Lee Bazalgette has designs on turning Sri Lanka into a hub for innovation. A groundbreaker in the somewhat esoteric area – as far as this country is concerned – of product design, the Englishman is keen in creating a business culture where companies come up with their own goods rather than just copy-cat and follow [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Trailblazer Lee Bazalgette has designs on Sri Lanka


Lee and his team.

Lee Bazalgette has designs on turning Sri Lanka into a hub for innovation. A groundbreaker in the somewhat esoteric area – as far as this country is concerned – of product design, the Englishman is keen in creating a business culture where companies come up with their own goods rather than just copy-cat and follow the rest of the herd.

“I’m into product design and innovation,” reveals Lee over an early morning coffee. “We design things, anything from consumer and medical products, electronics, spaces, in fact anything three-dimensional.”

Four years ago, soon after arriving from London, he set up Colombo Design Studio so as to continue a lifelong passion of creating things which began when he was a schoolboy holidaying in Devon.

“I realised that while there were plenty of companies involved in stuff like interior design and graphic design, not many were in product design. I found out that very few people knew what product design was all about and everyone took things for granted, even the simplest of things like a spoon.

“Everything around us has been designed, like a mobile phone or a cup. Our job is to make a sustainable design and while designing it, try and understand who will use the product and how they will use it and build a brand identity and come up with creative solutions for clients,” the 40-year-old Lee explains.

He freely admits he is the Jack of all trades but master of the creative bits. You need this quality if you are going to be able to design the next iPhone or perhaps a game-changing aircraft cabin interior design – which he did when he used to work in London for a product design company.

He was part of the team that worked for a company called Factorydesign which came up with the award-winning interior space for Eithad Airline’s new fleet of A380s and B787s. But that was in another life. In 2007, Lee met Leah Marrikar, a Sri Lankan who had studied in London and was working there. After Cupid’s arrow had hit the mark, and marriage, he continued to work in design consultancy before the decision was made to come back to Sri Lanka.

Helping out in music 

After initially helping out his wife – she is the founder of the Electric Peacock Festival – Lee found out he missed doing what he had always been in love with and decided to set up the Colombo Design Studio.

“I was always creative, even as a kid. I used to live in London but spent the holidays in Devon in the West country. My dad could fix almost anything and holidays were spent building tree houses and go-karts,” Lee remembers.

His knack for coming up with creative solutions coupled with the ability to do it himself meant the decision to follow a course in design technology was an easy one. He now wants kids in Sri Lanka to have that same opportunity and has now started a course at the Moratuwa University where graduates can learn the ABCs of product design.

“In the UK, design technology is on the curriculum and this is something I would really like to campaign for in Sri Lanka. Innovation is suddenly the buzz word in this country, and everyone is clamouring for it but unfortunately the education system is very stifling.

“Everything is done by rote here. Students don’t challenge the teacher, they don’t challenge authority. But now all of a sudden this country is asked to think out of the box and innovate. It is great this (political language) is part of the business language. This government is still finding its feet with this, and they know the country has to move away from its traditional manufacturing sectors like tea and garments.

“But where you build creative education is from the ages of 11 to 16. I learned it as a student. Design technology was on the curriculum and was part of GCSE back in the UK.”

Design course at Moratuwa 

Three years ago, together with a graduate who came to work for him, he started a syllabus for product design at Moratuwa University. He lectures once a week. Experts from overseas also help out. The plan is to breed Sri Lanka’s next generation of innovators.

“It is a challenge, but things are moving in the right direction. It is all about a change in mindset. Since the end of the war, people are now looking much longer term, not only the bigger companies but smaller ones as well. Previously everyone had a very narrow field of vision as they didn’t know what was going to happen in three months. Now people are starting to look at five to 10 years down the road.

“It helps because product design takes a long time. It is not like an advertising campaign where you turn it around in six months or less. We can’t just go on Facebook and put a promotional banner and generate sales. But if we do good design work and create intellectual property then you have a much greater foundation for your company. Just look at Apple and Samsung where design innovation is right at the heart of their business,” Lee pointed out.

A few leading local companies in the garment trade like MAS, Brandix and Hirdaramani have taken the lead and run design programmes. Creating your own product and the value you can gain from it – the mantra of Lee – is now beginning to be understood widely.

It will take time for the rest to follow suit. In the meantime, Lee has been kept busy creating a retail space project for a local brewery and making a children’s water bottle which is user-friendly among other things.

“It is a bit frustrating for people want us to do stuff in a couple of weeks and pay us small money. People don’t understand that we are trying to push the boundaries and that there is a two to five year cycle for design product.

“It is a bit harsh to say it but generally it is easier to copy things here in Sri Lanka. But things are changing. A few companies are doing it. We don’t arbitrarily design anything. We take on board the brand, function and bring it all together and come up with a solution – this journey is a good story, a compelling story,” Lee smiles.

This story is not about just another start-up. The mission is bigger than just simply making money or creating a product. It is all about changing mindsets and creating a culture where ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ means more than just following in the footsteps of others.    -(Alvin)

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