Design is not important — How my internship in Shanghai and Singapore changed my views on Design and myself
And why everyone studying design should take the chance do an internship abroad
My internship in Shanghai and Singapore was not part of my long term plans, nor an overthought decision. When the CEO of MING Labs, Matthias Roebel asked me if I was interested in working in one of these two cities, I was seriously unsure. But it felt like it could be a great experience, so I responded with confidence: “Yes, definitely!”.
After finishing my university semester in March and getting my Chinese Visa, I boarded the plane without further preparation, 10 Chinese words in my vocabulary and absolutely no clue of what to expect from the journey that lay ahead of me.
“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes — and then learn how to do it later.”
- Richard Branson
Most great opportunities in life come with a set of black boxes with contents unknown that you will have to open on your journey. You will not enjoy all of them, but you will appreciate how they change your view on the world and make you grow. When I arrived in Shanghai, I had to deal with an intense period of culture shock. The bad air, unfamiliar smells, the often loud locals spitting on the streets and my difficulties communicating with the Chinese who were either not capable or willing to speak English, encountering the sheer mass of the crowd and finally fathoming what being in a city of 24.15 million people feels like was overwhelming. The noise levels in Shanghai and late office hours were particularly challenging for me, an introvert who needs silence throughout the bulk of my day to best function. But after a period of adjustment, I was finally able to truly arrive in Shanghai. I met many inspiring people, found beautiful places to relax in, go out, and discovered the amazing cuisine of the city. I also picked up ways to communicate in the everyday. This was an important period that taught me that home is not a where, but a who and a how: it is enriched by the friends you make, and how you adapt to take advantage of the attractive attributes of each in order to find a way to fit in.
Just as I was settling in, I received news that my visa had been revoked, and I was once again thrown into a new situation. Because I could no longer stay in China, MING Labs arranged for me to move to their office in Singapore to complete the rest of my internship.
When I left Shanghai for the second part of my internship in Singapore it felt almost like coming back to Europe (Singapore offers a good mixture of English-speaking, very friendly people from throughout Asia such as Malaysians, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Europeans and of course, Singaporeans). However different it was from Shanghai, there were similarities in the way design was perceived that provided an opportunity to look at my role as a designer with fresh eyes.
The experience of culture shock and working in two very different landscapes in this short period of time opened my eyes to how design is perceived and used differently outside of my home country, and revealed to me other ways in which it can or should create value for digital products.
Design does [not] matter
From my impression, the role of Design in Asia differs a lot from the one I experienced back in Germany.
I was puzzled when my efforts to explain my job as a designer and design as a discipline to Singaporeans or Shanghainese was met with answers like “oh, you are illustrating and making logos” or “ah, so you are a developer, awesome!” It was sometimes impossible to explain the value of proper design work, including important elements and techniques such as research, ideation, information architectures, Wireframes, Visual Design, Prototypes and Animations.
While most understood that something beautiful is more likely to sell well and beat the competition, there seemed to be a lack of exposure to the value of a proper design process in business or product success.
The reasons for this phenomenon, I believe, are not merely due to a lack of exposure, but based on a particular market and business environment that drives a quicker and less rooted form of design than what I was used to in Europe. There is an acute sense of speed with which products and businesses evolve constantly, borrowing, copying and iterating on successful examples in real time, rather than carefully crafted, well-suited offerings built with what designers consider as key foundational steps. Because of these principles, imitating a good product is not seen as embarrassing, but is instead considered a financially viable move, or possibly, even an ingenious thing to do. Concurring that it is relevant to analyse existing products, learn from them, and use the knowledge to build your own product, I disagree that copying is valuable to the design process. Instead, I find that it often results in bad service design and a dissatisfactory user experience.
Copying existing products can be a lucrative and safe way to make money. However, what stands to be lost is the ingenuity and charm of an original product, the chance to enrich the moment of use and improve the overall brand experience.
Why people see things differently
The Asian Market shifts, transforms and changes directions way faster than the European one does, and therefore follows a completely different philosophy. In a market with huge amounts of competition and young but fast-growing companies in most industries, the most important thing is to be fast and reactive, analysing emerging markets constantly, and jumping on the right horse in the right moment.
Growing up in Germany, a country known for quality products, and where research, testing and detail matters, I never really thought about the value and efficiency that the Asian perspective could bring. While I still think a mentality of quantity over quality that encourages mass consumption, price pushing that has an overall negative effect on the environment and people’s personal wealth is bad, it also comes with an upside. My everyday life in Shanghai was enriched by two services which never would have arisen so quickly or perhaps even existed in Europe at all. The rapidly changing market in China nurtures a mentality that favourable towards fast adoption, where people accept new technologies and services more quickly. This gave the two technology services: WeChat Pay and Mobike (besides the many other services booming in China) the chance to emerge, grow and become the mainstream mode of payment and short distance commuting service in only two years (Read our article on how Mobike could be improved here).
So while this trial-and-error philosophy leads to a lot of churn and drives a culture of hyper-consumption, the increasingly flexible market in China offers (together with the huge financial possibilities) great opportunities to test and realize ideas, and reshape peoples’ everyday lives.
Production, no matter if it is for a service, digital or industrial, is getting faster, more flexible and agile. This requires a change in mindset but at the same time offers great opportunities for designers.
Why Design matters, especially in China
In a world where growing emphasis is placed on digital services, the success of products hinge on the quality of the experience. Customers have no mercy for products, and especially services. If they dislike the experience, they will simply use one of the alternatives — and the chances are about zero that they will be coming back some day.
Services are all about personality. It is important to shape products that bring joy to every facet of the service-chain. This makes it a necessity to analyse, understand and design each and every step of a product’s customer journey, shaping it around the user’s needs to inspire love for the brand and build a relationship in the process. This will help companies to not only win new customers and be one step ahead of the competition, but also build a loyal user base.
So what is important for Designers to keep track in creating seamless customer experiences in this rapidly transforming world? What values and challenges do flexible production, modularity and many-facated customer and userbases result in? It all starts with the user, but how do we go on…?
Designing Experiences in 2018 — extend influence on products by being a partner to Clients
A lot of Designers tend to present their work as something mystical, magic emerged in a flash of genius. While it is important to maintain distance and professionalism in front of your customer, it is also important to be involved with your clients as if they are a member of your team. In order to understand their business models and strategies, it is important that you understand your customer better than anyone else. In addition, you need to help your client understand how you work in order to achieve the best outcome possible. To be successful in designing for the end user, you will have to develop strategies to collaborate with all sorts of customers in an efficient way to create a valuable product. Building a strong relationship with your client will bring you and your company more appreciation and value. It will lead to less confusion, less questions and build a productive, cooperative and enjoyable working environment. As Designers, we need to fulfill not only our role in a visual and structural sense, but also in an advisory capacity. Designers should double up as consultants. I even like to compare a Designer to a therapist, helping companies out of problems, giving them new perspectives and helping them build momentum for a project and its future iterations.
Listening to your clients’ expertise and working with them in a synergistic way will help to pave the way for his future.
Think bigger, define rules, design in systems
Evolving technologies, changing markets and customer needs allow and force us to rethink the way of our daily work, of processes and working procedures. As the world around us is getting faster, broader and more complex our work as designers is changing in a similar way.
This results in a huge need for visionaries who will define goals, frame products and more importantly, identify and create brand-philosophies. Successful Designers will need to be capable of understanding business models, product flows and strategies in order to be able to be a valuable problem solver. Designers have to be careful not to fall into a production role only providing content requested by their customers.
In the same way that Architects would never draw a single room of a building, Interaction Designers will need to shift away from being a Painter who shows Programmers how each and every screen should look like. We have to continue developing tools which help us to simplify our work on single screens, to free up time to work on the bigger picture. In the upcoming world augmented by AI and automation, it would be silly to not harness the new technologies for our purposes. We need to design tools that help us to reduce the time needed for craftwork, in order to create more room and time for designing complex architectures, user flows, easter eggs, moments of joy, and to design systems that have a product-line and lifespan, rather than something disposable. We need to refocus our purpose and role, and find strategies to create opportunities for designers to add value as problem solvers in order to continue having an impact on products and evolving markets.
Tomorrow is full of new, awesome technologies, and I believe actively watching, researching, exploring and processing what is happening around us will present us with huge opportunities as designers to shape and define the the future by having on the products that will surround us.
Harness upcoming technologies for your purposes, simplify work steps and bring them to a larger context. Reduce the time needed for craftwork while gaining more time and room for creative and meaningful work.
Some final words to all the students out there
There is a reason why it is called “studying”. A lot of students (including myself, half a year ago) tend to believe delivering cool, beautiful, well thought out work with cool interactivity is everything you need to do to become a great designer. Don’t get me wrong, it is good to have nice set of projects to show when it comes to presenting yourself to a design company or a client. But it is just not enough. Having the best portfolio does not help if you cannot explain how you see yourself and your abilities as a designer.
Studying means learning. Repeatedly and actively collect information, exploring every aspect about Design you hear about and can find during your studies. Reflect on them, rephrase them in your own words, talk about them with people who share your interests. Discuss the role you want to have in your future, and how the changing world will affect the relevance of your job. There is a reason your professors are teaching you design knowledge across a broad spectrum: It will help you to perform well in your future job, be able to argue for your views in depth and to be efficient. Once you begin working, you will not have time to find out what your best way of getting things done is, and how to communicate yourself in front of your client. Find your own strategies to fulfill your role and your own words to explain your results.
I believe the world is full of thousands of opportunities. Your world is. Your time at university is a huge opportunity to become a stunning designer, building a skill set and an awareness to be able to have a place in and an impact on this world.
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I am a curious and passionated Interface Designer always looking for new challenges and topics. For any questions, ping me on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Keziah Quek for helping me during the process of writing by providing structural and linguistic support.
I would also like to express my gratitude to MING Labs for giving me the great opportunity to go on this journey.