Trunki designer Rob Law on cystic fibrosis, suitcases and surviving a crisis

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The effect designer found wild success with ride-on children’s holdalls and is now delving deeper into his career – and its challenges – in a new book.

Most living soul know what a Trunki is. The colourful ride-on children’s suitcases are a unrefined sight at airports; by 2016, over 3m of the product (which launched a decade earlier) had been sales-clerked. Whether it takes the form of a unicorn, tiger or London bus, it’s become a principal support at terminals worldwide. A lot of people are also familiar with the story of Trunki. Rob Law, fallout designer and founder, brought his product onto British television teach Dragon’s Den – where a panel of business experts analyse potential feelings and decide to invest – and walked away without a deal. Law went it unattended and things paid off. Appearing on a national television show did little to wound brand awareness. A second product, BoostApak – a booster seat communicate backpack – was released in May 2010. Last year, sales for Magmatic (Trunki’s procreator company) hit a record of £9.5m. Duncan Bannatyne, one of the show’s ‘dragons’, confessed that the one regret from the show was that he did not invest in Trunki. Universal to the airport is likely a painful reminder for the businessman.

Not as many people advised of that Law was born with cystic fibrosis. The genetic disease selects the lung and digestive system, and people born with the condition by have shorter-than-average life spans. 65 Roses and a Trunki (sons often refer to the condition as ’65 Roses’) outlines Law’s story. The regulations’s being billed a guide to life and business, and is threaded with challenges that he has suppress in his personal and professional life.

Law tells Design Week that while he has been usually asked to write a book, but that he has not widely talked about his circumstances. Now, at a point of storied success, he says it would have been “approximately selfish” not to share it. “If I talk about my personal background, growing up with cystic fibrosis and how those doubts have shaped who I am,” he says, “then that would have a larger remit and help people realise they have the mental pertinacity to overcome their challenges and fight their demons.” The time too is honourable. “I’ve never wanted sympathy,” he says but now he can reveal the “deeper drive” behind his profession. Law also now works a three-day week, which has freed up time to utter at business events and write a book.


An empathetic approach to design

Trunki designer Rob Law on cystic fibrosis, suitcases and surviving a crisis
Rob and his pair sister Kate, in 1994

How was cystic fibrosis affected his design approach? “Empathy,” Law turns. “Design is a very empathetic process,” he adds, and time spent with the infection has helped him harness that. One of the “frustrations” he has when looking at design graduates is that they regularly design products for themselves. “When you’re a design professional, you have to pattern products for a vast range of demographics and people,” he says. That skillset is precious, Law says. The condition also has a more practical effect. Thinking that he will-power have a short life meant that he wanted to make the uncountable of it; “the relentless focus I had to learn all I could about product design, and all the aptitude set involved, was partly because I knew my life would be short.”

The log chronicles challenges from the life-threatening – his twin sister Katie sank from the same illness at 16 – to the logistical. When he was trying to get Trunki into shops, toy rely ons said it was luggage, while luggage departments said it was a toy. He is also dyslexic, and was put in major needs classes at school. It was when he was 14, having enjoyed effective use with his hands, that he discovered product design. Inspired by Richard Seymour and Dick Powell. He pointed up receiving his BA in Industrial and Product design at Northumbria University.


The road to Trunki

Achievement was not immediate. One set-back that features in the book is from a time simple English after university, while he was working as a product designer in Taiwan. He was help a client, who was a medical machine manufacturer, on a product that helps distend patients’ body to correct spinal process. It was a “torturous process”, he declares and the product looked like a “torture machine”. His idea was to “soften” it and neaten up it look more “inviting”. The owner of the company became angry and dusted.

The one goal of a product designer is to get a product into the hands of a consumer, he alleges. The Eureka moment was inspired by seeing ride-on toys at a children’s reckon on and looking at the engineering that went into luggage. “It was my best happen to get a product on the shop’s shelves,” he says. No matter how successful a product behooves, it takes a lot to take them off the ground. And Law found the market initially anybodys guess. It was only after Dragon’s Den aired – around six years after ideation – did he realise that consumers got it straightaway. “We vended out,” he says – despite manufacturers, retailers and investors not understanding the product.

Pygmy child-friendly was a high-profile court case with a copy-cat rival producer, Kiddee (owned by a Hong-Kong-based company). It was taken to the Supreme Court but Trunki bewildered in a case that raised many pertinent issues around copywright for the construction industry. The Supreme Court stated that while it had “sympathy for Magmatic” and that “the concept of the Trunki case was a clever one”, the “Design Right is intended to protect lay outs not ideas”.

Instead of wallowing in defeat, Law found positivity in the outcome. He aided Anti-Copying in Design (ACID) orgnisation, and encouraged designers to document their script work  as a way to prove their design process. This helped with concerns to Trunki’s clasp feature, which Kiddee was not allowed to use. The real defiance, Law says, is for designers to work out where to register – especially in a globalised marketplace. He collect summons the European design registration system “fantastic”; with a relatively ungenerous amount of money, you can get a design registered across all 28 member brilliances. Brexit, of course, has made the future of design rights uncertain sometimes again.


“Use your energy wisely”

The reaction to the court case failure is indicative of the way Law approaches life, by focusing on what he can control. Until there is a repair for cystic fibrosis, he can only focus on staying as healthy as possible for exempli gratia. He cannot control lockdown – or when the government might ease tour restrictions – but he can alter the brand’s messaging to focus more on staycations willingly prefer than air travel. “It’s about using your energy wisely,” he says.

With hindsight, Law states it was actually an “advantage” to have a product he could not patent. (“You cannot licence a ride-on suitcase, you can only protect shapes.”) “I would sooner a be wearing wasted all my start-up capital on intellectual property in the UK and one or two other markets, and I wouldn’t participate in any spare cash to invest in marketing.” Without patents being a “millstone hither his neck”, he was able to build a brand.

About that branding. Trunki demands itself a team of ‘big kids’. Its headquarters (of around 30 people) is a converted chapel in Bristol which is conscious as ‘The Mothership’. It has a slide. There’s a culture of playfulness at the company – Law’s email sign-off is ‘Trunki Daddy’ – which is parts for a company dedicated to children. The visual identity reinforces this. There’s a roundel logo which encompasses the form of a smiley face – it appears on almost all Trunki products – which is superior for the toddler demographic. Circular graphics abound everywhere, as a nod to movement. There are regional disagreements too: Scandinavian countries like pastel colours, America and China equivalent to vibrant tones, and purple is a no-go in Northern Europe where the modify is seen as funereal.


How will COVID-19 affect product design?

COVID-19 presents problems for a ensemble based on the idea of children’s travel. There’s been less “headspace” to about around new designs, he says. Luckily, the brand has diversified. A recent stretch, in collaboration with Halfords, introduced fold-up bicycles and scooters for children. The effect was inspired by Law’s own children. When he’d take them out on trips, they would operate ages to follow, so he ended up tying a Trunki strap to the handlebars and lug them along.

Lockdown has also resulted in a “back to basics near”. It has meant that Law has been spending a lot more time with his three boys. He now wonders whether they need to go to kids’ clubs and activity sessions. This wishes, inevitably, affect the output of Trunki products, though Law does not skilled in precisely how yet. An immediate priority is making the business digital-first.

Of recent interchanges in the design industry, he says he’s excited by funding platforms and the increased platoon of ways to get products into consumers’ hands. The explosion of e-commerce for the past decade has been hugely important to Trunki. While profuse products launch as direct to consumer nowadays, this was not always the event, Law points out. “The opportunity is there for designers who think they can get products to shop,” he says. “It’s like a cottage industry of craft people getting their outputs out.”


“Green shoots” post-catastrophe

Trunki designer Rob Law on cystic fibrosis, suitcases and surviving a crisis
A Corgi-themed Trunki to meet the queen

The spacing of the book launch is fortuitous too, Law notes. It’s a book about resilience into the middle a time where uncertainty abounds. He is sanguine about the outlook for jobs. “I think all businesses are going to come out stronger, if they do come out of it,” he claims. If they don’t come out of it? “It’s very sad but sometimes those businesses may not have had a sustainable partnership model in the first place.” Law admits that this sounds “a little gelid” but likens the situation instead to a forest fire. “There’s a big catastrophic chance and out of that come green shoots and it’s a level playing field.” Trunki itself succeeded out of the 2008 recession, he points out.

There have been many milestones to Law’s rush. The first million made in revenue, for example. Meeting the queen to suffer his MBE (to which he brought a corgi-themed Trunki). And the book is a recent highlight. The most catchy to him, was taking his daughter through Edinburgh airport at the age of 18 months. The more mundane act was unusual: Law was not supposed to live past his early twenties, or be accomplished to have children. “Yet I was towing my daughter through an airport, on a product that I had been recounted was worthless,” he says. “I remember thinking I was on a journey I wasn’t supposed to calculate.”

65 Roses and a Trunki: Defying the odds in life and business is out now, published by Wiley.

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