Applying Design To Create Better Experiences

Beyond creating beautiful objects and solving problems, design can also help create a more inclusive society, forging closer relationships between people. Two Singapore designers show us how.

Eugene Ng has impressive academic qualifications in visual communications and design but his work does not entail architecting products or spaces.

Instead, Eugene Ng applies his design thinking to services and processes so as to create better user experiences. For example, he came up with campus maps that can guide users through touch, making such directions more accessible to those with visual disabilities at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

“We look at processes, touch points, and services where we can introduce design thinking into it,” explains Eugene, the Manager of Diversity, Inclusion and Integration at the university’s Office of Dean of Students. He holds a diploma in Visual Communications, a degree in Media and Information Design and a masters in Culture and Creative Industries from King’s College which he obtained with the help of a scholarship from the DesignSingapore Council. More recently, Eugene completed a postgraduate research in Media Design and Design Thinking in Japan’s Keio University, and is completing a master in Educational Leadership and Policy from Monash University.

When Eugene applied for the role at SMU two years ago, the university was not looking to hire a designer specifically but he managed to convince them that developing services and processes to meet the needs of students with disabilities can be done by integrating design principles with human-centric perspectives.

“The kind of training and thought-process that a designer has is useful when thinking about initiatives from a social approach,” explains Eugene, who is also the founder of a social enterprise offering design-related social programmes and training. “We are always looking at things that other people are using and the impact they would have on others.”

At SMU, this means focusing on the difficulties that students with disabilities face, and addressing them through the school system and accommodating their needs as much as possible. Going beyond providing grants and hardware, Eugene works closely with the faculty and departments across the university to create a more inclusive learning environment and student life experience. Depending on the type of disability, this could range from planning for examination accommodation to designing learning aids.

One example is translating visual materials such as charts, diagrams and images into tactile formats — such as using yarn to tie knots to represent information — so that students with severe visual impairment can “see” them with their hands instead. Eugene has also co-developed a training programme for student assistants, teaching them ethics, communication, and accessible techniques so that they can help those with disabilities.

(Eugene’s HDB Flat, which he designed to be accessible for his parents who both have mobility issues due to old age)

As both of his parents have mobility issues due to old age, using design to empower people with disabilities is more than a job for Eugene. It was also partly due to their experience that he became interested in applying his design skills to create a more inclusive society — starting from his flat, which is accessible for wheelchairs and hospital beds.

“It made me realise there are a lot of issues to consider when a person is disabled,” he says. “Design is really broad. It is not just about an aesthetical, beautiful looking thing, or product. It spans learning, education, to even social processes as well.”

Designing creative intersections

What happens when chefs, dancers, musicians, poets and designers are brought together? A cross-disciplinary creative showcase such as Singapore: Inside Out.

The showcase which was first introduced by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 2015 as part of Singapore’s 50th birthday celebrations, features some of Singapore’s top creative talents from a spectrum of disciplines such as local literature, visual and performing arts, culinary as well as design. Housed within a pavilion made out of portable scaffolding, complete with a cling-clang sound installation that reflected the constant construction in Singapore, Singapore: Inside Out also served as a platform for multi-disciplinary collaborations. It has travelled to Beijing, London, and New York, serving a slice of the nation’s emerging creative culture to the world.

One of the brains behind these creative collisions was designer, Clara Yee, who teamed up with art and architecture studio Zarch Collaboratives. Though trained as an illustrator, she has designed and directed several of such multi-disciplinary displays. Most recently, her studio, in the wild, worked on the Tokyo edition of Singapore: Inside Out, where Japanese and Singaporean creatives collaborated, many for the first time.

“Even as a student it was in my nature to be interested in multiple topics,” says the 2012 graduate from London’s arts and design college, Central Saint Martins. “I wasn’t contented to just be in visual communications.”

It was while studying overseas on a DesignSingapore scholarship that Clara began exploring outside her training as an illustrator in Temasek Polytechnic. She took classes on graphic design as well as digital coding, and completed a thesis on the role of art in discovering new possibilities in technology — an early manifestation of her interest in creative intersections.

That year, she also organised “Pop-Up Singapore House” in London with some friends. With performances and displays by a variety of Singaporean poets, artists, designers and musicians based in the United Kingdom, the event aimed to showcase Singapore’s culture to visitors who had come to the city for the 2012 Summer Olympics. “We had one 70-plus (year-old) grandma who came to visit and she was like, ‘I did not even know there was an active Singaporean community here’,” recalls Clara.

Such reactions and seeing the connections Singaporean creatives made with one another at the event spurred Clara to work on creating more platforms for creative and cultural diplomacy. “When you see one artist meet another artist, and they become friends, you say, it’s worth it,” she says. Returning to Singapore that year, she worked briefly in Zarch Collaboratives to learn about spatial design before branching out on her own.

For the Singapore: Inside Out showcase, Clara says her approach is that of a designer — orchestrating a performance. Instead of simply finding the most “efficient and effective method to execute” the event, she also considers the mix of creatives involved, and how to create opportunities for them to freely respond creatively to one another.

Photos from Singapore: Inside Out Tokyo (Credits: Singapore Tourism Board)

“It’s almost like you are deliberately putting in parameters so you can encourage a chance of serendipitous encounters,” she says. “This is design,” adds Clara.

More than just a tool for problem-solving, design helps identify issues, and to create a product which could range from conventional objects to an experience, or even a relationship. Inside Out is her plan to enable creatives from different disciplines to work together — all while promoting Singapore’s diverse culture and talent to the world.

The young designer sees such a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach as the future of how we create. While the world has been designed for specialised functions on the assumption that each of us hold a single occupation or role in life, these traditional boundaries are increasingly blurred.

“I just sit within the Venn diagram. I’m actually a dashboard person trying to find that right configuration where everyone says it’s the sweet spot,” says Clara, who was named by The Straits Times and Forbes as a trailblazer under 30 in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

“I learn new things. I do new things. I start to see how things (are) link(ed),” she adds. “That is very exciting to me. You start to visualise new potentials… a human is kaleidoscopic.”

Learn more about the scholarships offered by the DesignSingapore Council here.

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