How did you get into product design?
For me, art was my favorite subject in school. I enjoyed the whole lesson. Drawing is something I enjoyed doing a lot. So, when I graduated, I applied for design because I wanted to do something related to art. From there I wasn’t very lucky, because I didn’t get into the course I wanted. In Singapore, we are given courses based on our grades. I ended up in a course for electrical engineering, and it was a school full of gangsters.
I couldn’t pay attention to the electrical engineering course. It’s not what I liked. I wanted to leave after six months. And that’s when my teacher offered to help me apply for a transfer to a course that I wanted. So, I said, ok, why not? And everything went quite smoothly. I managed to get into the design course after, so I was very happy.
I took two years of design courses there. I met a few very encouraging lecturers. They made me realize I can design. From then, I decided to work hard and prove to all of my family members that I can be good at something. And those two years of education opened more doors for me.
From there, I got into a polytechnic for a three-year program in industrial design. I was able to graduate 2nd in my cohort. Then I went to university to pursue a Bachelor of Industrial Design. So, there’s a whole very long industrial design journey. I studied for eight years, which is a very long process. But I don’t regret it. Without all those things, I wouldn’t be here today. Because pursuing industrial design is a career.
What do you spend most of your time doing?
I’m currently working in a design consultancy located in Singapore. We have quite a few clients like Sennheiser, Kohler, Oppo, even Dell. Last year we developed a few families of heat sets and monitors that got manufactured.
I think for me, the design is a 24/7 kind of thing. It’s not like an 8-5 job. Design is instilled in me. It’s an everyday thing. It’s problem-solving. Even when I’m on the way home when I observe an issue, maybe I see an opportunity for design.
Besides working, I’ll look at design blogs like Dezeen or Design Milk during my free time. Look at new trends. I’m a sneaker lover, so I look into what are the new sneakers out there. So, in a way, they are connected. They are still industrial design. I use a lot of Pinterest as well to look at new interesting designs and silhouettes. Then I pin them. Whenever I start designing new things, I will look back at my mood board and see if I can merge new ideas.
Which product are you most proud of? Why?
It was my final year project in my degree course. I went out of my comfort zone because I wanted to do something for the blind community. It was different. Because lifestyle design is more about aesthetics. If you want to do inclusive design, it’s really about understanding. You have to do a lot of research.
I managed to find a blind person. A visually impaired person in my school. She was quite friendly and supportive. Through her, I understood how her lifestyle worked, how she coped with life, how she went to school, how she ate at home, and how she moved around at home. She wasn’t born visually impaired, but she gradually lost her eyesight.
I even went to the extent of blindfolding and acting like a blind person. I traveled around with a friend who guided me. I went around and experienced a day without vision. Like how would I cope? I think it was a frightening experience. And the people are very nice. They started talking to me. They paid a lot of attention to me because I’m visually impaired.
It was a challenging project. It wasn’t what I normally do. I even asked to visit their house. Their parents were quite open to it, so I was quite lucky. I even went to her place to observe how she eats. But for me, I know that I’m not trying to make use of her but rather build a friendship. I don’t want to do it for me and my project. Instead, I see her as a friend and just catch up for lunch. Through her, I managed to find a few more friends as research subjects. She introduced a few more friends in her community.
In that way, I was able to test my design. I created a few prototypes, and then I’ll go through 3 or 4 of them. I’ll ask them for feedback and see how they feel about the design. For the whole design process, I started by researching, understanding their needs. From there, I find problems. From problems, I’ll find any design statements: problems I want to solve. Like how may we create something for the blind? How may we create an easier dining experience for the blind? So, these are the triggers.
Because I realized that when they eat there is a lot of mess around the table. The thing is, sometimes they can feel the food on their spoon. But when the plate is about to go empty, there are a few bits here or there that they cannot really scoop. So, there is a lot of waste.
So, I asked myself how to alleviate the whole dining experience for the blind. I designed a few prototypes. I tested them for about two months. I managed to design a product, and they liked it.
And it’s not just for the blind. I don’t want to design something that is very stigmatizing. Like this is just for the blind. I wanted to design a product that is very lifestyle as well. Even their family members would be open to using it. Although it’s for the blind, maybe it doesn’t have to look like it’s for the blind. Even people like us will like it because of the aesthetic. It’s very nice. They can even share it with their family members. And for the design, people even see more opportunities. Because they see it’s also useful for kids, even the elderly, and people with Parkinson’s.
Because my design is quite basic, it’s circular, and it has a raised corner for people. Even for the visually impaired, it’s kind of like a guide. They can sweep and direct food to the corner, and they can pick up more food. So, I also blindfolded myself and saw how effective my design is. I won two awards for my project—one in Taiwan and one in China.
Can you tell us how you make prototypes?
As a student, we sketch out ideas first. Again, we look at mood boards. We also do some research. Are there any projects that are similar to what we’re doing? Are there any “competitors”? Are there similar designs for the blind? And I try not to go in that direction. Because whenever we have the same problems, designers might come up with the same solution. I think it’s very critical in the research journey. How can we also find interesting insights to do something and execute something very different from what other designers are doing? To do that, I have to go deep and apply design thinking.
So, I started by sketching, looking at mood boards. Then I go into making a couple of prototypes. Start from making foam, paper models; print and cut and paste. So, we do something tangible, visual, see how it looks in 3D. After doing the prototypes, of course, I don’t just do one. With the prototype, I go to the end-users and see how they feel. It’s an iterative process, and I always develop a few more and create a few versions of it. I will go into 3D printing with the final prototype because 3D printing is the fastest and easiest way to get a physically hard object. Then if we need, we’ll do some finishing color.
For mine, I had a touchpoint where there are silicone flaps. They are kind of flexible and bendable. So, I created a negative mold for me to mix my colors. I had to make a mold for my silicone flap. It was a fun process as well…making a model. You can go from zero to see the final product.
If you could choose one product to redesign, what would it be? Why?
I have a Kickstarter wallet that I think has the potential for redesigning. Because I realized it was not a good starting point. I lost a lot of process in thinking about the end-user. And it was also my first-time doing Kickstarter on my own. So, besides profit, there are many things involved like manufacturing, QC, so many things didn’t go… it was not a smooth ride.
Like manufacturing, even for the product’s quality, it looked different from what I expected. So, from my master sample, they came out so differently, and I didn’t even negotiate from there. So, I felt like I had no choice. In a way, I thought I was taken advantage of by my manufacturer. They charged me such a high price. I thought they could do something good, but right now, everything is different.
From there, I still went to deliver my wallets. The reviews came back very negative. So, I think it was a learning process for me. For my next project, I want to make sure I don’t rush things. Take time to build the momentum. Design…I can do very nice designs, but the execution is very important. Because the end-user, when they receive the product, what’s the first impression and how long can it last? That’s also something I should have thought about it.
Are there any tips you can share with first-time entrepreneurs that want to design a product and launch on Kickstarter or Amazon?
For my wallet, I think even after the Kickstarter campaign, many people have asked me. Usually, they are Japanese. They find the mechanisms very interesting. For me, I wanted to design a different wallet. But making it different also has challenges. It’s very hard to manufacture. Definitely, if you want to design a safe-looking wallet, everyone is doing it. But I want to do something different. The challenge is manufacturing. How to ensure the quality is good? How to ensure the manufacturer can do it?
That’s what I didn’t realize. I experienced the whole manufacturing process because I went in to see how they stitch wallets. What are the steps? So, from there, I can learn. So next time I want to design a wallet, I have in mind what to do. Step one: how will they stitch this? From there, at least I have an idea of how to design a better wallet next time.
How long do you think it will take for someone who is not a trained product designer to design a successful product?
I think usually people from the business will engage designers. They will just pay for some designers to get it done. But I think a good timeline depends on the product as well. For me, a wallet will take a good 3 to 4 months. It depends on how long the design phase was. I think making a sample is very fast. But I think the design phase will take a bit longer.
Because as designers we always want to test a few manufacturers. We want to improve and integrate as well. For my particular wallet, I made 10 versions of it. Every detail counts. I want to change the stitching as well, the type of stitching, the type of finishing. We want to try different versions because we don’t know which one is the better one. From there we decide which one is the best. And also, we have to consider which one is a bit more long-lasting as well.
What’s it like designing for famous clients?
I think the first thing is we have to really put ourselves in their shoes. Because we are really not professionals in their field. But we will try to think about what our clients are thinking and what they want. And from what they want, we also give them what we want. It’s not just about giving what the client wants: just answering the brief. We try to provide them with what we think can be better.
So, in terms of design, we always try to give more than we can. It’s quite a tough process, I think. We answer to their brief, and we design something we like. That represents us as a company. Maybe it excites them more. We don’t know. But we want to show them we are motivated to design for them.
I think we really have to enjoy the process as well. It’s because of passion. We don’t really see it as a job. Whenever I do things for a client, I always do more than what I expect. It’s kind of a personal thing for me. So, when I design something, I design an A product, but maybe I design B and C. Maybe I will like B and C better. So, I will just show them. If the client appreciates it, I feel like they will always come back to us because we are really pushing our limits.
Where do you see the future of product design in the next few years?
This is always a question I have in my mind. Because I am a product designer. And currently, we are replaced with a lot of digital displays like screens everywhere. Like iPhone screens, even for window glass, they are trying to display for marketing. So, everything is so smart now. But I realized there is still a need for product design. We still need tangible objects. We still need a bowl. We still need a car. We still need a bike. So, I still see the need for product design in the future. Of course, there are still a lot of digital devices—a lot of things that will be replaced by machines. But I hope people will always appreciate tangible objects. So, I can at least keep my job.
But of course, we have to be more multidisciplinary. I am always stuck in product design. But now I’m trying to think a bit more like a T-shaped framework. Even going to an F, a key-shaped framework. I mean, on the vertical pillar, I am good at industrial design. On the vertical pillar, maybe there’s graphic design, user experience design, maybe marketing, for example. So, I’m still trying to work towards a key-shape. I’m good at industrial design. Maybe I should also be good at marketing, for example. With this, I can make myself a more well-voiced industrial designer. So, I have to be more open and learn new skills.