“More and more young people are working on projects aligned with issues they care about, whether it’s the environment or social justice,” says Ackeem Ngwenya.
And you can count him among that new school of changemakers.
While still in design school, Ngwenya gained buzz for a graduate project that created a set of all-terrain, shape-shifting wheels to help farmers in rural Africa carry heavier loads to market.
For his next project, he tackled a problem that hit close to home. “I never liked wearing sunglasses,” he says. “They just seemed to float somewhere in front of my nose. After a while I thought, maybe the problem’s not me. Maybe it’s the product.”
So he set out to design frames that were better suited to Black people’s wider, lower nose profiles—not only a business idea but also an exploration of inclusion and how societal values are reflected in something as simple as a pair of glasses.
Harnessing his training in innovation design engineering at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, Ngwenya started working on Reframd in 2019. He is now developing plans for an online shop (slated to open midyear with a Kickstarter campaign), where customers can pick from a selection of models, then have a custom pair of glasses printed to the specifications of their face, using algorithmic design and a 3D printer.
Despite Reframd’s simple premise and a potential global customer base, Ngwenya says it’s been hard to find investment. “Germany’s a predominantly white country, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but that initial empathy for the problem maybe isn’t there,” he explains. Some pre-seed funding from the Berlin Founders Fund and investment from a European Commission project is helping this startup see a clear future.
To really get into Ngwenya’s vision, we asked him: What’s on your desk?
Box of Prototypes
“There are quite a lot of parameters to consider when designing glasses, and we’ve probably produced hundreds of 3D-printed prototypes. If I get new frames or temples [the side-arm elements of glasses], I keep them in here. It’s a convenient place to put all the latest bits and bobs.”
“My designs usually start with me seeing someone wearing a pair of glasses, either in person or online, and I’ll try and work out how I can adapt it to our aesthetic. From sketching it out, I’ll move on to bringing in the 3D software we use.”
Chinese Money Plant
“It’s very white around my desk, which isn’t very visually stimulating, so this is in a nice bright yellow pot, to give me a bit of motivation.”
“This LED lamp gives off a light that’s really good for sketching. It’s a beautiful design, too, called Mantis by Böttcher & Kayser.”
Q&A: Ackeem Ngwenya on designing for impact and the need for constant self-improvement
What project has most influenced you personally?
Quinta Monroy by Alejandro Aravena. As a student, I listened to Alejandro present his project at Design Indaba 2010. It was the first time I became truly aware of the impact that creativity and design can have on society. Not only was his approach to social housing unlike anything I had seen before, but his design framework was also inspiring and made me question where I applied my design practice.
What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?
Constant self-improvement—particularly concerning creative problem-solving and critical thinking skill sets. It’s essential to have an adaptable mindset to respond to emerging challenges in an ever-changing world.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
For Reframd, the most significant challenge has been acquiring investment/funds. The one piece of advice I would give is to persevere because you only need one yes.
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