15 minutes with... Holly Palmer

Our Global Innovation and Technology Centre is where we turn ideas into reality. It’s a place where our designers, scientists and engineers come together in diverse teams, taking on some of the world’s biggest challenges to unlock the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future. Read on to meet the people who make our Centre special.

Holly Palmer - The designer who gets inside the users’ heads to develop meaningful experiences for consumers, citizens and patients

What do you do at PA?

No two days at PA are the same and the innovation process is constantly evolving as research and technologies develop. I am usually involved in the early stage research and setting the design strategy for new products and services. This starts with the “detective” part – finding out what is really going on for the humans involved - through research to identify the different stakeholders, user and technical requirements, behaviours and trends.

I also work with clients and multidisciplinary PA teams to generate creative new ideas through brainstorming, workshops, visualisation and functional model making or prototyping. We have a state-of-the-art research observatory at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre which is full of cameras and has one-way glass and we have design workshops and rapid prototyping laboratories. These enable us to study users in action, developing ideas and testing them with people almost immediately. This fosters a rapid iteration process, based on real user insights.

Being able to put the concepts in the users’ hands and receive feedback in real time is very rewarding and accelerates innovation massively.”

There is also the “monitoring” part, making sure that the unmet user requirements – the challenges we are trying to solve – are kept front of mind across the team and throughout the end-to-end innovation process. This ensures the best outcomes, when their new product or service is launched in the market.

How are you bringing ingenuity to your work?

Having a multidisciplinary team of experts under one roof creates a productive environment to discuss the art of the possible and create innovative solutions at each step of the process.”

Designers are creative by nature, drawing inspiration from their training, experiences and the wider world. The work at PA is incredibly varied and the design team is really lucky to be able to collaborate with an amazingly diverse team of expert scientists, engineers and technologists.

PA is at the forefront of innovative research and development from latest sustainable materials, to late-stage product personalisation. The range of projects and products that we are involved in also allows for a transfer of knowledge across sectors, to see problems in a new light. For example, we ‘borrowed’ coatings technology from the electronics industry to increase the sustainability of food packaging. And we took food processing technology to create viable alternatives to single use plastics out of seaweed.

What gives you the most satisfaction?

The realisation that our work is impactful makes the job incredibly fulfilling. We recently worked with a pharmaceuticals company to repackage medicines but could tell right away there was too much packaging. It was also very hard to open, with a lot of wasted space and material. We saw we could give users a much better experience and save the company money by cutting down on the amount of packaging and making it more intuitive to use, keeping important features like child-lock security.

In other words, a concept that was better quality, lower cost - and more sustainable too.”

What's an under-appreciated fact about your field?

Design is really about problem-solving, where empathy is an essential part of the interactive process with inclusivity at its core. A misconception about the field is that it is purely a visually-oriented process but the art of crafting a product has usability and experience as its central goals.

What are the best parts about working at PA?

There are many things I enjoy about working at PA. Firstly, the people. It’s great to be able to work with experts and there is an incredible range of knowledge just a few steps away (under normal circumstances, at least). Mechanical Engineers, Material Scientists, Human Factors specialists, Physicists and Software experts are on hand to ideate feasible concepts which can be brought to fruition. There’s a lot of ‘what if’ in design and having team members so close helps us work out, very quickly, what’s possible and what’s not.

It’s not a case of ‘no, you can’t do that’, but rather ‘have you thought of this?’”

Everyone at PA is genuinely so friendly and helpful. Mentoring was a new concept to me since joining PA. I now have internal and external mentors, in different capabilities and countries. We are able to share life lessons and personal and work experiences. Mentoring is often seen as the senior helping the junior, however reverse mentoring is also a very powerful tool and we both gain from the experience.

I joined at a very exciting time for design at PA, as it is fast-growing with international offices and new teams. We are able to learn and share our processes and build an international community. Cooper Perkins, Essential Design and Astro Studios have joined whilst I have been at PA, and they have each brought their own cultures and design experience. I am very excited for what the future will bring!

At PA, I also get the chance to be at the forefront of emerging trends. I was recently part of something we call an “Ingenuity Sprint” where we’re given the time and space to explore an idea we think has potential or PA should have a voice in. This one was for a personalised face mask. A scan reveals which part of a person’s face needs what treatment, like SPF or moisturisers. The person then gets a face mask tailored to their needs, rather than the same treatment for the whole face. This advanced concept was developed and presented by PA at the Personalized Beauty Summit 2020.

What’s the most challenging part of working here?

PA has such a wide and varied depth and breadth of projects and sectors. I always say my favourite and least favourite part of PA is the freedom you have! You can choose which projects you are on and who you are working with. You are not told what to do and what you have to work on. You are able to sculpt and shape your career and expertise. However the freedom and opportunity can be challenging. Learning to say no has become a valuable skill. I did the PA internship, so I had an idea of what to expect, and I’d encourage any student to get experience through internships and work experience.

What’s a big lesson your work has taught you?

Innovation lies in unexpected places and improving a user experience does not mean increased costs. I was part of a project investigating alternative food packaging, where manufacturers needed a sustainable alternative to their current design. For days, I watched people unpacking food from the original pack design and concepts we’d designed, bringing elements hidden to light. You are then challenged to consider something you see every time you are in the supermarket and use regularly, to explore how you can improve the user experience, increase sustainability and reduce cost.

There’s a lot of innovation potential in these everyday moments we take for granted.”

For example, do you wear a face mask with the blue side facing out or the white? As this relatively new task becomes mundane, these questions can be answered and made intuitive very easily once they are noticed. As a designer, I am constantly on the lookout for improvements to our everyday routines.

What about when you’re not being a designer – what do you like to do outside work?

During lockdown I moved house so I have been decorating my room. I needed a wardrobe so a friend and I designed and built one. I also bought some house plants, however they are proving more challenging! I also enjoy socialising with friends, PA is rapidly growing so there are always people up for something whether it be climbing, bowling or drinks in the park. I am looking forward to summer in Cambridge, it is a beautiful place to live- cycling into town, drinks in the park, and punting!

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