to our colleagues and students and say, “Look at this,” when they ask, “how is Fixperts design?” So for us that (award) is not just a validation, it’s a tool.’

To really understand how Fixperts got to this point, we have to understand Charny’s passion for making, and his belief in design as a collaborative skill that should be about ingenuity, resourcefulness and adaptation — a skill with a purpose beyond simply oiling the wheels of global capitalism with ever more stuff to drive the consumer/obsolescence cycle. Charny’s bottom line, as an educator and practitioner, is: ‘What is the role of making in our future lives, as people, as professionals? Fixperts is an applied version of that.’

Charny has channelled this perspective into his teaching, first in product design at the RCA for many years, before moving to Kingston University, where he is now professor of design. Over this period, he has had no shortage of brilliant students to brainstorm with, but it was a conversation with his former RCA student Carrigan around the time he and his partner and Sugru inventor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh had launched their product in 2009 that set the ball rolling.

From The little Things by Fixperts: Florie Salnot, Peter Judson & Rachel Singer with Fix Partner Denise Stephens. One of the first films ever made by Fixperts volunteers (2012). Image Credit: Peter Judson and Rachel SingerFrom The little Things by Fixperts: Florie Salnot, Peter Judson & Rachel Singer with Fix Partner Denise Stephens. One of the first films ever made by Fixperts volunteers (2012). Image Credit: Peter Judson and Rachel Singer

‘We decided to do something together about showing how designers are good at fixing,’ explains Charny. ‘We thought we would do an event where designers would bring stuff and we would fix and improve it.’ The event didn’t happen, though the pair would keep reviving the idea every time they met. Then Charny was asked to curate the V&A’s exhibition The Power Of Making (2011). He says: ‘That was a lot of fun, to convince the joint commissioners, the V&A and the Crafts Council not to show celebrated artists or designers, and not to focus on people but to focus on the knowledge. Sugru was an exhibit. I collected all the projects that are about communities that empower themselves through making.

It was about communities sharing knowledge. And a year later we thought: let’s do this fixing event. While talking with James, we came up with the description, fixing experts, which became Fixperts, and we ran a pilot with a group of friends, designers and filmmakers. We made five films. Then we launched it with the RSA at 100% Design, under a sustainability umbrella. We did it on purpose inside 100%, where all the luxury brands are. I asked Bright Sparks, a social initiative and repair shop in Islington, to bring in their equipment and we held the event there. We produced a few more films. Then we stopped producing and we decided to put the guidelines of how to do it out for free, on the website.

From Hand Brace for Grace by Fixperts at Brunel University: Bradley Brister, Joshua Ward, Nick Hansen, Eleanor Hayward, Hakam Chana, Edward Spash and Felix Morey- Burrows with Fix Partner Grace Simmons. Grace sufferers from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which causes her joints to dislocate. This brace was designed to help avoid dislocation of her thumb while writing and to look like a piece of jewellery. Image Credit: Nick Hansen/Brunel UniversityFrom Hand Brace for Grace by Fixperts at Brunel University: Bradley Brister, Joshua Ward, Nick Hansen, Eleanor Hayward, Hakam Chana, Edward Spash and Felix Morey- Burrows with Fix Partner Grace Simmons. Grace sufferers from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which causes her joints to dislocate. This brace was designed to help avoid dislocation of her thumb while writing and to look like a piece of jewellery. Image Credit: Nick Hansen/Brunel University

With the website up and running, the ball gained momentum: ‘A colleague in Warsaw asked if he could run a workshop in Warsaw, and I talked him through it, and he ran it.’ Then Barcelona and other design colleges followed. Next, Kingston University — long time supporters of sustainable design in its courses — ran a Fixperts’ residency through February and March 2013, in their Stanley Picker Gallery, along with a series of community events. Says Charny: ‘Suddenly there was a group in Holland and Israel and Belgium and it started growing. Sussex, Bath and Johannesburg universities picked up on it, and it shifted to universities. By the end of that year, we had close to 30 films from different universities and colleges. And the independent people still kept trickling in. The next year we had another 60 films from other universities.’

Charny’s extensive networks have been vital to Fixperts’ evolution: over 20 years in design education, he has garnered a wealth of colleagues, associates and former students, who have seized the fixing idea and passed it on. Halligan also points out that it became a conversational tick for Charny to mention Fixperts at the end of every FNO client conversation.

A broken joystick is repaired to power up an electric wheelchair, at Super Salon Day, at Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston, 2013. Fixperts ran a drop-in repair event called Fixhub. Image Credit: Ezzidin AlwanA broken joystick is repaired to power up an electric wheelchair, at Super Salon Day, at Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston, 2013. Fixperts ran a drop-in repair event called Fixhub. Image Credit: Ezzidin Alwan

In this way, through word of mouth and online presence, it got to the point, Charny says, where ‘we moved to a completely ad-hoc Google Search existence where, every morning, I’d open Google Search and see if there’s a film somewhere. And it’s a smile in the morning when there is. One appeared last year from Thailand. They didn’t even contact me — it was happening by itself. It’s become self-running. It’s open design.’

Along the way, FNO’s consultancy work has cross-fertilised with the world of making and fixing. In 2010, FNO developed The Maker Library Network for the British Council, ‘a peer-topeer network that helps makers drill down into why they are designing — rather than how,’ says Charny: ‘It’s about the cultural agenda.’

Heidi needed a bespoke canoe paddle so she could complete her Duke of Edinburgh’s award expedition. The paddle is mounted on a sliding rig mechanism which enables her to control it independently. Image Credit: Maya AlvaradoHeidi needed a bespoke canoe paddle so she could complete her Duke of Edinburgh’s award expedition. The paddle is mounted on a sliding rig mechanism which enables her to control it independently. Image Credit: Maya Alvarado

Another FNO proposition, for developer client U+I, is the Central Research Laboratory, a professional hardware incubator, now run through a partnership between Brunel University London, U+I and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But, true to form, it’s not about promoting innovation for its own (or its money-making) sake. ‘The start-ups have to have a relationship with positive business — sustainability, wellbeing; they need to have that ingrained in their approach,’ says Charny. ‘We have just secured an amazing new managing director. Matt Hunter — ex Design Council, and ex-IDEO — who really thinks that design is about change and service.’

For Halligan, the beauty of fixing and making are their versatility, as pathways to engagement on so many issues, for many audiences. She says: ‘One of the curious things with Fixperts, in the first three years, is that it managed to be all things to all people… each person coming into it would say: this is about disability; or someone would say it’s about sustainability. And for each of them the project managed to not be too specific about what the end was.’

From A Sock horn for Edna by Fixperts Dan Jackson and Sophie Both at Kingston University with Fix Partner Edna Day. Edna can’t bend to put on her socks. This fix allows her to pull her socks on with minimal bending and maximum dignity. Image Credit: Sophie Both & Dan JacksonFrom A Sock horn for Edna by Fixperts Dan Jackson and Sophie Both at Kingston University with Fix Partner Edna Day. Edna can’t bend to put on her socks. This fix allows her to pull her socks on with minimal bending and maximum dignity. Image Credit: Sophie Both & Dan Jackson

For example, she says: ‘We’ve been working with the National Trust on engagement, and making through conservation — making is part of it, but engagement is the deeper issue. My interest in engagement stems from ideas: people dealing with meaning, people developing themselves; cultural values. I’ve worked with the Science Museum, with the Tate. I do a lot of work on strategy now: whose engagement, what for, how does it engage with policy?

‘I think it’s really interesting the kind of cut-through making has, as a tool for engagement… It’s really interesting to see what happens when you put making in any space, from a shop floor through to a museum or a classroom. I think that’s what’s made me much more interested in the space we’ve been interrogating.’

The Power of Making was a joint V&A and Crafts Council exhibition in 2011. It was curated by Daniel Charny to demonstrate the power of shared problem-solving and creativity. Image Credit: Peter Kelleher, V&AThe Power of Making was a joint V&A and Crafts Council exhibition in 2011. It was curated by Daniel Charny to demonstrate the power of shared problem-solving and creativity. Image Credit: Peter Kelleher, V&A

But 18 months ago, the Fixperts team decided it was time to revise its approach and strategy, partly inspired by the fact that a growing number of people and organisations were taking the project very seriously — including people invested in trying to maintain some kind of meaningful design education in UK schools (after the role of art and design was thoroughly sidelined by the former Conservative Education Minister, Michael Gove).

Says Charny: ‘We started talking about (taking fixing into) schools in 2014.’ In 2015, small amounts of funding came from the Clore Foundation, Comino, Conran and the RSA. This, in turn allowed it to recruit a team to develop the schools’ pilot for 2016 properly, where before it had been managing with ad-hoc experts and some talented volunteer support — though it is still very much reliant on its core volunteers. At the same time, the number of Fixperts films had passed 150, and it was being invited to exhibitions from Tokyo to Norway to North Carolina. Halligan says: ‘It built up to a point where it needed to be in-house and it needed management.’ From its origins as a passion project, Fixperts professionalisation had become inevitable. Halligan laughs: ‘Resisting it was futile.’

The Power of Making was a joint V&A and Crafts Council exhibition in 2011. It was curated by Daniel Charny to demonstrate the power of shared problem-solving and creativity. Image Credit: Peter Kelleher, V&AThe Power of Making was a joint V&A and Crafts Council exhibition in 2011. It was curated by Daniel Charny to demonstrate the power of shared problem-solving and creativity. Image Credit: Peter Kelleher, V&A

So what emerged after they put themselves through the full FNO workshop process of identifying core values, then developing strategy and programming? One key shift is that Fixperts now focuses not just on repair, but on creative problem solving. Says Charny: ‘We still have anchors in the green community and ageing well and disability, but we’ve pulled back to say: this is a method that works in order to enable people to solve problems creatively wherever you are.’

The workshop also ‘brought us to understand that we need to change the language, change the focus, have clearer drivers,’ says Halligan. It secured Conran Foundation Trust funding to build a new website, which went live this January. It offers five clear mission statements, plus news, events, opinions and a blog where guest bloggers interrogate the role of fixing as an act of resistance. It also celebrates the 265-plus films, from 21 countries, that have flowed into the Fixperts’ knowledge pool. These are grouped clearly under different headings in order to prompt people to use them as teaching accessories as well as how-to guides for their own projects. It shows Fixperts as social design, open design at its best, believes Charny, who hopes to add in follow-up films on Fixperts’ projects a year or so down the line.

A V&A Friday Late event Art is Good For You featured a Fixperts installation showing prototypes being co-designed and developed, June 2015. Image Credit: V&AA V&A Friday Late event Art is Good For You featured a Fixperts installation showing prototypes being co-designed and developed, June 2015. Image Credit: V&A

The process of clarifying the ethos has brought additional benefits, says Charny, mainly in the conversations it sparks, with ‘people that want to share knowledge and empower young people. The other thing that has helped in the school arena is that maker education has become a thing, but its [approach is] very techy. Fixperts brings in a human element which people are interested in: we talk about tech but also empathy and society and storytelling. Now we’re really putting out all the information on how to do it — we have resources for schools, independent companies and universities, for free. For schools, if people want to gear up we do teacher training, and we’re hoping for investment to create materials for schools that can then run full-on programmes.’

Fixperts hard at work at the Fixperts Stall, Brompton Design District Fair, London 2013Fixperts hard at work at the Fixperts Stall, Brompton Design District Fair, London 2013

The maker movement has also grown up, says Charny: ’This is making with a purpose. I’m a massive fan of messing about with technology. I’m not against people having a go at whatever they want, but how do you gear up? What do you use that for? Fixing is such a clear purpose. Fixing can then move to fixing a situation, which talks about improvement, which is inherent to design. It’s a stepping-stone into teaching design without mentioning design, or craft. We talk about the relationship between imagination and skills — not craft, not design, not engineering.’

Halligan adds: ‘We also talk a lot about hype… It’s interesting, this dynamic that arises when things become popular, and when hype can be helpful and when hype is undermining. And I think Fixperts has benefited from fixing and making and repair coming to the surface, but it’s because it is underpinned by something substantial that we’re able to be credible beyond that hype.’ 

Schoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweepingSchoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweeping

Halligan doesn’t deny that Fixperts is benefitting from the current zeitgeist. ‘If we tried to do this five or six years ago, I’m not sure it would have worked. There’s a timing aspect to it, but also the fact that we’re getting a great deal of pleasure out of it. We’re professionals, we’ve been working in the field for a long time. And to recognise something that is this powerful, this big, it’s great that we can bring it on that bit further.’

The response from the schools design education community has been overwhelming. Says Charny: ‘Last week I gave a talk at Warwick university to 700 product-design students, 16-yearolds, and their teachers. At the end I asked: Do you want to see it in your school? So many people came over. There is a real appetite for it.’

Schoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweepingSchoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweeping

It helps, says Halligan, that, ‘a lot of what we’re doing is really obvious: straightforwardly good design; nothing complicated about it. What we’re doing is making it more accessible in a method that people can pick up quickly and easily.’

One stumbling block to its design educational takeover has been the typical examination board-driven need to evaluate students’ work on the basis of artefacts. Says Halligan: ’The artefact is not the point. Actually, we’ve proved this year that people without a design background can go through Fixperts and the learning outcomes are multiple. Sometimes it will make you a better technical designer but it’s bound to make you a more empathic designer, more teamwork oriented. All these different learning outcomes are very broad and deliberately so. A percentage of Fixperts projects are really ingenious, really great design, but the learning process or learning experience should give you some benefit, regardless.’

Schoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweepingSchoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweeping

Charny points out that, through the schools’ programme, junior Fixperts are being given a new typology, ‘a new paradigm of how you do things. People think they have two positions: live with the broken thing, or buy a new one. It is connected to independent thinking and it is connected to consumption in very direct ways. The way to raise these issues is by empowering people to make. Fixperts is all about that, really. The power is in the process and the method. That’s why we need to get the method into early education, but also getting it into early education means that these schools need to connect to their community. Through fixing, they can connect with local employers, with local stores or local libraries. When we see a mainstream programme like the BBC’s Big Life Fix (three episodes have been broadcast, in December 2016 and January 2017) dealing directly with fixing and innovation, it’s a really good sign.’

Schoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweepingSchoolchildren at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are asked to adapt a broom in such a way as to make it more suitable for a specific situation. One turns it into a skateboard, another adds a phoneholder so they can browse on their smartphone while sweeping

In 2017, the Fixperts’ model will also grow up in terms of funding — not so reliant on institutional grants, or donations from FNO or the Sugru parent company FormFormForm. Says Halligan: ‘We’re increasingly confident that we can build up a business model not entirely based on fundraising. Because of my background I know how competitive it is out there, and also we didn’t want to build an organisation that would lurch from year to year, dependent on partnerships and sponsorships.

So while we’re still interested in those things, I think we’re increasingly confident that we can build licensing models both in the UK and internationally, because there’s great interest.’ China, in particular, is interested in rolling out the Fixperts programme to its schools. Halligan laughs: ‘I don’t think we’re going to retire to Barbados on it, but we’re quietly confident that we can build it to become a sustainable social enterprise.’

From the award-winning A pen Holder for Donal by Fixperts at NCAD in Dublin, Laura Lowry, Sarah Madden, Nathan Joyce, Maverick Andaloc and Alana McDonough, with Fix Partner Donal O’Flynn. Donal was paralysed in a rugby accident when he was 16 which left him without the full use of his hands. He had not written for 15 years until Fixperts designed this writing aid. Image Credit: Alana McDonough and Nathan Joyce/NCADFrom the award-winning A pen Holder for Donal by Fixperts at NCAD in Dublin, Laura Lowry, Sarah Madden, Nathan Joyce, Maverick Andaloc and Alana McDonough, with Fix Partner Donal O’Flynn. Donal was paralysed in a rugby accident when he was 16 which left him without the full use of his hands. He had not written for 15 years until Fixperts designed this writing aid. Image Credit: Alana McDonough and Nathan Joyce/NCAD

In the meantime, the pair seems to feel that, whatever the struggles, the process of getting Fixperts to this stage has been hugely enriching. Says Charny: ‘I have always talked about the sharing economy, about maker values. This is a hands-on, money-where-your mouth-is commitment. There is no doubt that it has been really valuable for us as a consultancy, and individuals as well. Professionally it puts me into environments that I wouldn’t normally be in. And as someone observing the maker, it’s invaluable. The most precious thing is all these generous, talented people we work with across the world, and then that transfers to the Maker Library Network, and that transfers to research networks. Professionally, it’s not a side project that you do in order to feel good; it’s become really fundamental.’

‘But it does make you feel good,’ asserts Halligan. ‘It keeps you optimistic. People are engaged by it. It’s a positive thing to put out into the world. All of that gives us fuel… and allows us to play.’

Last but not least, says Charny, Fixperts demonstrates something else of profound value about making: ‘We’ve always been very interested in the relation between digital and physical. This is a real hybrid. And this does it so well. It’s a continuation of that conversation. It reveals what happens when you stop seeing them as different worlds — you see what they can do when they’re together.’

Main image: Kevin Davies





Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial