Designing design: inspirations from air plants

Keith Oh
Keith Oh
Nov 17, 2018 · 6 min read

Air plants are a genus of some 650 species of evergreen plants that absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. They don’t need soil, so people often mount them on driftwood or seashells to hang as ornamental pieces at home. Some of my friends liken their appearance to aliens, but that also gives them some unique beauty and character. No lush greens like Gardens by the Bay, but I thought that I can work with some James Cameron’s Avatar vibes at home.

Tillandsia Xerographica, king of air plants

Air plants are hardy, so taking care of them is relatively simple in the tropics, with just three basic principles: water, sunshine, and airflow. However, conditions differ from one home to another. So I had to prototype a little to figure out my setup and routine. This process gave me a new appreciation of nature, where rules are simple but outcomes often complex.

This reminds me of design in a way. Our rules are simple. We’ve codified our design process into that few stages from research to delivery. We’ve even sold it to our colleagues outside of design as Design Thinking. However, the outcomes, like in nature, can be complex. Simply cruising through the design process doesn’t guarantee outcomes.

The design process needs to be designed too.

I meditated upon what I’ve learned from taking care of air plants and drew a few parallels between that and designing the design process. This isn’t about any particular stage along the process; this is a meta conversation about our practice of design.


Air plants need just enough water — not too little or too much. This concept of balance is inherent in design, as we’re constantly negotiating between form and function. Along our design process, the “water” that we need is curiosity and play. Just enough of each. Not too little or too much.

Misting the Tillandsia Micans

Curiosity leads us to interrogate and frame our design challenges. We are fascinated by people. We talk to them, observe them, analyse data about their behaviours. Too little of curiosity limits understanding and empathy. Too much of it lures us down a rabbit hole where everything seems interesting.

It’s paramount that we create impact and not get ourselves stuck in theories. When I mentor teams, I would check if they’ve developed a robust point of view and if they’re prototyping that view early in the process.

Play helps us imagine what the solution can be. We seek out inspirations, toy with possibilities, and build to think. Too little play kills creativity and discovery. Too much of it keeps our product managers and engineers up at night. We got to be realistic about what we can ship!

Both curiosity and play enable non-linear thinking along our design process. They might not make clear sense when you’re at it, but you feel the magic when the dots connect later on. It’s always more comfortable to converge upon an answer just because we want to feel progress and not because we believe in the answer. I often ask myself how I can help teams be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. And how I can help teams create the time and space for just enough curiosity and play.


Tillandsia Love Knot, blushing under sunlight

Air plants prefer bright but filtered sunlight. Some morning sun, before 10am, is also good. Before air plants, I didn’t even know the nature of sunlight matters to plant growth. Like sunlight, the right types of design challenges help us grow.

Some design challenges have limited scope, where we’re literally asked to “make it look pretty”. Some design challenges are driven by business needs, as opposed to user needs. I find that going back to basics, mapping out the stakeholders or business ecosystem, helps me see where our users sit within the larger ecosystem and understand why certain decisions are made. I also ask myself if there is value we can provide, such as qualitative user insights, to help shape decisions. Different types of design challenges require us to assume different roles, such as evangelism, storytelling, and facilitation. These roles stretch us and help us grow too.

Some design challenges might not require us to follow our design process in a pedantic manner. We sometimes skip research — gasp! But that’s because we were able to build on insights from previous work and start with prototyping on Day 1.

I’m curious how others codify their design challenges. And how they maximise their learning in every design challenge.


Airflow helps water on the leaves evaporate, preventing rot and encouraging transpiration — the process by which plants breathe. We often talk about using whitespace to help the design breathe, but we don’t talk enough about introducing whitespace to allow the design process to breathe.

User journey mapping at Carousell

The stock image poster for design often shows happy people working off a glass wall filled with colourful post-it notes. However, we also have our introverted moments where we need to step away and have some quiet to think independently. And breathe.

Design is invigorating; it can also be draining. I welcome the downtime between projects, or even in the midst of a project. There was once when my team felt so burned out in the midst of a demanding project that we took some days off.

We hung out at a colleague’s mini farm, visited museums and immersed ourselves in craftwork — downtime can also be productive. We got back feeling inspired and in our most creative form to deliver our best work.

We can’t be creative all the time. There is little point in pushing forward the design process when the team is not inspired — the work will not be great. We need to learn to inject moments along our process to step away from the work and allow ourselves to be inspired. If you had these breathing space, what would you do?

Last thoughts

Water led me to think about curiosity and play; sunshine, the nature of design challenges; airflow, breathing space. As designers, we have been trained to seek inspiration from people and their stories. As we work on more complex problems, I’ve also learned to look beyond people into nature for inspiration at times.

Water, sunlight and airflow are basic elements that most people know. It’s not easy to get them right, but the result is tremendously rewarding. Similarly, It’s also not easy to figure out if we have just enough curiosity, play, design challenges, and breathing space in our design process.

Tillandsia Ionantha Druid in bloom

At Carousell, we take a user-centred approach to design our design process — designers are the users in this case and we’re constantly reflecting, prototyping and iterating. We believe that these are the necessary conditions not only for designers to do our best work, but also to grow and blossom.

Our product design team is growing. If you would like to know more about the openings we have, check out!

Carousell Insider

What's going on under the hood at one of the world's largest and fastest growing classifieds marketplace. We're on a mission to inspire everyone in the world to start selling.

Keith Oh

Written by

Keith Oh

Carousell Insider

What's going on under the hood at one of the world's largest and fastest growing classifieds marketplace. We're on a mission to inspire everyone in the world to start selling.

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