Design Needs More Heart

Image from the Little Thoughts Group.
Today, I have a guest post from my friend and a fellow industrial designer Tan Lun Cheak. Lun Cheak believes that design in Singapore, (and I dare say Asia and the rest of the world), needs to break out of the mass manufacturing of standardized soulless products and move towards authenticity. We can do so by adding more heart in our design. I hope you enjoy his Singaporean view point on design, and please share if you find his insights resonating with the type of design in your part of the world. I suspect it might be.
Like all Singaporeans, I love my Carrot Cake, Char Kuay Teow, Chicken Rice, and my favorite, Bak Kut Teh (Ed: Awesome local fare you should try the next time you are here!). Unfortunately, the overall quality of our local delicacies have declined drastically over the recent years.
These days, I am hard pressed to find an appetizing bowl of Bah Kut Teh where the broth is not over laden with MSG to cover up for the lack of fresh ingredients. Gone is the authenticity of the recipe, the heart and soul of the dish.
Changes in lifestyle habits and the rise of the fast food culture are some of the obvious reasons leading to the overall decline of food quality and food culture. Furthermore, the surge in food franchises, serving standardized menus in shopping malls all over Singapore, are the biggest threat to food quality in Singapore.
Food Courts today sell customers the convenience of a one-stop food paradise, where you can always find something for everyone. They have turned traditional hawker cooking into projects of efficiency and mass production. You still get cheap food, but what is missing is the love of the cooking process and pride of the results.
Industrial Design is also very much about mass production and standardization. It is all about the one-size-fits-all, where the objective is trying to design for as large of a mass appeal as possible.
Industrial Design was introduced to Singapore in the early 1980s. The profession has a relatively short history here when compared to Europe, America or Japan. So unlike these countries which have seen the profession evolve and mature through various art and industrial revolutions, Singapore’s industrial designers got in at a time when the country was all about computerization, production efficiency and productivity.
As a result many Singaporean industrial designers are pre-occupied with the task of improving the design processes and methodologies so that MNCs (multi-national companies) can create products that are universally palatable enough to impact their bottom line. (Ed: Playing the mass manufacturing or economies of scale game.) We’ve referred to global trends for inspiration, followed structured design processes, and even devised design standards. So much so, the ID practice has become so “mechanical” that often times we loose the heart and soul of the design.
We need to relook at designing products that can offer more experiential meaning to the consumer, where the end result should be about enabling the user to be touched at a deeper level so that they can form lasting relationships with the products they buy. Create an experience that forces consumers to move beyond “buy and forget”, or “consume and throw”.
We need to re-examine the notion of designing for a mass appeal. We all know that when you try to design for everybody, you inevitably design for nobody. We need to explore designs that connect to the consumer the way Bak Kut Teh’s peppery soup does with a few and avoid watering down the soup to appeal to everyone.
We can then go on to ask, if it is not about designing for the masses, the is design more about a personal expression?
Maybe it is time for the design profession to step back from analytical tools or standardized processes, and re-look at focusing more on the subject of design as art. Should we find avenues where designers are able to express oneself at both an emotional and experiential level? Were we can weave personal stories through the designs that we create with much love and pride.
As much as it is about who we are designing for, it can very much be also about who we are designing as!
For example, the heritage, culture and social fabric of Singapore are poignant sources of inspiration. Living and growing up in this part of the world provides Singaporean designers with a unique platform by which many meaningful ideas, relevant to consumers in this part of the world, can come.
It will likely be a voice that not everyone would be interested to hear about, but then again it does not matter, as it is all about connecting with the few who will truly appreciate or get it.
I am also not talking about going totally nostalgic either.
Industrial or Product design should still be about innovation and making everyone’s lives better. Therefore I believe it is about striking the right balance between one’s heritage and innovation while finding that unique voice that can defines us. Let us all reject creating products like we do standardizing food and start injecting more heart and soul into our designs.
Tan Lun Cheak is a member of the Little Thoughts Group, a collective of 20 industrial designers, which explores and challenges the known perception of industrial and product design. For more information on the group, please visit their website at

  • kens_thought

    August 19, 2010 at 10:58 am Reply

    It’s a saddening fact which many of SG industrial/ Product Designer refuse to admit.

  • Boon

    August 22, 2010 at 6:45 pm Reply

    After seeing little thoughts,
    The thoughts were laughable.
    I would be embarrassed to suggest changing the ‘system’ with sub standard design capabilities and skillsets.
    Rather than complaining,upgrade new skills with MCYS before you get retrench as most MNCs are shifting to China…

  • David

    September 1, 2010 at 12:45 am Reply

    I would love to see more thought put into the way the world operates and how we design the things within it. Maybe if we did that, it would all be a little easier for everybody. Thanks for posting.

  • Design Translator

    September 15, 2010 at 2:54 pm Reply

    @Boon: I think you miss the point of the whole exercise, it is not the “thoughts” that count, I would dare say the content does not matter, the key point is that a bunch of designers decided to stop complaining and take action instead.
    @David: I do agree with you, just take that little extra time, and don’t focus on the financial returns all the time.

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