What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work? Design has been a long, convoluted path for me. I grew up in Malaysia, and in 1988, I went to LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, only to drop out after 2.5 years to work at an industrial design firm for 1.5 years. I migrated to Canada in 1992 and enrolled in the industrial design program at Carleton University in Ottawa then dropped out after 2 years to intern at telecommunications company Nortel for 1.5 years. You see a pattern here.
I finally got my butt back to Carleton and graduated in 1996. However, I didn’t stick around Canada for long as I moved yet again, to Palo Alto, California—this time to intern at an industrial design firm. It transitioned into a full-time gig, and I stayed there until the company filed Chapter 7 in 2001, thanks to the dot-com implosion. That was basically when I started my industrial design and research firm, Y Studios. I slowly grew it from the classic solo-designer-in-the-guest-room situation to a team of designers in San Francisco, operating out of a warehouse in the Mission District along with Lisa Yong, my partner in life and business.
Studying and working in different countries really helped me think on my feet and become flexible to change. Living in different countries and absorbing different cultures has also shaped the way I design in that I want to deliver designs that have global appeal and contextual relevance.
What have you learned about innovation from working in the Bay Area? In the Bay Area, change is the only constant. I’ve seen the rise and fall of innovative companies and products, like online grocery business Webvan, online community platform eCircles and NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook. They were all great ideas, but as we know, they failed. Now we have AmazonFresh, Facebook and Kindle in their place. It goes to show that there are plenty of great innovations out there, but the timing has to be right. People need to be ready for the next big thing. That’s the unpredictable aspect of innovation. The technology might be cool, but who’s going to use it? That’s what we help our clients figure out: the who, what, why and how.
More importantly, working in the Bay Area has taught me that it’s OK to fail. You are allowed to fail. Then get the hell up and try again.
How does socio-cultural research play into how you design a new product? Cultural context is essential to the expression of relevance and meaning in our work. We don’t design in isolation; we need to know to whom we are designing for and why. An example of this holistic approach is our design for Chime, the world’s first automated chai maker. Making chai is a ritual practiced by more than a billion people around the world. It is a handcrafted process that requires patience to make the perfect cup of chai. Chime was designed to make this process a convenient daily ritual without the fuss.
We started the project with an exploration of tea cultures in order to learn the rudiments of making chai and understand the lifestyle influences of this product’s target consumers. These insights provided the foundation on which we built our design. The single-cup chai maker has three distinctive columns that work seamlessly together—the control console, the water reservoir and the brewing chamber with a removable carafe. Going back to the roots of chai making as a ritual, we designed the brewing chamber to be encased in glass so users can enjoy watching the tea brewing in front of them. By providing contextual relevance and considering something so simple as part of the design, we enabled emotional connections to be made with the user.
Do you feel pressure to deliver a certain type of industrial design? I feel pressure to deliver only the good type of industrial design! There is enough landfill already, and we don’t need to contribute to the problem. At Y Studios, we have a simple mantra: useful, beautiful, meaningful. I want to design products that will outlive fads and instead establish an emotional connection with the user in a meaningful way, such that the product lives a long life, fulfilling its utility.
What do you think of smart home technology right now, and where do you see it headed? A lot of companies are working on different aspects of a smart home, like internet-protocol cameras, doorbells and thermostats. However, imagine a brain that can only hear but cannot see. It’s not very smart until you get all five senses working together. This is why you see Amazon buying out Ring, and Google buying out Nest and Dropcam—they are trying to assemble all the senses. It’s all about building the ecosystem of a smart home; this pace will keep accelerating to the point of ubiquity. Of course, privacy is a major concern; for example, lately, a record number of people have been deleting their Facebook accounts. People are finally worried—as they should be. It remains to be seen how better, smarter home services can be offered without invading our privacy.
What does the rise of voice and audio mean for interface design? Hopefully, this means we are moving away from looking down at our smart devices all the damn time to behaving like normal people who look up and make eye contact with other human beings! Be present rather than self-absorbed. It’s time for change, and the possibilities of how we design the next interaction between humans and machines is exciting.
What’s an emerging cultural, social or consumer movement that you’re interested in? Everybody’s focusing too much on millennials right now. I think the boomer market is underserved and has enormous potential for new product ideas. How new technology is driving fundamental changes in well-being and health care is very interesting to us at Y Studios.
What’s one nascent technology that you’re looking forward to utilizing? I’m fascinated with the mash-up of technology and fabric. Startups are now making things like 3-D printed clothing—imagine the savings in labor and materials costs! What if a piece of clothing can also harvest and store solar energy? I also recently read about Vollebak’s jacket, which is made out of fabric embedded with graphene, a material extracted from graphite. The jacket is not only super strong, but also is antimicrobial and waterproof yet breathable, and it wicks sweat. It’d be super cool to work on “functional fashion,” as I call it.
How do you stay inspired? To get off the hamster wheel of work, I surf and dunk myself in the Pacific Ocean as my weekly ablution.
And Mark Twain was so right when he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I have been lucky enough to have seen a bit of the world, from witnessing the hardship of the Dhobi Ghat open-air laundromat in Mumbai to zip-lining across Victoria Falls in Zambia to hugging a panda in Chengdu, China. These experiences have enriched my perspective on life in different ways, and I’m grateful for them. There’s a lot more out there in the world to see and connect with.