UX Designer Stanley Lai

A conversation about existential crises, being “of consequence” as a designer, design thinking and the merits of embracing uncertainty

Stanley, or Stan for short, is part of Domain7’s design team. A UX designer by trade, he spends most of his time working with clients, using his design thinking chops to identify challenges and think up solutions. After a short and eye-opening stint in advertising, Stanley found his true passion in consequential design: design that enables and inspires meaningful change. When he needs a break from “UX’ing” he builds gorgeous mechanical keyboards. One thing most people don’t know about him: He used to be a sergeant in the Singapore Army — an experience that made a lasting impression on his life and work as a designer.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I do a lot of research and I spend a lot of my time with clients and different stakeholders. A big part of my day usually revolves around talking to people and learning about the challenges they face so that I can really understand what they’re experiencing.

At the end of a project, I often jump into Sketch and Photoshop, but interestingly enough, I spend way more time in Google Docs than I do in Sketch or other design applications.

It sounds like working with clients is a big part of your job. What draws you to that?

I like learning. I like learning a lot. I find it very gratifying to work with a wide range of people and dive deep into a new industry. One thing I’ve learned is that every challenge is unique and that context matters greatly.

For example, at the moment I’m working with a client providing senior home care, so I’m diving deep into everything there is to know about that: what seniors need to age well, legal and regulatory constraints, what the competition looks like, how different companies approach this topic, and so on. Being able to learn all of this and then work with the client on surfacing opportunities, that’s really, really exciting to me. It’s what I enjoy most about design. Yes, sometimes I catch myself thinking, “Wait, what? I’m being paid to do something I enjoy so much?” It’s pretty great.

I can create something that makes people’s lives better. To me, that’s what consequential design means: to be “of consequence”.

What did your path to UX design look like?

I started out as a designer in advertising and art direction. I worked at agencies, developing communication plans and ad campaigns for companies. I was really miserable and only lasted for a short while. A lot of times the main goal in those kind of projects is to capture mindshare of target audiences. How many people did you reach? How did they react? To me personally, that felt incredibly pointless. And then I discovered there was this thing called UX.

Was it hard to make that career shift from ad agencies to UX?

Definitely. I had a bit of an existential crisis. I was wondering if I should even be in design. All the heartache, the long nights, me wrecking my brain over a problem: What makes that worth it? I really had to pause and work through those thoughts to figure out what design means to me and why it matters before I could take the next step.

In every part of our lives we want certainty. We want clarity. But it’s important to put ourselves outside of that every once in awhile. To have that childlike curiosity and be okay that you don’t know where this will take you. It’s a chance to gain profound insights into who we are and what we need.

Where did that journey lead you?

What I ended on, notionally, is the importance of consequence, the idea of consequential design. What is the consequence of what I create? Does it make a difference for people? I’m deliberately using the term “consequential” instead of “good” since good can mean different things to different people, but regardless of what you define as good: The outcomes and effects of design matter. Design needs to address problems and result in meaningful change.

There’s a quote by Milton Glaser that cemented for me why I do what I do. He said, “The most important thing in design, it seems to me, is the consequence of your action, and whether you’re interested, fundamentally, in persuading people to do things that are in their interests.” That made a huge difference in how I thought about design. Part of my job description when I worked with ad agencies was to make people do things that were in other people’s interest. I had to convince people to buy something they potentially don’t need to generate revenue for my client. That’s what design symbolized for me at the time. Reading and learning from designers like Milton Glaser turned that on its head. It showed me that you can work with a client and produce something that takes the interest of people into account who will receive and use what we’ve created.

I can create something that makes people’s lives better. To me, that’s what consequential design means: to be “of consequence”.

Why is it important to you to design for change?

I believe we all have a responsibility beyond ourselves. I grew up in Singapore. When I went to elementary school, the Singapore education system would teach kids civics and morals based on Confucian values. One of Confucius’ philosophies was “others before self”. You need to be thinking about the whole, rather than just the individual. I think that might have influenced me more than I want to admit. There were also people in my life, like my parents, who instilled these values in me.

I just want to recognize that there is a lot of injustice — although I’m hesitant to use the word “injustice”, because that word gets thrown around way too much. There are are a lot of challenges in this world. There are a lot of things we can do better at and we can all play a part in making that happen, one way or another. Design is my skill and what I’m good at, so I think that’s how I can contribute.

Do you sometimes feel burnt out or low on creativity? How do you deal with that?

Definitely. I wish I could share some magical, instant solution but the reality is that I often feel absolutely terrible for a couple of days — or even weeks. I just ruminate on thoughts like: “I can’t do this anymore. I need a career change.” That usually happens when I hit a wall and I have no idea what to do to break through. I try to battle these negative thoughts by reminding myself that it’s just a temporary moment and that I need to get my head out of the sand and get inspired by what’s around me.

Sometimes I just need to give myself some space and do something completely different, something that has nothing to do with sitting in front of a screen. For example, I have this odd fascination with building custom mechanical keyboards. I even sold a couple of them!

Everyone has the ability to create. We’ve just created a very intimidating label as to what it means to be creative today.

I think that’s when my subconscious mind takes over and it often serves me way better than my conscious mind when it comes to problem-solving. Going on to other things allows my mind to continue working on it in the background. Distractions are perhaps my way of being deliberate about giving my subconscious mind room to work. Maybe this is just my way of justifying procrastination, though Jessica Hische cheerfully calls it “procrasti-working”.

Designers are very much in demand today. Startups and big tech companies such as Google and Facebook continue to grow their art and design departments. Why do you think that is?

Designers have become so valuable to organizations today because of the process they have used for decades to frame and understand problems. And it’s not just designers. It’s architects. It’s engineers. That mindset of curiosity and inquisitiveness that we call design thinking today, can be applied to a lot of different fields and a lot of different spaces because it sparks innovation. It sparks creativity.

One thing I strongly believe in is that everyone is creative. Everyone has the ability to create. We’ve just created a very intimidating label as to what it means to be creative today. I mean, we all create value for employers. That’s our job. To me, that act of creating value is a type of creativity.

Design thinking is not about picking the Google method or the IBM method. There isn’t one best method. When you implement design thinking in an organization, it needs to be tailored to that organization’s situation.

We hear a lot about “design thinking” these days. How do you feel about that term?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think Jared Spool’s article on design thinking might be a good answer to that question.

He talks about how design thinking is such a popular term right now, but it’s equally confusing and nebulous. That’s why I personally struggle with the term “design thinking” sometimes. It’s so hard to define what it is. You can’t quantify it. It’s not like a package. You can’t hold it in your hands and say, “Implement this!” It doesn’t work that way. And it’s also not a one-fits-all formula like: Follow these three steps and that’s design thinking. I don’t believe in that approach.

The Atlantic had an article recently about how design thinking is being introduced into school curriculums and how teachers struggle with the term. Someone pointed out that the reason why they struggle is because they see it as curriculum, as in: Do this and you’re set. The same is true for businesses. Business leaders think they have to follow a method and I think that’s a mistake. Design thinking is not about picking the Google method or the IBM method. There isn’t one best method. When you implement design thinking in an organization, it needs to be tailored to that organization’s situation .

Most of the time, when a client I work with resists the idea of design thinking, it’s because they’ve tried it and it didn’t work out for them. But the reason why it didn’t work is often because they followed a series of steps instead of capturing the mindset. That’s what design thinking is really about: It is a way of looking at the world. It’s about how you see problems and how you go about solving them. It’s that desire to be inquisitive, the ability to be curious and to be comfortable with ambiguity. It’s really hard for most people to be comfortable with not knowing where this process is going to take them. It’s still hard for me, and I do this everyday! In every part of our lives we want certainty. We want clarity. But it’s important to put ourselves outside of that every once in awhile. To have that childlike curiosity and be okay that you don’t know where this will take you. It’s a chance to gain profound insights into who we are and what we need.

You regularly lead design thinking workshops. How would you define your role as a facilitator?

My value as a designer in a workshop is to unlock the huge amount of knowledge and expertise clients have about their industry and their work. My job is to draw that knowledge out and show people how to come at it with fresh eyes and from a different angle. To me, the goal of workshops is not to create a perfect solution. It’s about helping people to think creatively, see opportunities and tap into that.

I also think that there’s a mutual respect that comes out of these workshops. You go through that process together. When we present a client with a solution drawn from those workshops, both sides know everything that has gone into that solution. It’s very different from the old-school agency model where you hide away, and then later have the “Mad Men” reveal without the client being involved throughout that process.

In a way, design thinking is a secret weapon to bring empathy to the broader world, because we need to be able to understand what someone else has experienced in order to be able to better appreciate the problem.

Design thinking has gained a lot of traction in the private sector. What about the public sector?

Sectors like the government, health care or education are heavily regulated. And there are very good reasons for why there are so many rules, most importantly to protect people. The challenge is that once rules are in place, they are hard to change. Our world may have changed over the last 50 years, yet the rules we’ve put in place back then haven’t evolved.

I think there’s a lot of opportunity in those sectors, because we’ve seen the huge successes now the private sector has experienced by opening itself up to design thinking. And we see fantastic attempts at this from folks like 18F in the US, and gov.UK in… the UK. The way policies or laws are drafted are often the antithesis of human-centered design. If we bring the people who rely on public services — patients, students, citizens — into the decision-making process, we change the models of how decisions in these spaces are made. That could have a huge impact on the lives of millions of citizens, not just the customers of one particular company.

How important is empathy in design thinking?

It’s super important. In a way, design thinking is a secret weapon to bring empathy to the broader world, because we need to be able to understand what someone else has experienced in order to be able to better appreciate the problem.

People don’t say something because they want to be labeled or criticized but because they had real life experiences that have shaped their views and opinions. Design thinking trains us in empathy so that when we meet someone who disagrees with us, we don’t simply dismiss them. Instead we are encouraged to dig deeper and understand why they feel or think that way. We’re encouraged to ask ourselves: What are the lived experiences that have led them to see things that way?

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I was a sergeant in the Singapore army. I don’t talk much about my “army days”, although it was a pretty formative life experience.

It really taught me the difference between what’s a big deal and what’s not. I had to command a armoured infantry section — similar to regular infantry, but we travelled in armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles. I was in charge of 11 to 12 people, and their safety and welfare were my responsibility. I had to constantly ask myself, “Am I taking care of their welfare? Are they safe? Are we ready?” There were more than a few occasions where a wrong call on my part would have meant someone would lose their life or limb. It taught me a lot about staying cool under pressure and the fundamentals of good leadership.

Interestingly enough, the unit I was a part of had quite a few folks with design and creative backgrounds. It showed up a lot in the rather unconventional approach we had in our training, strategy and tactics. Who would have thought “design thinking” would be useful there?

What are three things that have profoundly influenced or inspired you?

Emily Pilloton | Teaching design for change

I found out about Emily Pillotons’s work when I was going through that existential crisis about whether or not I should be in design. It felt like we experienced a similar moment. She used to design storefronts and merchandising displays and knew it wasn’t for her. She went on to found Studio H, rethinking not just how design can be applied in education but reframing the way kids learn.

Martin Luther King, Jr. | Transformed Nonconformist

I’m inspired by people who do things differently. There’s a line in this sermon that says, “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.” Resolving conflict and challenges can seem like an insurmountable task, but sometimes you just need a small group of inspired people to give it a go and make things happen.

Warren Berger | Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your World

There are many great books out there about the methods, techniques and approaches you can use to do design well, but I haven’t seen too many about the “why?” of design. Glimmer tries to answer that question by looking at the thinking and work behind some truly visionary designers, including Canadian designer Bruce Mau who is based out of Toronto.

Interested in experiencing design thinking? On April 7, Stanley will co-facilitate a full-day, immersive design thinking workshop in Vancouver. Come join us. We’d love to meet you!