What I learned at SZOIL as a Designer

Paul Roeder
Published in
4 min readSep 12, 2018


Stunning views are easy to find in Shenzhen

After my first trip through China in October 2017, I felt so inspired by this massive country with its stunning views, people and food that I chose to come back just a few months later. Being an Interface design student and freelancer back in Berlin, Germany, I was especially intrigued by Shenzhen, Chinas “Silicon Valley of Hardware” with its unique innovative ecosystem around high-tech manufacturing and nearly anything that is electric.

For my internship, I wanted to find a workplace right in the middle of this busy world and learn more about business and product innovation in China. Thus, I joined Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, the city’s first Fab Lab makerspace which I knew from its co-founder David Li’s talk in Berlin.

First steps

Even though it was not my first time to China, spending time at a crazy place like this for longer than the average tourist is an exciting experience. After my workmate helped me find a great place to live, I had to get things done by myself and tried to register at a bunch of Chinese police stations. As I finally found the right one, I repeated the same process in order to get a local bank account, which would enable me to fully join Shenzhen’s cashless society.

Getting used to “Shenzhen Speed”

After the team at SZOIL and I warmed up to each other, I learned to embrace the main aspect of China’s mentality: “Getting things done!”. While it is usual in most creative environments of the western world to think and discuss a lot, Chinese tend to work hard and move on quickly. While both ways of course have their advantages, I learned to focus more on what really matters and pick up the famous “Shenzhen Speed”.

Testing ArduCam and image recogniton

Creating a workshop for the local maker community

Because of my background in user-centered design, my first project during the internship was to create a new workshop format for the local maker scene and experiment with toolkits for rapid prototyping of interactions with Artificial Intelligence. Given a lot of independence from SZOIL, I organized an afternoon dedicated to co-designing, prototyping and user testing.

Participants discussed what they found out it their user interviews

The workshop was a great experience and I could exchange opinions, ideas and new approaches to AI-enabled experiences with the participants. Also, I enjoyed the preparation time before it, as I experimented with voice enabled open hardware from local companies like Banana Pi and Seeed Studio.

Participants from five different countries came to SZOIL

Read more about the workshop

International projects

During the second half of my stay I had the chance to learn more about all the international projects and partnerships going on at SZOIL, while I contributed my design skills to the creation of new materials for most of those. Especially I found inspiring what is happening in Africa and how new business models can help people to lift themselves out of poverty. Besides that I created pitch decks for design-related funds and exhibitions in the Perl River Delta.

Leaving as a “Shenzhener “

The (incomplete) SZOIL team on my last day

After three months in Shenzhen, I not just used my phone for literally everything, but thanks to the open culture, I even knew the phone manufacturer’s Head of UX Design in person. Interning in Shenzhen definitely feels like living in the future — with all its highlights and downsides.

However, what I like most about Shenzhen as a foreigner: while you will hardly become a Chinese, you are a “Shenzhener” as soon as you arrive there.



Paul Roeder
Writer for

Interface Designer, Berlin — paulroeder.com