We chat to Dejan Mitrovic, a new dad and founder of Kidesgn, a creative studio specialising in educational games, toys and activities for kids on the eve of the launch of his new toy the ‘Densters’ – the den making monsters.
D.A.D: Tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
DM: My name is Dejan, I have a professional background in design engineering and have been running my company Kidesign since 2010, which I founded after doing a Masters at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. Originally, I come from Serbia and have been living in London for nine years now. I am married and am a father to a baby son.
D.A.D: Congratulations on recently becoming a dad, how are things going?
DM: I am super fresh in my daddy role, so still learning and adapting, which I’ll probably keep saying in a year and in ten years again. It truly is the most wonderful thing that can happen to a person in their life and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Having said that, you can prepare, read and listen to as much advice you want in advance, and you’ll never be fully ready, it really is a big job.
As both my wife and I are designers, we consider him to be our biggest and best design project ever! In fact, as we did a Kickstarter campaign one year ago (just before becoming pregnant), and I’ve had this observation of incredible similarities between running a campaign and being pregnant, which I am planning to write an article about.
D.A.D: Tell us a little about Kidesign?
DM: Kidesign started off as a project of mine running design workshops for kids in schools and museums. After a few years turned into a business. My core aim with it was, and still is, to inspire the next generation of creative problem solvers. After several years of specialising in 3D design and 3D printing, we developed Kideville – a curricular kit for schools that allows anyone to embed this exciting technology into their classroom without any prior expertise or experience. It also allowed us to scale our impact from just our team delivering workshops to reaching kids all over the world. We are now expanding our product range with toys like the Densters, which are aimed at creative, physical play at home and encourage kids to develop their imagination and move away from screens by building amazing dens and forts using the Densters toys and simple blankets.
D.A.D: You have held some fantastic workshops for children since 2010, powering creativity and fueling imagination. Do you think that more needs to be done to engage the next generation(s) within our school systems?
DM: I think that the education system is not doing enough in nurturing creativity and imagination. Most schools are focusing on core skills such as language and maths, but are dismissing arts, design and other incredibly important fields. Having more time on those subjects doesn’t necessarily just mean training artists and designers, but giving everyone creative skills that they would be able to apply in any career path. We are trying to do our bit in bringing exciting ways to teach these skills in schools and at home.
D.A.D: Can you share any particular methods that have been successful?
DM: Most of our work is based around learning through play. We believe that education methods are outdated and that there’s so much more you can do in terms of teaching. In fact, we also don’t really like the word “teaching” and prefer “learning” as it is an active verb that puts the student in the centre spot and allows them to learn in many other ways through playing, building, trying, exploring, failing etc.
D.A.D: Last year your Kickstarter project, Densters was fully funded and you are about to launch to retailers. As a digital designer, what was the attraction of the creating an analog play toy?
DM: I am a product/industrial designer, so I’ve always been passionate about physical objects and in particular, toys. I strongly believe that toys like Lego, wooden block constructors and model airplanes inspired me to become a designer, which is why I want to do the same for today’s kids by offering them toys that are super fun and also educational and creative. I think that physical play is incredibly important for kids’ development and I am worried that the amount of time kids spend in front of screens is really not healthy and too passive.
D.A.D: Having seen the images of your new studio, it’s clear creativity and play are important to how you work. What sort of things did you like playing with or building as a kid?
DM: I genuinely loved building dens under the kitchen table and between chairs and sofas. I only started remembering those moments now, when we were developing the Densters. Our current studio is pretty awesome and in a way, is a den itself! We moved into a massive empty garage-warehouse last winter and it was freezing, so we decided to build a little house. It was just after the London Design Festival ended and we managed to recycle a couple of wooden sheds from an exhibition. We had them delivered (in pieces) to our space and then had to reconstruct it. Except, they didn’t come with an IKEA manual and also half of the bits were lost or broken, so we kind of designed our own house and built it with those materials. It took many cold, dark weekends, but we’re very proud of the result and it’s now very cosy and warm to work in.
D.A.D: How has being a dad impacted your designing?
DM: I’ve always had this dream of becoming a dad and setting up a studio that purely focuses on kid-centred design, where I would be designing new products, one after another, based on the experience from parenting. I started Kidesign way before having a child and the first projects were aimed at secondary school students, then primary, now Densters target three plus, so who knows, maybe our next product will be for babies.
D.A.D: It must be a bit of a dream come true being able to live out you childhood again with Densters. Tell us about your little group of den makers?
DM: It’s absolutely a dream product to be working on! To create the toys, we spent hours and days working with kids to figure out how they play with them, use them and what they like/dislike. And then testing them involved building lots of cosy dens in our office and home. Who doesn’t enjoy building dens, especially with an excuse that it’s for work. The idea for Densters actually sparked exactly two years ago during a workshop that brought together the Kidesign team with design students from the Royal College of Art and a dozen kids aged six to 12. One of the concepts that was developed during that week-long workshop was a den-building toy, which we loved so much that we decided to take it into further development. The den-building clips evolved a lot and became a family of den building monsters, called Densters. Each one of them has a unique way of holding a blanket and attaching to furniture, using suction cups, clips and other handy features. The set comes with eight toys and also a booklet, full of ideas on how you can use them. So, with just a few little monsters and a bedsheet you can build a cosy hideaway, a secret cave or a space station! They’re made of flexible silicone, so they’re unbreakable, don’t harm furniture and are super safe for kids. Which for me as a father is top priority.
D.A.D: How did you come up with the characters? We see their names allude to what they might be used for?
DM: We really wanted to bring the Densters to life, so we invested a lot of effort into designing the characters and stories around them, and the kids absolutely adore them. Each one is different and they are created in such a way so that kids sympathise with them or befriend their favourite characters. For example, Wizetta, the bookmark, who is wise and a bit nerdy because she spends all her days inside books, but also loves yoga, which makes her so flexible. Or Grumpo, the doorstop, which prefers to hang out on his own (under the door) and can seem quite grumpy, but is actually a sweetheart on the inside. After creating the individual characters we decided to make a full story of where they come from and how they appeared in our homes. This ended up being an illustrated story that we include in every kit in the form of a booklet that becomes a poster! We might even launch a book next year.
D.A.D: What’s been your best bit of DADvice so far?
DM: I think the best advice you could get is the one which is not specific to babies. A friend told me not to buy stuff before the baby arrives, as you don’t know what you’ll actually need and that’s so true. So many great things will be unnecessary or will not work for you, so it’s a waste of money, time and cupboard space. With online shopping and next-day delivery services, you really don’t need to stock up on goods in advance. And I’d add to that advice by saying that some things that you’ll be using constantly and for years (eg. buggy) are worth investing in higher quality and price, whereas others (eg. onesies) that you use once or twice are best to be borrowed from friends.
D.A.D: As a designer, you have certain tastes and aesthetic. Are there any products out there that you want or being added to the list for your son?
DM: I can’t wait to start buying toys for my son. Unfortunately, he’s still a bit too young now, but I’ve definitely got a thing for well-designed toys, especially wood, I just love wooden toys. Actually, my two favourite shops in London are the Design Museum and the Conran shop, where I’d get almost want to buy everything and I also hope the Densters will soon be available in these stores.
D.A.D: Where can we see Densters out and about?
DM: We regularly participate at iOi events with our workshops and we’re also running workshops at the Design Museum and Victoria & Albert in early 2018. We’ve got a couple of exciting events coming up in our space: The Densters launch party on ‘Dencember’ 1st and the iOi Tinker Wonderland on ‘Dencember’ 2nd, where visitors will be able to play with the Densters and buy a kit in time for Christmas. I’m not biased, but really – is there anything better than building a cosy den over the Christmas holidays, with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and an adventure book in the other?