Interview with Jon Olsen from United States

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Jon Olsen

Jon Olsen, an engineer by background, enjoys tackling tough challenges. Before founding Vaask®, a hand hygiene company, he worked on projects to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, reducing food waste, and also improved sleep systems.

Interview With The 2023 London Design Awards Winner – Jon Olsen

1Please give us a brief bio of yourself and your design background.

With a background in engineering, I enjoy tackling seemingly insurmountable problems. Before founding hand hygiene company Vaask®, I led the development of a system that reduced food waste by prolonging the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. I also worked on systems to improve sleep. These both came as part of my work leading early-stage product development at fan and light maker Big Ass Fans.

After the company’s sale in 2017, our early-stage team joined Founder Carey Smith as he started Unorthodox Ventures, an Austin-based investment firm that offers everything investors lacked when they approached him near daily at Big Ass Fans.

We work side-by-side with founders to help them quickly break even so they’re not forced to seek endless investment and give away the majority of their companies before they’ve even introduced a product. It was with the assistance of my colleagues at Unorthodox Ventures that I started Vaask.

2What made you become/why did you choose to become a designer/artist?
Ever since childhood, I’ve enjoyed the three-dimensional arts. What started with ceramics as a kid turned into dabbling in so many types of art in high school and even winning some state-level awards. In fact, I almost went to art school but ultimately decided to pursue an engineering degree with the idea that I could bring my preference for elegance in art to engineering projects.
3Tell us more about your agency/company, job profile, and what you do.

In early 2020, as the pandemic took hold, I grew frustrated by the hand sanitising experience. Now more important than ever, hand sanitiser was a design failure on every level with always-empty automatic dispensers, drips and messes everywhere, and a reliance on single-use plastic bottles. With the help of the team at Unorthodox Ventures, I developed Vaask as a touchless hand sanitising fixture.

At the core of Vaask’s design is a belief that a product should be adaptable, repairable and waste-free. To that end, all parts are accessible and designed to be repairable to extend the system's life in perpetuity.

Vaask solves the series of problems so common with traditional hand sanitising dispensers.

No batteries to change: Vaask runs on AC power or Power over Ethernet (PoE).

No replacement needed: Backed by a 5-year warranty, Vaask is made of cast aluminium and steel and built to last.

No more making rounds: An accompanying online dashboard and app alert staff when it’s time to refill, eliminating the time-consuming chore of checking individual fixtures and also ensuring fixtures always stay filled.

No waste: Vaask’s high-capacity sanitiser tank can be easily refilled with any gel sanitiser, reducing costs for customers and cutting down on plastic waste.

No drip, no mess: A PalmPilot® laser sensor precisely detects hands with the fixture instantly reversing flow if a person pulls their hand away. No more messy misfires causing damage to floors or creating slip-and-fall risks.

4What does “design” mean to you?
Design to me means I get to solve problems in an elegant way.
5What’s your favourite kind of design and why?
My favourite kind of design would definitely be three-dimensional design and sculpture! I enjoy the physical, as well as the hands-on process that comes with building something. My engineering background also influences my art with the goal of always being practical.
6To you, what makes a “good” design?
Considering all the factors that matter. Beyond an elegant appearance, a good product design has to be able to solve problems.
7How did you come up with the idea for your award-winning design?
The first step in design should always be identifying a real problem to solve and not just focusing on something that needs to look better. With Vaask, the process began by realising that hand sanitising needed a complete overhaul and then determining the many individual failures of the experience at that time.
8What was your main source of inspiration for this design?
In designing and developing Vaask, I consulted with architects, designers and healthcare professionals throughout the process to ensure Vaask addressed all of traditional sanitiser’s many shortcomings. It’s so important to speak with people who will actually use your product. It’s something that entrepreneurs never can do enough of as they iterate.
9Do you think your country and its cultural heritage has an impact on your design process?
America has such a rich history of industrial design. It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing so much of our manufacturing capability outsourced to other countries.
10Congratulations! As the winner of the London Design Awards, what does it mean to you and your company and team to receive this award distinction?
It’s truly an honour to have our work be recognised along with so many other products that are solving today’s most challenging problems!
11Can you explain a bit about the winning work you entered into the 2023 London Design Awards, and why you chose to enter this project?

The pandemic saw the dramatic expansion of sanitiser dispensers in public spaces but design failures prevented or discouraged many from using them. Automatic dispensers, when they even have sanitiser, create messes with poor infrared sensors. Single-use plastic bottles require touching and often look unsanitary. And harsh chemical ingredients and foul-smelling formulations turns many off.

Designed to permanently replace the endless array of single-use plastic hand sanitiser bottles and always-empty automatic dispensers, Vaask is the superior solution for hand hygiene.

12What were the main challenges you faced during the design process, and how did you overcome them?
We set out to use only American suppliers and manufacture Vaask here in Austin, Texas. While we accomplished that goal, the diminishing number of American manufacturers lengthened the design process and proved frustrating at times.
13How do you think winning this award will impact your future as a designer?
It’s an honour to be recognised by the London Design Awards as this validates our approach!
14What are your top three (3) favourite things about our industry?
Designers exhibit fearlessness, aspiration and the kind of optimism that you typically see only in entrepreneurs.
15What sets your design apart from others in the same category?

Behind each of Vaask's differentiating features is a focus on advanced technology, designed to create a reliable experience. Vaask incorporates a high-end stepper motor and peristaltic pump, ensuring that it dispenses the correct amount of sanitiser every time.

Also, Vaask’s proprietary PalmPilot sensor eliminates drips and mess. The PalmPilot technology measures the speed at which light photons leave the sensor and return. Because the component measures speed rather than light, the PalmPilot sensor precisely detects hands of all sizes, as well as hands of any shade that would otherwise flummox everyday infrared sensors.

16Where do you see the evolution of design industry going over the next 5-10 years?
Ideally it would be a stronger focus on repairability with more products designed for forever rather than planned obsolescence.
17What advice do you have for aspiring designers who want to create award-winning designs?
Never be afraid to do something that other people aren’t doing. That’s where the opportunity is!
18What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to improve their skills in the design industry?
Trying something out for yourself is the best way to begin honing your skills.
19Tell us something you have never told anyone else.
In college, I studied to become an environmental engineer, but after spending eight months testing emissions at a number of chemical plants, I realised that’s not the kind of design and engineering career I wanted to pursue.
20Who has inspired you in your life and why?
My grandfather worked as a successful entrepreneur in the communications field building a company focused on microwave dishes. Up until the early 2000s, you could see his green microwave dishes all around the country.
21What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?
Never assume someone understands what you’re asking or trying to tell them. Finding the answer you seek often requires asking a multitude of people in a multitude of ways.
22Do you have anything else you would like to add to the interview?
I truly appreciate the recognition and would like to congratulate the other winners and their outstanding projects!

Winning Entry

Vaask | 2023

Vaask | Scott Sloan

The pandemic exposed the design failure of traditional hand sanitizer options — always-empty automatic dispensers, inaccurate sensors that create constant messes … (Read more at London Design Awards)

Jon Olsen


Jon Olsen, an engineer by background, enjoys tackling tough challenges. Before founding Vaask®, a hand hygiene company, he worked on projects to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, reducing food waste, and also improved sleep systems.

Read more about this interview with Bartosz Bykowski from Poland, the Gold Winner of the 2023 London Design Awards.