Chess Set for the Blind

On designing a product in 10 days

In 2012 I designed a chess set for the blind in about 40 hours over 10 days. This blog post documents the complete design and creative process as it happened.

I am going to attempt to design, develop and model a new product over the next 10 days and blog about the entire process right here.

  • I think this is an excellent exercise in concentration, hard-work, dedication to the project, and fear. By telling the world I shall now have to complete this project.
  • I am going to have to do this between all the other design projects I am working on at the moment, but I believe it could portray an accurate representation of how a product design project might unfold.

Follow the project day by day

I thought it might be interesting for other designers to see how I manage my workflow and how I design. I probably don’t design like anybody else, but I’m okay with that. I am going to try and do this project “live”. This means I will update this page regularly with what I am doing, photos from the studio, research results, works in progress, sketches, CAD models, etc… Also, at the end of every day I shall add a quick summary of the day below so you can keep up with what’s going on if you just want to dip in and dip out. Also-also, I shall also leave the comments to this page open so you can have a direct impact to this project by telling me what you think. (Yes, I know my sketching is somewhat “unconventional”.)

Bear in mind, this is just me utilising the available resources I have within my reach during this time period. Almost everything that I will find will probably be in the public domain as organising focus groups and interviews in a 10 day stretch might prove to be out of scope of this project.

The Brief

To design a chess set for the blind in 10 days.

The product must be viable, manufacturable, relevant to the user group, innovative. All the research, concept development, design detailing, and 3D modelling must be completed within these 10 days.

Project Updates

Day One

1203221445 Okay, the project is now live. Twitter has been informed. I’m off to collect inspiration.

1203222107 Here’s a couple of things I have found out already: Deborah Tan has already designed a chess set for the blind. I was expecting somewhere that it had already been done. What I like about this is the shape of the piece dictates where it should move. I’m not too sure about that lack of differentiation between the sides. I’ll throw this into the melting pot of images that I am creating and we’ll see where it takes us.

Deborah Tan Chess Set

This is the competition.

Turns out that @tinkercad are in the middle of a chess making competition. I was speaking with the hours ago about sending them an A2 version of my Twin Peaks poster and they never mentioned it.

1203222208 Some images to get me thinking…

Creative Process Inspiration

Also found a website and a PDF to read:

1203222228 Very quick project plan so I can get an idea of when I should be panicking.

Design Process Project Plan

1203222331 A couple of pages from my notebook. Design Process Sketches Design Process Sketches

Duncan McKean Chess Set

This is my chess set which I have been staring at for an hour

Day One Summary

I’m probably done, so here’s a quick summation of today’s work on this project.

  • It’s been done before. No surprises there.
  • My somewhat limited research favours designing with touch and tactility in mind. This appears to be the most appropriate sense to work with.
  • The board and the pieces do not necessarily have to confirm to traditional standards of shape. I like the idea of the piece shape suggesting the movement of the piece.
  • There’s a need to differentiate between the pieces as well as what side they are on.
  • Is there a need to accommodate spectators who can see into the design?
Stats
Hours of work today: 4
Hours of work to date: 4
Soundtrack: included Henry Rollins Think Tank and Eddie Vedder Music for the motion picture Into The Wild
Location: Haarlem Noord, Cruquius

 

Day Two

1203231622 I’ve been creating some quick sketches using a creative process called 10 in 20. It’s very quick and easy and is used to circumnavigate your inner critic and get raw ideas down on paper.

Creative Technique: 10-in-20

All you have to do is draw 10 concepts in 20 minutes. That’s 2 minutes a concept. So you have no time to worry about whether it’s a good idea or not. You just have to get it onto paper and move onto the next one. When you draw a blank for an idea, look round the room and draw the first thing you see, then try an turn that into a concept. You can then evaluate these ideas straight away (e.g. good, bad, weird, fuzzy) or sketch a few concepts from the ideas to work them out a little better before evaluating them.

10-in-20

A big pile of potential ideas created by the 10-in-20 creative methodology.

I’ll leave these to fester for a couple of hours to make my brain forget about them a little and then come back and have a look at them later on today and sketch some of them out a bit better and in more details. There’s no evaluation going on yet. The next couple of days is going to be nothing but generating ideas.

1203232118 This is a rough plan for the design process I’m using. Since I’ve given myself a brief already, I can probably start the process from half way through. I’d love to do a solid amount of primary research because that is the part of the design process that throws up unique and innovative observations and insights.

product design process

1203232259 I’ve been working through some of the 10-in-20 sketches seeing where they take me.

sketch thumbnails for designing products

There’s a couple of things that have come out of today’s research and sketching:

  • When sight is impaired, other senses take over. Touch and hearing are the senses most likely to be useful in this process compared with taste and smell.
  • Blind from birth will have a different experience that people who became blind after birth due to reference memories.
  • It doesn’t matter if people watching know what’s going on. The product will be there to facilitate the players, not the observers.

Day Two Summary

Less research and more sketching was done today. A lot of the sketches aren’t really worthy of the eyes of others because they are mainly me trying to get ideas down out of the ether and nailed onto paper. Then there’s been some sketching based on those nailed down ideas to see if any of them have legs to develop into concepts. A lot of this early sketching is feeling around trying to get an idea of what could be. It’s more like visual brainstorming that creating any concrete ideas. On Monday (Day 3 and when I’m back in the studio), more sketching. And coming up with some sort of design statement that concepts can be evaluated against.

Stats
Hours of work today: 3
Hours of work to date: 7
Soundtrack: included Brian Eno Small Craft on a Milk Sea and Tangerine Dream Stratosfear.
Location: Haarlem Noord

Day Three

1203262042 Welcome back after a weekend of glorious sunshine. I’ve taken everything I’ve managed to research and culled information from the notes I have made and created a statement of needs, a short list that I can design to. This statement represents what the product must have / be like to actually function as the product. It is written rather enigmatically so not to direct creativity down a particular path. That means, if I design to this statement I have fulfilled the requirements of the project:

  • Each individual piece must be recognised by touch
  • Each side must be identified by touch
  • It must be possible to play a complete game of chess

And so onward, ever onward, back to the drawing board. I like this part of design projects because they are so chaotic and exciting. There’s the fear that you’ll never create anything and you were stupid to even think that you could. But something always falls out the back of your head when you’re not looking that you can cultivate into a great idea.

1203262353 The creativity technique I’ve used today is called fake-it-til-you-make-it. It’s very, very simple.

Creative Technique: Fake-til-you-make-it

Find samples of work already done. Copy it. Improve it. Use these ideas to create ideas of your own. Be inspired by pre-existing results and follow where these ideas take you. Good if you’re in a rut.

1203270031 Done for the evening. More sketching ideas out tomorrow. Plus, I’ll use another creativity technique. So watch this space.

interative sketch thumbnails

Day Three Summary

At the moment I am still generating idea after idea after idea. Some are okay, one or two are good and most are bad. They feel bad, they look wrong, they’re going in the leave-well-alone pile. One or two of these ideas will need developing. They’re currently on a theme of expressing the motion of the piece in its form in one way or another. I can’t decide if this is the way to go until I compare themes of concepts against the statement of need. Then we shall see. But it is likely. Over the sketching days of this project I try and find the time to get out and experience the world a lot. If I have this project in the back of my mind when I’m wandering aimlessly around Haarlem, I filter wie world in context to the project and occasionally–very occasionally–that has provided the spark of creativity in other projects. Tune in tomorrow for more pictures of bits of paper with lines on.

Stats
Hours of work today: 4
Hours of work to date: 11
Soundtrack: included Mike Patton’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers and Tarkio Omnibus.
Location: Haarlem Noord

 

Day Four

1203271106 Morning. Today, I’m going to be developing all the ideas I’ve been sketching down for the last couple of days by using my iterations creativity cards.

I’ve got another couple of days sketching out ideas and working them through. Then I’m going to work out a way of comparing them against relevant criteria to work out the top 3 ideas to sketch out, work through and detail a little.

1203272146 Here are some explained out summary pictures.

product design process

Identifying pieces through texture, shape, material and weight. I shall develop these ideas.

 

Product Design Process

Patterns and shape indicate pieces. Not very good ideas.

 

product design process

Movement of pieces integrated into shape. Need to explore the shape more and better though.

 

i like balls.

Plain simple pieces VS patterned and textured balls. I like the balls.

I feel like I am all out of ideas. This is not true. Now I have got all these concepts out of my head it’s time to fill my brain up again. I need to go and find some fresh input. This is a good point to be at because I have a couple of okay ideas I can fall back and develop if necessary (see the last 4 images), but I can throw all these out and start again developing ideas from scratch and these new ideas will be a lot better. I guess this part of the creative process is the saturating yourself with the topic and then forgetting about it and getting on with something else. This has been known to generate new links to ideas and concepts by your subconscious. Or something. The upshot is, I’ll be getting out an about tomorrow and thinking about anything except chess sets!

Day Four Summary

So I’ve generated a load of ideas. Some of them are okay. Most of them are terrible. I feel like I’m out of ideas now. So I’m off to the ideas shop tomorrow morning to get filled up.

Stats
Hours of work today: 4
Hours of work to date: 15
Soundtrack: included Paul Simon Graceland and Henry Rollins Talk is Cheap (vol 4)
Location: Haarlem Noord

 

Day Five

1203281010 Half way through!

1203281012 Starting the day with a recommended creative technique: ignoring the project. It’s a good trick. Spend several days totally immersed in a project and then ignore it. It gets the brain firing again. I wrote about it a long, long time ago in an essay titled Reflective Practice in Design and Creativity.

1203281601 Found an excellent quote:

The advantage to us as blind and low vision folks is that mainstream products with access built into their design tend to be less expensive than products designed for the much smaller niche market of “the blind”.

Source: jadwiga Also found a great selection of product concepts that have been created to solve problems for the blind. Notice the lack of colour and stark black and white for the visually impaired.

1203282113 Hello Twitter! There will be some more idea sketching today, plus a little more detailing and exploring of current ideas. Tomorrow will be a bit more detailing and exploring and then decision time! I’ll compare the top 3 concepts against each other using the statement of need as a starting point and then start detailing the most likely one. Watch this space.

1203290006 I’ve worked out a couple of concepts that might have legs. I’ll work on them more tomorrow.

product design process

product design process

product design process

There’s a couple of problems with this one. I like the shape but there seems to be a lot of it that is wasted. I’ll explore this “egg” concept tomorrow.

product design process

Trying to work out ideas on how the board might work. I don’t think there’s a need to differentiate between the back and the white squares.

product design process

product design process

I like this idea because it is a little silly: big fabric cubes with the movement of the pieces stitched in as velcro on the sides. Or maybe use magnets in wood and ceramic. I’m definitely going to work on this idea tomorrow.

Day Five Summary

I have two reasonably strong concepts that I can work on. I think there’s probably another two in the pile of sketches. It has been a good day. Taking the morning off from this project and getting outside made my mind simmer away and replenish its creativity. Or something. Tomorrow, there will be some more concepts to draw and then the concept showdown: finding out which one answers the brief the best and developing and detailing that one forward.

Stats
Hours of work today: 4
Hours of work to date: 19
Soundtrack: included Hunter S Thompson The Gonzo Tapes and Broadcasting from Home by The Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Location: Haarlem Noord, Haarlem Grote Markt, Cruquius

 

Day Six

1203282208 Short session tonight. I’m going to write up a list of successes for the project based up on my statement of need and the original brief. I’m going to break 3-6 concepts down to one image and then go through comparisons for each of them until there is a clear winner. That will be the product I will develop tomorrow. Exciting, huh?

1203282220 Statement of Needs:

  • Game can be played without the aid of sight
  • Easy to recognise individual pieces
  • Does not upset game when accidentally knocked
  • Easy to recognise different teams
  • Pieces can be moved without difficulty

Plus, there’s the important questions like: can it be made? How much will it cost to make? What are the best materials to make it from? How do all the pieces fit together? But we’ll save them for the detailing stage.

1203290013 Here are the five concept contenders: The Egg, The Cube, The Tower, The Ball, The Pebble.

The Egg

The Egg

 

The Cube

The Cube

 

The Tower

The Tower

 

The Ball

The Ball

 

The Pebble

The Pebble

1203290029 Okay, here’s the decision methodology. I took the statement of need and all 5 concepts. I gave each concept a mark of 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 on how well it solved the statement. The one with the highest mark at the end, wins.

Egg Cube Tower Ball Pebble
Game can be played without the aid of sight 3 5 4 2 1
Easy to recognise individual pieces 1 5 4 3 2
Does not upset game when accidentally knocked 3 4 1 5 2
Easy to recognise different teams 2 3 4 5 1
Pieces can be moved without difficulty 4 5 1 3 2
13 22 14 18 8

 

Day Six Summary

Cube concept it is then. Time to get on with the detailing and problem solving.

Stats
Hours of work today: 3
Hours of work to date: 22
Soundtrack: included Elizium by The Fields of the Nephilim and Tubular Bells (2003) by Mike Oldfield.
Location: Haarlem Noord

 

Day Seven

1203302238 Haven’t had too much time today as real life has been getting in the way. Realised that I’ve been looking and developing the pieces and not actually looking at the board at all. So I’ve been looking at the board and how blind players can recognise where they are on the board. Plus, how the board and the pieces fit together.

1203310010

  • http://youtu.be/60n2id3o-as
  • http://youtu.be/27fC2rkl22w

1203310024 Here’s some extracts of sketches showing me exploring the idea and the shape of the pieces AND the board and how they interact with each other.

Day Seven Summary

Not that a productive day due to other commitments. Have been looking at interactions by the players with the pieces and how that might work. Also been looking at the board and how that works with the players AND the pieces. According to my schedule I can do some more detailing and research into materials for one day and make a start at 3D modelling the pieces to see what problems that throws up that I have to solve. That’s the job for Monday when I’m back in the studio.

Stats
Hours of work today: 2
Hours of work to date: 24
Soundtrack: none
Location: Cafe Brinkmann, Haarlem

 

Day Eight

1204032040 Okay, we’re back. Hopefully, this evening will be mostly ironing out shape, material and possible manufacturing process details and then starting with some 3D modelling. I also think that–a few weeks after the project has been completed–I will take another look at this project / process and see what I would have done differently, what I would have changed and maybe even come up with another concept for this chess set. Reflecting on a project after it has been completed usually leads to new insights.

1204032050 Somebody sent me this; it’s chess related. The trouble with amazing technology is the reliance on said technology. You could probably write an app that helps blind people play chess, but there’s no soul to it. It’s over complicated. I find that the most simple answers are often the best.

1204032153 After careful experimenting with cube sizes I managed to focus down to an absolute minimum size, and absolute maximum size and a likely and comfortable size.

Size comparison

So the dimensions of each piece are going to be roughly: 50x50x50 mm with a few edge fillets and + / – 0.1mm tolerance.

1204032201 Also noticed this in the bar the other night whilst thinking about how the pieces and players can relate to the chess board. Not only are blind players going to have to know what piece they are holding, but where that piece is located on the board. Maybe each board square has channels along the side to run the pinkie along thus keeping the players location in context?

board movement

1204032240 Okay, this is what we are beginning with. I shall develop all pieces out of this shape and work on them all from there.

3d modelling

1204032318 Here is a test image for the white knight piece.

chess set for the blind

Day Eight Summary

Got the shape and size settled on through physical experimentation. Started modelling images on the computer. I can quickly explore different radii, material types and various other things to see which textures, shapes and materials could look and feel better. Also have been doing a little research on manufacturing processes for the pieces, but that can’t be completed until I finalise material types. This will be part of my day tomorrow. As will rendering.

Stats
Hours of work today: 3
Hours of work to date: 27
Soundtrack: Fixed by Nine Inch Nails. Several times.
Location: Haarlem Noord

 

Day Nine

1204031232 Getting on with the modelling. I’m a big fan of minimal design, but these chess pieces might be a little boring instead of simple if I’m not careful.

chess set for the blind

1204031325 Not happy with the board layout yet. board experiment 1204031337 White rook. rook chess piece Been having a conversation with a good friend of mine whose manufacturing expertise is greater than mine. We have both agreed that wood vs metal for the sides would give the game a nice warm / cold contrast. He advised that the magnets should be sintered into shape and then the texture on them to be shot / sputtered to get the texture onto them. Then the wood / metal pieces could be milled and the magnets could be dropped in and bonded with a relevant glue.

1204031337 The wood effect on my renderer is dreadful. I think once I have made all the models and the board I’ll spend the rest of today and tomorrow sorting out the lighting, the materials and creating a summary image of the set as a whole. chesspiece bishop 1204031412 White Queen White King white queen 1204031457 Here are the white pieces. I think the black pieces will take a little longer as I need to sort out a good wood material. These white pieces also need a context (not a white surface) and some texture applied to the magnets and some environmental changes before the modelled image is complete. White chess pieces 3D workflow: Model, Lighting, Material, Post production.

1204031520 Nope. didn’t like the king shape. So I have remodelled it. Feels more regal now. chesspiece king 1204031947 White set white chess pieces 1204032245 White Bishop white bishop 1204032312 Final image of the day: I think this is good enough to potray the idea of the white half of the chess set concept. I’ll work on the board, the black team and a contextual promotional shot of the product tomorrow. white chess pieces

Day Nine Summary

Lots of rendering today. Slowly working on lighting and material to get something reasonably worthwhile in the limited time that I have. I could do this forever: tweaking the lighting, making the material a little more realistic. But you have to stop at some point and that point is here. Also having trouble creating an effective wood effect, so will work on that tomorrow. I’m confident there will be a way.

Stats
Hours of work today: 7
Hours of work to date: 34
Soundtrack: included Wasting Light by the Foo Fighters and Bossanova by the Pixies.
Location: Haarlem Noord

 

Day Ten

1204041506 Last day of this project. Strapped for time today due to other client work so I shall use that as an opportunity to make several executive design decisions which should simplify the chess board a little. Whilst playing with some sample cubes there could be trouble with the distance between each piece. A solution to this is to make the chessboard squares larger. They will still have magnets at the center to help hold the pieces, but will be 60mm across with a 5mm gutter to aid hand / piece location on the board. Still considering braille co-ordinates where the gutters cross each other. Might model it / sketch it to see how it looks and if it actually adds value. There might be a better way. I have to model all the pieces again in a lovely hard wood texture which will involve some clever use of texture mapping mixed with voodoo. Plus I have to create the board. Decide on the texture. And then increase render quality and render… Just typing that last sentence has made 2 ideas jog together in my brain and has resolved all issues with the chess board. So I’m happy. I’ll model it later on today. I shall also be doing a post-game analysis of this project in a couple of days time, so watch this space and further announcements.

1204042158 This texture mapping of wood is going to take ages.

1204042203 This is just a test on making it actually look like wood. I have about 3 more tricks up my sleeve. I do like the new texture added to the magnets though. black knight 1204042228 Okay, the image is better the lighting is not. Will have to tweak that now.

wooden knight

1204050205 Well, I’m out of time. The 10 days are up. Here’s a wooden piece and a sample of mid-game on the chessboard. black rook Chess set for the blind Thanks for following. I’ll do a post project analysis in a couple of days and a full rendering and details will go into my portfolio.

Stats
Hours of work today: 5
Hours of work to date: 39
Soundtrack: included a medley of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, Wagon Christ and Vangelis.
Location: Haarlem Noord

Post Project Analysis

Some Thoughts

Well, looking back on this project I’m fairly happy with the result. I like the concept. I think it explains well and looks pretty. I do have a few issues with it though:

  • I don’t feel like it is innovative enough. It’s basically a cube with pretty shapes on it. But the creative process chose it as the best so it will have to do.
  • I could have spent weeks just 3D modelling the things to get them perfect, but I would rather have made the entire set out of real materials. That is the next stage and would bring out all manner of interesting problems to try and solve before they were an actual viable product.
  • Market research was flawed. I wish I had a focus group of blind people, of chess players and of blind chess players. I’m a great believer in innovation through primary research and there was no primary research to be had. This, I feel, was the major flaw in the project. If I had access to unique primary research then I feel the project would have turned out a lot more innovative.

All-in-all it was an interesting project and I enjoyed doing the live design process bit and it really helped me get concentrated upon a project to its conclusion. So watch this space. I have some excellent primary research that I shall be using in the near future. If you want to see the portfolio piece and some new graphics, click here.