For Walid Hassanien, coming to Egypt was more an adventure than strategic career move.
“I figured something interesting was going to happen, he told me over a coffee.
With a degree in Industrial Design from Carleton University, Ottowa, Walid had been working in metal fabrication prototyping.
So how did Walid go from designing sat-nav trolleys to toys?
“When I moved to Egypt, I started working for an IT company called ITWorx. It turned out that the CEO’s wife had a post-doctorate at MIT and was working out of Cairo, he said.
Rana El-Kaliouby researches face recognition software for Autistic children. “They can tell what your emotions are based on how your bone structure moves, he said.
El-Kaliouby, as it turned out, was doing research in child development, which focuses on how persistent children are in making developments. And it’s relation with industrial design?
Toys. As Walid informs me, anything that is designed based on the idea of being mass produced is labeled industrial.
The toys themselves look somewhat bizarre. Walid assures me that this is the intention. Designed to be intentionally unfamiliar, the aim is to test how far children will go in exploring the toy. With electronic hotspots that make certain, unfamiliar sounds, they fit into the category of experimental.
“The end product of this will be a report by a group of Cognitive Psychologists at MIT, probably with the aim of how to improve the education system. They’re a research tool more than anything, to be put in the Museum of Boston. They’ll encourage young children to play with the toys, and the information will be sent wirelessly to a laptop, he added.
However, when actually manufacturing the toys, Walid’s route took an unconventional turn when he found himself in orphanage-cum-sewing shop.
“I had asked around the textile industry for someone who might be willing to make the toys, and was pointed in the direction of an orphanage. The man in question had grown up in an SOS orphanage, and now his sewing shop is there.
As a freelance industrial designer, Walid is witness to and indeed part of, Egypt’s burgeoning design movement.
“It’s a small world here, he says, “the social circle here is so close that opportunities and ideas are able to manifest themselves…recently there’s also been a push in the furniture design sector with Karim Rashid and Amr Helmy who designs kitchens.
Yet there are plenty of hurdles designers face when running shop in Egypt, and industrial design itself, as Walid said, is still very limited. Besides various customary duties and stifling bureaucracy, Egypt’s potential as a hub of design and in the future, possibly a manufacturing center is marred by its lack of professionalism.
“The seamster I’m currently working with is highly skilled. The toy he’s produced is excellent quality, and in fact, looks like it’s come out of Fisher Price. But I had to sit with him to make sure he actually worked.
But moving on from the world of toys, Walid has made waves on the Cairene design circuit, and has more technological projects on his horizons.
“ConnectMe TV is a production company. They do the interface and are currently designing the software for a satellite receiver and DVD player that also records shows. Egypt at the moment is skilled in this area. It’s following the Indian model in that there are software farms, with skilled university graduates working for offshore companies.
As an industrial designer, not to mention a native English and Arabic speaker, Walid will be is mediating the design of Egypt’s answer to TiVo.
With a broad knowledge of the specifications of industrial design, Walid will put his know-how to use in communication between Egyptian production companies and American industrial design companies.
Walid, considering the declining American economy and a rising Middle Eastern market, sees American companies targeting Egypt’s nascent software sector, where industrial design as a concept is still in its very early stages.
For the few industrial engineers in Egypt, such as Walid, this will no doubt be an opportunity to use their skills in coordinating the design trajectory.
But it is the toy design area in which Walid hopes to be able to maintain a steady link.
“I really like the ideas behind toy design, and be able to translate them into something real. Rana and I are currently working on an idea of a stuffed animal that records sound and video, and decides what your own memories are by reading facial expressions and temperature.
Although this sounds like a high-tech feat beyond 21st century means, Walid assures me that it’s technologically possible. And with Rana’s breakthrough experience in the field already, the Egyptian based cognitive toy design is set for a great future.