Singapore Design Week 2019

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Heist is thrilled to announce that we are returning to Singapore Design Week for our third consecutive year! This year, we present to you License to Spy, a two-hour interactive session led by its team of designers and design researchers. Heighten your powers of observation in this fun and interactive session where we reveal our “spying” methods and insights gathered from different cities around Asia.

Starting off with a film clip - the session will be focussed on participants being given their own mission to crack out on the streets of Singapore, exploring the world and gathering information with their newfound skill set!

Date: 6 March 2019, Wednesday
Time: 11.30am - 1.30pm
Venue: 1 Neil Road, #02-04, Singapore 088804

This is a ticketed event. Tickets are S$15 and may be purchased here or by scanning the QR code of the image above! Should you have any queries, please feel free to reach us at See you there!


There are several meanings of the word move. It doesn’t necessarily have a good or bad connotation, it very much just is. However, as a verb, one of the meanings of move is to make progress; develop in a particular manner or direction. Over the new year, Heist moved. We moved into the new year, and we moved out of The Working Capitol into our very own studio.

Moving can be an exciting or harrowing experience. It often is both, even for someone who has experience. Moving is inevitable. Everyone would have moved at some point in their life, whether it’s your home, country, office, school or job. Because moving is inescapable, we thought we’d share five things we learned from our recent move.


No matter how much planning you do, something will go awry. Setting up the internet for our new office is the perfect example of this law of the universe. We’d gotten in touch with two internet service providers, but due to the festive period, only one was prompt in getting back to us.  Naturally we went for the service provider who replied to us and they estimated that the service would be set up by end January.

But that didn’t happen. We are now in February, and actually, it still hasn’t happened.

After a site inspection, we were told that a new cable had to be laid from outside the building - which of course, is a heritage building protected by multiple layers of permissions and rules….  And this would mean a three to six month wait for the system to be set up. We simply couldn’t wait and had to end our agreement with service provider A. We’ve since been working with service provider B and hope to have everything sorted soon, so prayers are welcome!


Those are the two words that open The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the two words I tried to live by throughout the entire process because, see point #1.


I learnt that it’s best not to be afraid to make decisions with imperfect information - because the truth is by the time you get all the information you want to make the decision, it is often too late. From choosing tables to ordering the right style of couch, I often had to make decisions on my own and hope it all worked out!


Again, see point #1. Having to work in an office without internet is a big hurdle, especially in today’s system. But finding a smart solution - multiple SIM cards and hot spotting through spare phones took us just a few hours to sort. Spring into action, ASAP


Everything is urgent, but not everything is important. Prioritising is key if you want to remain sane, not just with moving but in everyday life. Take into account both the long-term and short-term goals and milestones in order to know what should come first, and how much time should be dedicated to each task. This helps you track and build your task list, and you’ll feel accomplished as you progress and check each task off!

The most interesting person I’ve met this year (so far)

I’m a design researcher. By trade and choice. This means I spend much of my time talking to strangers and using a mix of charm and curiosity to build confidence - enough for them to start sharing stories, secrets, hopes and dreams with me. It’s a privilege to be invited into the inner working of another human’s life, and while a few hours isn’t enough to even begin to understand another person, I can honestly say that I have learnt something from every person I have ever interviewed for a project. Some more than others.

We spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City recently, talking to dozens of people. And I was lucky enough to meet one whom I truly built a connection with.

Tao. That’s what we’ll call her. Teacher Tao, that’s what most of her students call her. She started an English training school in her living room, offering her spare bedroom on mainly to attract English speaking foreigners - willing to practice and chat with her students in exchange for a place to crash for a few nights. Interesting business model, especially given the plethora of ‘English Speaking Schools’ across Vietnam. Here are three things I learnt from her that I hope will be useful for you -

1/  You can always change your mind and dream new dreams: Tao started her career as a journalist, working with a National newspaper. She quickly tired of it though for reasons too sensitive to mention here. At 26, she was ready for a change. She was travelling around Vietnam with her American boyfriend and was impressed by how many young people she met wanted to practice their English with her. She would teach them for free, and this is what gave her seed of an idea. Learning English, she found, actually equipped people with confidence and a sense of freedom, as though they were suddenly liberated to pursue bigger dreams. And seeing people transform is how Tao decided to set up her own school, despite limited funds and zero qualifications.

Lesson #1: Prototype cheap, see proof of success, pivot, evolve but stay passionate about why you began

2/ First learn how to think, then how to express it. One of Tao’s greatest purposes is to teach people how to think for themselves. She told us about the Vietnamese education system - which typically of Asia - rewards learning by rote, simply repeating what is taught rather than building a comprehensive understanding of complicated situations. Tao told us that the first thing she works on with her students is simply teaching them to think for themselves; to make micro decisions and gain the confidence to voice them without heightened fear of judgment. This points to a larger goal - not just to equipping them with English speaking skills, but the confidence and ability to express their own opinions. Learning English isn’t just about upward social mobility but about being independent and holding your own amongst people from varied cultures and backgrounds.

Lesson #2: Empower others. Create a vision that is inclusive for impactful change to society. Are your goals self serving or designed to contribute to a brighter world?

3/ Pride in the homegrown: Beyond her students, Tao is equally committed to developing her own team of English teachers as well. She feels strongly about foreigners who can barely speak English coming into Vietnam and teaching just to make some money. Not only are these people incompetent, she says, but often their English is worse than hers. “Simply being white does not mean that you can teach English.” Tao’s goal is to have a strong team of Vietnamese English teachers, often students who have a desire to give back and help contribute to the community. Her team and students are actively helping her build her next enterprise - a cafe where students and travellers can meet for a chat, practice their English and also learn about each other’s cultures.

Lesson #3: Don’t stop evolving. Tao is constantly looking for new ways to strengthen her students’ skills and create new sources of income. What would this look like for your company?


Hot Wheels

One of the things that really unsettled me in Vietnam was the traffic. It was relentless, and I found myself ducking into cafes periodically for cover. Even crossing the road was an ordeal! The bikes were countless and they never seemed to give way. Our local guide kept telling us that we just had to stick our hands out and walk with confidence - so we tried our closest, nervous approximation of that and simply prayed for the best.  

We had just gotten the hang of this when Kaj suggested we take a ride on a Grab bike, because hey - that’s how the locals live. Sofia and I looked at each other in terror, telepathically communicating our fear, “We’re already so terrified of crossing the roads, how are we to survive on a motorbike?”

But since everyone on the team was game, I too opened my Grab app and quickly booked my first bike ride - ever - apprehensively. I had a nervous smile on my face as I waited for the driver to arrive. After a few seconds of frantic waving to attract his attention, I plopped the helmet on my head, clambered onto the bike clumsily and gave him a thumbs up to let him know I was ready.

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As soon as my driver sped up and into the traffic, I started smiling. I was thinking, “Omg, this is so amazing!” repeatedly. I started to loosen my death grip on his shoulder and appreciate the scenery and vehicles I was whizzing pass.

The traffic did not tire or frustrate me any more - I loved being a part of it, watching everybody as they eagerly wait for the light to turn green. This was the best way to experience the city - on a bike, feeling the wind on my face while I take in the sights and smells of the city. Ho Chi Minh City is beautiful when you’re zipping by on a bike.

We did not have much time left in Vietnam after my first ride but we managed to squeeze in a few more trips - even one just before we left for the airport. I wasn’t going to leave without having another go! I’m so glad I decided to step out my of comfort zone, even though I was afraid and it took a little bit of urging. It wouldn’t really have been a cultural immersion if I hadn’t experienced my first real life bike ride - the most common and efficient way to get around the city. It was a great learning experience and I will always push myself to experience something new and scary whenever I visit a new place. And maybe, just maybe -  someday Kaj won’t have to force me out of my comfort zone anymore because I’m learning to do it for myself!

Ho Chi Minh City: Many firsts

This was a trip of many firsts for me – it was my first time in Vietnam, first time on a GoViet bike, first time in field with the Heist team and first time wearing the design researcher lens as we immersed ourselves in the culture of Vietnam. Compared to my previous travels, this was an extremely different and eye opening experience, one I would have never had as a regular tourist.

Ho Chi Minh City is a hive of activity. If I had been visiting for fun, I’d be focused on conquering all the places recommended by Lonely Planet. But as a design researcher, I started picking up on the cultural nuances, taking time to notice how people used rubber bands as their makeshift wallet, or how they were able to create space from their small bikes to stack and transport goods.

I was blown away by the sights and sounds of the streets. The bike riders were like swarms of bees, zipping through the lanes like an army. Street vendors sold an assortment of things from fresh produce and local delights, to shampoo sachets and cleaning sponges. The crowd swelled after working hours as the riders rode through the market and did their grocery shopping, all while staying on their motorbikes. Learning about vibrant Saigon at different times of the day while remaining observant (keeping the lens on!) was exhausting yet electrifying – and I loved every second of it.

We spoke to people on the streets and were invited into some of their homes to gain a deeper understanding of Vietnamese traditions and values. We mingled with locals after work and joined a rooftop BBQ party for students who were learning English. Not once did we feel foreign here - rather, it felt as though the city embraced our curiosity and gave us so much to learn in return.

Street food is often a highlight across Asia, and while I had my fair share of pho, nothing quite beats enjoying a Banh Mi breakfast with the team along the Saigon river bank. Soaking in the juxtaposition of sounds – the serene and calm waves lapping the shore in stark contrast to the loud and ceaseless honks on the road behind us – was fascinating. The fact that this moment came to us after an extremely hectic week probably added to the blissful feeling of a momentary pause.

My first immersive field experience has been exhilarating and I feel truly privileged to gain a new perspective on this special country. Here are some of my favourite moments captured by the team and I – enjoy!

Saigon Post Office: Love, Mr. Duong

Characterized by French architectural elements, downtown Saigon’s post office opened its doors in 1981. Fast forward to 2019: team Heist pays the historical building a visit, Kodak disposable cameras in hand.

Entering the post office was a multi -sensorial experience: voices and footsteps echoed around the space, flooded with light - it was like entering a movie set. We were greeted by two maps, one showing the city’s surroundings and the other illustrating the telegraphic lines of Vietnam and Cambodia. Framed by a linear series of iron arches, a portrait of Mr. Ho Chi Minh stands front and center - unmissable.

We observe from a distance; people are scribbling on their postcards to send to loved ones, just like countless others did decades ago. Legend tells me there is one man — Mr. Duong Van Ngo — who serves as a public writer and has been stationed in the post office for close to 30 years. Mr. Duong translates and scribes for anyone who sits down opposite him, articulating their thoughts in either English or French.

Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch a glance of him this time around, I can only imagine how fascinating a conversation with him would have been. We would get some gold-nugget insights on the stories he’s heard, delivered in gibberish or poetry, which he had to convey on paper. Alone, lodged in a space of transient passerbys, transcribing their burning hopes and darkest fears. What anecdotes would he have to share? What love stories, family feuds, wonderful adventures or tragic sorrows?


I jot down a couple of lines to send to my family back home, signed from Vietnam with love. Four stamps later, my post card was on it’s way to Casablanca, Morocco.

Bon voyage!

Word of the week

Happy new year from Heist! It’s been a short week but we’ve added a new Arabic word to our vocabulary as we learn more about the GCC region for an upcoming project -


We want to say we’re pretty excited about what’s in store for us this year, but we’ve been told that’s not the correct way to use jamila. That said, we hope you’ve enjoyed the جميلة illustration, courtesy of Sofia.


Venus visits: New Zealand

Hoping to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, I decided to take a road trip through the stunning countryside of Christchurch, New Zealand. Even though I was apprehensive at first (having never been on a road trip), I quickly fell in love with the turquoise-coloured lakes, grassy green plains and snowcapped mountains. The scenery was truly majestic. Every single location I’ve visited looked straight out of a postcard - even the random stops we made along the side of the roads to stretch our legs were absolutely stunning. 

Here are some of the places I’ve visited on the trip. I do hope these pictures encourage you to spend some time in nature this holiday season! 

Castle Hill - Limestone rock formations that resemble an old, run-down stone castle. My first unplanned stop for the journey.

Castle Hill - Limestone rock formations that resemble an old, run-down stone castle. My first unplanned stop for the journey.

Avalanche Peak, Arthurs’ Pass National Park - Definitely not a hike for amateurs. I did not finish the hike but this was the view I was rewarded with a little more than halfway along the journey.

Avalanche Peak, Arthurs’ Pass National Park - Definitely not a hike for amateurs. I did not finish the hike but this was the view I was rewarded with a little more than halfway along the journey.

Franz Josef Glacier - I took a 1.5 hour walk to come within 750m of the glacier’s terminal face. Since 2008, the glacier has been in a period of retreat and has lost about 800m in length. Even though glaciers go through natural cycles of advancement and retreat, it is unlikely that the Franz Josef glacier will advance as the climate warms. I’m just really glad to have seen it while it is still substantial.

Franz Josef Glacier - I took a 1.5 hour walk to come within 750m of the glacier’s terminal face. Since 2008, the glacier has been in a period of retreat and has lost about 800m in length. Even though glaciers go through natural cycles of advancement and retreat, it is unlikely that the Franz Josef glacier will advance as the climate warms. I’m just really glad to have seen it while it is still substantial.

Blue Pools - The famous crystal clear blue waters on the Makarora rivers. The blue is a result of light refraction on clear, icy cold water.

Blue Pools - The famous crystal clear blue waters on the Makarora rivers. The blue is a result of light refraction on clear, icy cold water.

Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka - Framed by the Southern Alps, the lone tree is a willow tree in the middle of the lake that grew from a hacked off branch from nearby willows. A symbol of determination?

Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka - Framed by the Southern Alps, the lone tree is a willow tree in the middle of the lake that grew from a hacked off branch from nearby willows. A symbol of determination?

Roy’s Peak - It’s a long hike that takes about 6-8 hours but there were plenty of sheep grazing and doing the hike along with me.

Roy’s Peak - It’s a long hike that takes about 6-8 hours but there were plenty of sheep grazing and doing the hike along with me.

Mount Cook Village - The village sits in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest mountain. I did not attempt to scale it but I did spend the afternoon in the visitor centre/museum reading about the courageous people that successfully scaled the mountain and those that lost their lives while doing so.

Mount Cook Village - The village sits in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest mountain. I did not attempt to scale it but I did spend the afternoon in the visitor centre/museum reading about the courageous people that successfully scaled the mountain and those that lost their lives while doing so.

Lake Tekapo - The lake is famous for its striking turquoise colour. I had a quick picnic by the lake then drove up to an observatory nearby to get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful lake and the village.

Lake Tekapo - The lake is famous for its striking turquoise colour. I had a quick picnic by the lake then drove up to an observatory nearby to get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful lake and the village.

Friday Five with our Design Research Intern: Tessa

Photo taken during a stroll through a local market in Yangon, Myanmar just before dinner time.

Photo taken during a stroll through a local market in Yangon, Myanmar just before dinner time.

1/ You've recently switched from Public Relations to Design Research - What prompted the career switch? Tell us about your journey so far.

I started work in public relations after graduating from University of Manchester where I read Sociology. I had an interest in PR because I found the role of building relationships between parties – mainly the media, client and public – challenging. It was my first job and I stuck with it for half a decade.

Over the course of five years, I witnessed many changes within the industry both locally and globally. From the rise of influencer marketing to the death of traditional media, the incessant spending of cash to be ‘seen’ and editors inclined towards producing clickbait content just to generate traffic, I started to find a lot of the theories I came across as a student manifesting in the industry. This made me more aware of the impact I was making on society through my work, which led me to begin seeking an avenue where I could work with more research data in order to develop pragmatic and impactful experiences for society.

After exploring several options and seeking advice, I was directed to design thinking as a discipline that fit my mission. However, I lacked design experience.  Undeterred, I signed up for a few courses online to find out more about design thinking. Armed with the little bit of knowledge I’d gained online, I felt that design research was an area I was keen to explore and wanted to gain some first-hand experience in, in order to inform my next step. I reached out to Heist for an opportunity to learn on the job and Kaj was kind enough to respond to my query, so here I am now doing an internship in design research and learning something new every day!

2/ What is your biggest takeaway from your previous career?

There are two big takeaways from my previous career. The first is “don’t blame, just fix”. A lot of the events I worked on had multiple partners with huge teams or volunteers. Tensions are always high during an event because of the sheer number of people involved. If it’s a ‘live’ TV event, execution has to be very precise. Of course, more often than not, Murphy will make an appearance at an event because that’s just nature! I’ve seen teams turn on each other with the blame game when something goes awry, and they become engulfed in shifting the responsibility rather than fixing it, but there is no benefit in pointing fingers when everyone is anxious. In fact, it just makes things worse and people start to resent each other. So, that’s one thing I try not to do whenever something crops up – have your team’s back and fix the problem first, then review when the dust settles. Things are always clearer in retrospect.

The second thing I learned is to not bring your work home emotionally. Unless it’s a crisis, once I leave the office, I leave everything about work behind and give the people I’m with my full attention.

3/ How do you feed your creative energy?

Whenever the weather permits, I slow my life down and take a walk so I can “people-watch”. Singapore is surprisingly  fast-paced and there are always so many things happening at once, which can also be observed whenever I take a stroll. Some things I look out for when I go for a walk include humans interacting with each other, humans interacting with their space, little bits of nature etc. As I cover distances, the surroundings will change, so there’s always something ‘new’ happening that will stimulate me. Generally, I’ll try to associate anything I see with something else I’ve come across before – a social theory, a conversation, an article, a book, a memory, a song. Sometimes, I’ll bring a camera to snap some shots. Interaction intrigues me and being able to map relationships in these interactions excites the geek in me.  

Other than that, I’m always inspired by food because of the creativity in each dish. Every cuisine has a history, an identity, a story. Travelling and sleeping are two of the other activities I feed on. It’s easy to understand why for travelling. As for sleeping, I tend to have vivid dreams and I read somewhere that it means your brain is rearranging information, so that’s always useful!  

4/ Is there a particular design challenge or problem you're passionate about helping solve?

I feel that people need to think about the purpose of designing or redesigning something more carefully. I came across a New Yorker article about a food bar borne out of the Valley which had all the necessary proteins but tasted horrendous. Granted, I’ve never tried the item in question, but the article ended with a quote which really resonated with me -

“Silicon Valley’s failure to capture our appetites lies at the heart of what the technology industry misses about so many other things in this world. Though it may be possible to create technically feasible products for any aspect of our lives, those only succeed if they improve—rather than seek to replace—the human, highly tactile, and pleasurable world we want to live in. Most humans are happy to eat real food, and crave it in its most natural form. A strawberry picked at the height of summer. Fish pulled from a river and grilled over wood coals. Sourdough bread made from a twenty-year-old starter, and kneaded by hand. Wine grown on knobby vines, and aged in a dark cellar. Why would you disrupt that?” – The Real Soylent Sickness, The New Yorker

Other than that, having worked in the communications industry, I’m interested in the translation and transformation of data to information, to knowledge and wisdom. I’m also passionate about rethinking the rehabilitation process of deviant behaviour and mental health. I think the system in Singapore is still quite conservative and there’s a lot of stigma around these issues which people try to eradicate via marketing campaigns, but marketing campaigns simply cannot address the underlying issues. It’s not easy because of the intricacies involved in policy making, but if you never try, you’ll never know.

5/ Starting a new chapter is challenging, what advice would you give to those in the same shoes?

Do your research, be thick skinned and pray. It is scary because there may be a lot of risk involved, and you can always find a reason not to do it. More importantly, once you make your decision, don’t think about “what if” because even with probability, there is no way you will 100% know how things will turn out. You may have a plan, but always be ready to adapt.

Investigating Health & Wellness at The Working Capitol

In a  busy city like Singapore, finding work-life balance can be a struggle. In the midst of juggling different facets of life, we encourage you to pause and think: what does health and wellness mean to you? In a nutshell, this is what team Heist sought to find out from fellow members at our co-working space  - The Working Capitol (TWC) - in order to help TWC serve its community better.

Over the course of 3 weeks, we conducted a series of interactive experiments and hands-on activities in various locations within TWC to better understand its members’ attitudes and behaviours towards health and wellness. This meant we had to craft the right questions for our members in order to gain understanding: What activities interest them? What time do they usually work out? How much money are they willing to invest into health and wellness activities? What makes them feel relaxed? Heist investigates.

We started off doing what we do best: talking to people. We conducted dozens of intercept interviews within TWC and even around the neighbourhood.


1. The Glass Vases

Question: What are your favourite fitness activities?
How it works: Simple and intuitive, members cast their votes in pre-labelled clear vases using ping pong balls.

2. The Semi-Clock

Question: What is a good time to work out?
How it works: Taking advantage of the pre-existing wooden arch at the TWC Library, this semi-clock was divided into time slots from 6AM to 9PM. Members cast their votes by pasting stickers on the clock.

3. The Piggy Bank

Question: How much would you pay for your fitness activities?
How it works: “Capitol Cash” was placed around TWC for participants to fill out with the amount they are willing to pay for health and wellness programmes. They would then deposit the “Capitol Cash” into clear glass piggy banks. Participants are presented with “Capitol Cash” of varying values. They then proceed to indicate how much they are willing to pay for health & wellness programmes into a glass piggy bank.

4. The Postcard Installation

Question: What are your favourite wellness activities?
How it works: Participants were given the option to pick their favorite activity/activities from a range of image cards (e.g. yoga, reading a book etc.) or be creative and  draw their own. They could then hang them on a frame, which also served as an art installation for the TWC community.

Members - thank you to those who have participated! For those who haven’t yet, keep a look out for the Postcard Installation at the pantry! ! We look forward to seeing the results come to life in new health and wellness offerings by TWC.

Our Honest Opinion of Habitat by Honestbee

Team Heist recently decided to take an impromptu field trip over to the new Habitat by Honestbee. Here’s what went down on a Thursday afternoon.

What about you? Have you been to the new space? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday Five with our UX Designer: Michelle

1/ What attracted you to a career in Design? Tell us about your journey so far.

Since I was a child, I found myself gravitating towards creativity and art. Where other kids in my school chose facts and formulas, I chose a blank canvas because I wanted to create. But as I became better informed, I realised that there is a lot more to design than just making something look pretty.

I graduated as a business designer, where I spent three years learning and applying Design Thinking. During my course of study, I participated in projects with several government agencies and private organisations to help them create new value and new forms of competitive advantage through human-centred innovation. I went on to practice visual design with NAFA and a local design agency so I could leverage my artistic side with my academic background. It gave me a foundation to build upon, as I design in virtual spaces and create art on paper.

My passion for people, design, and technology eventually led me to the world of UX. It took me awhile to figure it all out and somehow, I found that the sweet spot between business design, visual design and user experience design lies my greatest strength. Being grounded in Design Thinking, I’m able to apply existing skills in research and business strategy to the design process in humanising technology so it can be translated into meaningful experiences for people to enjoy. That’s my journey in a nutshell.

2/ How do you feed your creative energy?

On days when I want to expand my knowledge library, I’ll browse through Medium or Twitter and pick a read or two. I follow a bunch of writers, podcasts and blogs with curated UX content and that has helped widen my horizon on human-centred design.

I also find inspiration through my conversations with people. As part of a self-initiated study group started by six friends and myself, we come together once every month to share insights, tools and techniques on different UX topics and discuss upcoming trends in the field to remain updated and informed. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn from one another as we embark on our own journeys after graduation. And for that, I’m grateful because they keep me curious.

3/ Is there a particular design challenge or problem you’re passionate about helping solve?

To advocate for accessibility in UX Design. Digital accessibility refers to the building of digital content and applications that can be used by a wide range of people, including individuals who have visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive limitations.  

There’s this incorrect belief amongst people who assume that making websites and apps accessible is difficult and expensive but that’s not entirely true. Let’s take Grab’s “plus” icon for the multi-stop option as an example. This simple feature has saved me so much effort during times when I find myself situationally disabled. The ease of adding another location remotely made my experience better as it decreases the chance of miscommunication.

And the people behind this brilliant idea? They’re from the Blind and Deaf community in Singapore. (these)abilities ran Design Thinking workshops with the community as they improve the ride-hailing experience of the Grab app. The context of the feature was that Persons with Disabilities are unable to communicate with the driver when they require assistance or request for an additional stop for the ride. But with this inclusive design, it promoted effective non-verbal communication for them and the mass majority as well.

You see, the amazing thing about accessibility is that improving the quality of the experience for those with disabilities inherently improves the quality of the experience for everyone. And as designers, we have the power and responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to what we create regardless or ability, context, or situation.

4/ What advice would you give design students looking to start a career in Singapore?

Always have empathy. And know that its very different from sympathy. Empathy is perspective-taking, staying out of judgement, recognising emotions and communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people, and in turn, it fuels connection.

I feel like as designers, our main purpose here on earth is to empathise – Empathise with your users, your clients, your teams; and the list keeps growing. With that empathy, we go a step further and do something meaningful with it. I became a designer because it’s not enough for me to theoretically make the world a better place. I needed to know how to do it and do it right, and it seemed that having empathy is a good place to start.

Someone once shared this and it stuck with me for a long time. Hopefully it will stick with you too.  

In social issues class today our professor held up a black book and he said “this book is red”. We were all “no” and he said “yes it is” and we all said “that’s not right”. Then he turned it around and the back cover was red and he said “don’t tell somebody they’re wrong until you’ve seen things from their point of view.”

5/ Can you share an example of an experience that helped change your perspective when it comes to design?

Three years ago, I was working with a company in the public sector. During one of our monthly meetings, I had the chance to play some brain teasers with my colleagues. Here’s an example, try solving this one – Remove 8 Matchsticks to form 2 Squares.


Surprisingly enough (or not), I got it all wrong. Not because I didn’t manage to solve the puzzles, but simply because my answers didn’t match the ones in her answer sheet. I offered my explanation, hoping to get an A for effort but the facilitator just shook her head and said “sorry but the answer sheet said so.

The “Right” Answer (according to the answer sheet)

The “Right” Answer (according to the answer sheet)

My Answer (if you got this too, we’re on the same boat, and we’re not sinking)

My Answer (if you got this too, we’re on the same boat, and we’re not sinking)

And then it hit me; how people can be so rigid and bent on thinking a certain way and acknowledging only one set of answers that they deemed as correct. It scares me to think that some people are going to live like this for the rest of their lives. Design Thinking teaches us see beyond our own horizon, beyond our own thinking. It taught me to see things in many other different perspectives and that there is never just one correct answer.

As we venture into the workforce, there are bound to be people who will reject your way of thinking simply because they are afraid of change and the biggest part of what Design Thinking has to offer, is change. I hope to continue to design solutions outside the box and hopefully inspire someone else to do the same too. Baby steps at a time, we'll get there.

Friday Five with our Designer: Sofia

I took this photograph  (left)  in a mall in Hong Kong in the summer of 2016. The juxtaposition of escalators facilitating the circulation flow are reminiscent of  Relativity , the 1953 lithography print by M. C Escher  (right) .

I took this photograph (left) in a mall in Hong Kong in the summer of 2016. The juxtaposition of escalators facilitating the circulation flow are reminiscent of Relativity, the 1953 lithography print by M. C Escher (right).

1/ Hi Sofia, you recently moved to Singapore. What prompted the relocation?

I grew up in Morocco during the 90’s and through the early 2000s and moved to New York City the day after my 18th birthday. A few years later, I was ready to try something new and walk away from my comfort zone. Although I find the entire region exciting in every aspect, Singapore stood out because it has become the reference in so many regards, from the food scene to architectural elements. This wasn’t a spontaneous decision though, as the idea of moving to Asia had been building in my mind for a few years but needed to wait for the right moment to make it happen. I had never been to Singapore, but as I honed into the idea of moving here my curiosity increased exponentially and I could not wait to dip my toes in an environment that I was unfamiliar with. This was the catalyst for a leap of faith — I saw a window of opportunity which enabled me to be a part of the Heist team in Singapore and the rest is history.

2/ You’ve recently switched from Architecture to Experience Design - what learnings were you able to apply from your degree and past internship to your current role?

Design is about one thing and one thing only: enhancing people’s lives. I don’t see it as a switch but as a continuation: I’m passionate about way too many things to limit myself just yet. Whatever you do, particularly in this field, you need people to be the focus. Designing is not for the self, and I was slowly beginning to forget that and it's a problem. The skills i’m developing at Heist require diving deep into ethnography and not using it as an accessory or inspiration but rather as the fundamental core of the design process. That is a great tool to build on to what I have had the privilege to uncover previously in a more academic setting, and I’m very grateful for that.

3/ How do you feed your creative energy?

Places. Books. Music. Film. Anything and everything, really. I tend to enjoy movies that require subtitles and I’m a sucker for documentaries (the most recent ones being six-part docuseries Time: The Kalief Browder Story as well as 13th). When I am pulled into the vacuum of what’s “in” right now, I like to cleanse my musical palette with some Pink Floyd, Daft Punk, Radiohead, Nirvana... whatever my inner angsty-teen is craving in the moment. I prefer historical non-fiction because reality often surpasses the imaginary, I am currently reading God Sleeps in Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi. Travel is a big one too, I have been to various metropolitan cities throughout my life and I am proud to say I have discovered about 0.001% of the world so far (yes, you read that right). I’m eager to keep going and hopefully learn a thing or two along the way.

4/ Is there a particular design challenge or problem you’re passionate about helping solve?

Studying the urban fabric of cities and its inhabitants and designing for under-represented communities to thrive is one of the great design challenges of the 21st century, and it would be an honour to play a part — no matter how small — in resolving it. I love people and places: I studied space through architecture, I now study people through ethnography. The agglomeration of both is in cities, which is why I intend to further my studies in urban design. As a New Yorker I was curious about the functioning and conception of NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) public housing projects as well as the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) — two elements that have shaped the city tremendously. I was introduced to captivating and visionary case studies, for example Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s housing project as well as non-profit organisations such as 100 Resilient Cities and ea-hr, the latter which focuses on architecture and human rights. It’s great to be a daily commuter in Singapore because as a user it really gives a first hand insight on the tremendous efforts being made in ensuring such a successful and exemplary model for cities worldwide.

5/ What do you want to get out of your time in Asia?

I’m curious to experience and learn as much as possible here because I truly believe Asia is where it’s at right now, especially when it comes to design. My interests started shifting dramatically when introduced a couple of years ago to films like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love depicting 1960s Hong Kong, or the cinematic neon lights in Shanghai Blues, as well as directors like Park Chan-wook and Yasujiro Ozu whose movies screened at my local theatre. I recently revisited a childhood classic, Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus Spirited Away and was swept off my feet. Chinese and Japanese architecture kept coming up in classes and lectures: MAD Architects, I.M. Pei, Kengo Kuma, Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and SANAA to name a few… Asia is really on the international forefront right now and I’m excited to experience it’s art and design scene in person instead of just admiring it from afar, that would be a key takeaway for sure. Since I moved here, Singapore has pleasantly surprised me in so many ways. There is so much to experience beyond the standard tourist attractions and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into exploring every alley as much as humanly possible. As I do so, I hope to continue to make amazing and talented friends and overdose on Hawker food together. During my time in Asia, my goal is to have a deeper understanding of the different peoples, cultures and nuances encompassed within this great continent… keeping in mind that for everybody and even after a lifetime of labor to uncover its many facets, it will forever hold a part of mystery.

Friday Five with our Founder: Kajal

Read on to learn where our Founder, Kaj finds inspiration and happiness. Kaj grew up in New Delhi, India and continues to stay inspired by her home country while exploring the diverse cultures of Asia.

1/ Kaj, who or what inspires you on a regular basis?

I listen to a lot of podcast interviews. Debbie Millman’s Design Matters and Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs are two of my current favourites. I like to learn from the lives, journeys and lessons of people who have overcome adversity and gone on to do super cool things. Lately, I am inspired by Monica Grady - space scientist, Krista Tippett - the existentialist as well as early Nirvana albums (BTW, Kurt Cobain experimented with cultural immersion in his own way, taking to living in broken down motels later in his life in an attempt to regain inspiration)

In a nutshell - inspiration is everywhere and I’m always taking random photographs or making small notes for myself. Things connect in unexpected ways and I find being relentlessly curious about the world we live in makes us so much better at our jobs as design thinkers. And like scientists or architects - we designers too stand on the shoulders of giants. It helps to learn from the lives and lessons of others. Read, listen, travel, learn, ask lots of questions of yourself and those around you.

2/ We know you love Asia – do you have a favourite city or place?

That’s a hard one. I’ve been lucky enough to call New Delhi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore home over the last decade. Each city inspires me in a different way. I am most at home in Hong Kong - the subcultures, the music and film legacies, the food and bar scene and that there is easy access to everything from beaches to hikes in the space of 20 minutes.

Back home in India, I often visit Rajasthan - a state famous for its camels, old forts, gypsies and colourful outfits. Think men in pink turbans and pretty women twirling in parrot green skirts.  

3/ And what about Singapore – what’s the best thing about living here?

Well, my friends! And my apartment with its overgrown plants. Seriously though - the start up ecosystem here is great. It’s a super easy place to do business and an energetic regional hub. The EDB and SG Design Council have both been very supportive and we have a tight design community here. Also I love where I live - Tiong Bahru. It’s a great mix of retired folks in HDBs and young creatives. It gets a bad rap for being too hipster, but dig below the surface for fantastic stories.

The best part of Tiong Bahru is its community feel- the florist at our local wet market, the barista at my favourite cafe, the aunty who makes the best wonton noodles and the shared ownership of gloriously overweight cats.

Singapore has become a much more vibrant place in the last few years. When I lived in Shanghai, and we’d come down for work - it felt too calm and sterile. But the creative scene and design community, while still small - are increasingly more active and vocal. It feels like there’s a lot more to do and explore here now - from bloc parties to art & film events.

4/ Is there any dream project on the horizon for you?

I’m committed to finding a way to design for better mental health. Specifically, I’d like to reduce the stigma around anxiety and depression. A lot of people in Asia simply don’t have access to this level of mental healthcare they need, and it’s a huge problem amongst young people here. There are many cultural barriers to speaking out about these issues, and I’d like to see that change.

Over the last year, we’ve been spending time in Singapore universities and  community centres to find opportunities for mental healthcare. There’s a real need for a platform and service system that allows more people to get the help they need, and we’d love to find a way to bring it to life.

5/ Lastly, what has been your greatest lesson from running Heist for 3 years now?

Just one? Wow, the last few years have taught me so much - equal parts exhausting and rewarding. My top 3 learnings so far:

1/ Build your tribe - Actively build and contribute to, not just find. It’s impossible to do this alone - running a startup, having a good life as an expat living away from home, finding the right balance. I’ve been super lucky - and while I do have a very supportive family, they’re back home in New Delhi. Here in Singapore - I have managed to surround myself with interesting and hyper motivated people who continue to inspire me. Reflecting on what it’s like to explore uncharted territory -- whether it’s a fresh idea, a new market, or a yet-to-be-designed service -- keeps my skills sharp and my thoughts fresh, and I couldn’t begin to process my thoughts on what it means to live and work in SouthEast Asia without my group of friends.

2/ Create a board of advisors: Having access to a global network of inspiring world class designers is something I missed from my time at frog. To help recreate some of that, I reached out to people I admire and want to learn from - across a range of disciplines and industries. I learnt that if you ask people for advice with humility and good intentions, most are willing to help. My board of advisors consists of 7 very smart people including a headhunter, an architect, an investor and two clients I trust immensely. Each of them challenges me and helps me in different ways.

3/ Take care of yourself - I don’t just mean this in a ‘self care and spa’ way. But to take ownership of your health and wellness - physically, emotionally and spiritually. I box at the gym 4 days a week and have a business coach to help me with the challenges of running a startup. As a team, we spend a lot of time on the road for design research - but we always try to make time for ourselves to recharge, meditate or squeeze in a quick workout wherever we are. Whether in Singapore or in one of our Pop-Up studios, you’ll always find good music, yoga mats, healthy snacks and a lot of laughter. This goes a long way in keeping us all happy and productive no matter the design challenge.

Friday Five with our Design Researcher: Venus

Biophilic initiatives that were applied at a local co-working space. (Top) Adopt a plant initiative (Bottom) Coasters and napkins printed with seed paper for the Grow your plant initiative (Right) Interactive potted plant to encourage interaction with nature.

Biophilic initiatives that were applied at a local co-working space. (Top) Adopt a plant initiative (Bottom) Coasters and napkins printed with seed paper for the Grow your plant initiative (Right) Interactive potted plant to encourage interaction with nature.

1/ What attracted you to a career in Design Research? And what is your favourite thing about it?

While I was at university, I came across Jane Jacobs’ influential book, ‘The Life and Death of Great American Cities’. Her passion and determination to improve her neighbourhood using a community-based, people-centric approach really resonated with me and she quickly became one of my personal heroes.

At the time, several urban planners actively resisted her book. Many questioned her lack of credentials (she was never formally trained as an urban planner), while others thought that her primary method of street observation was disconcertingly subjective compared to  the statistically-oriented methods that are often used. However, her passion for her neighbourhood and ability to observe and empathise changed the way cities are currently planned and opened our eyes to important human-centric aspects that are typically rendered invisible by modern narratives of development.

Jane Jacob’s attitude and passion showed me that creating good design solutions goes beyond education or professional practice. It is far more important to have empathy, relentlessness and a strong desire to change or improve things. This is why I chose a career in Design Research. I want to help design solutions that can make a positive impact on people’s lives. It’s such a privilege to be able to listen to people, design for them and channel my inner Jane Jacobs.

2/ How do you feed your creative energy?

Well, I naturally gravitate towards things that excite me or make me feel creatively charged. I’m lucky to have friends who often share quirky articles, cool websites and interesting services - these things often give me a creative buzz. It is always important to keep yourself updated about the latest happenings and trends. Social media has been really helpful for that. It might seem like a counterproductive activity but looking at memes or random comics can sometimes give you a spark of inspiration and set bigger things in motion. I have started a few interesting passion projects with friends because of a meme that gave us a good laugh.

In general, I feel it is always important to approach everything with a child-like curiosity and be open to new experiences. Inspiration is a sneaky thing, so open up your mind and experience as many things as possible.

3/ Is there a particular design challenge or problem you’re passionate about helping solve?

As a born and bred Singaporean, it has always been my dream to be able to contribute to the nation. In particular, I would like to use design research to get more Singaporeans involved in the design of their city and immediate environments. The city often adopts a top-down approach to deal with planning and governance but I believe that there is a huge potential for increased public engagement.

This was a problem I tried to tackle while I was in university. Widely known as a ‘city within a garden’, Singapore government has spent tons of money and effort greening the outdoors. Yet, many Singaporeans are indifferent to the nature they see everyday. This is why I started a participatory design project in a local co-working space to challenge Singaporeans to think about ways their environment can be improved with nature and encourage them to take ownership of the greenery around them. Seeing the co-working community get involved in the project and appreciate the nature in their office has been very rewarding. It has also fuelled my passion to continuously work on people-centric projects that bring about a positive change, especially in the area of environment design.

4/ What advice would you give design students looking to start a design career in Singapore?

Think bigger - there is so much more that you can do. I believe that most people in Singapore do not think of design education as something that can be applied to many areas. Most students pursue a design degree to focus on very specific skills, like graphic design or interior design, but I think being naturally creative is a super power. If possible, I would like to see more young designers apply the thinking process that is taught in schools to solving ‘wicked problems’.

5/ Can you share an example of a work project that helped shift how you view your city?

While working on the Green Spaces participatory design project, I  had a few industry experts tell me that my biggest obstacle would be getting Singaporeans involved and excited about nature in their work environment. Even if the government were to mandate the provision of plants in offices, most Singaporeans would not be inclined to engage with the nature around them.  This was also something that I felt was true - it is a common belief that Singaporeans are just not interested in getting involved.

However, through the project, I’ve learnt that Singaporeans are willing to engage in conversations and and offer suggestions that can help design better solutions. The problem is that most Singaporeans have never been engaged in a meaningful manner and therefore, do not see the value of getting involved. They always seem to think that their perspectives or opinions will never be taken into consideration. By listening to their needs and designing for them, I think it allowed those involved in the project to see the value of their insights and also encouraged them to take ownership of the resulting solutions.

Friday Five with our Lead Design Researcher: Naima


1/ What attracted you to a career in Design Research? And what is your favourite thing about it?

Coming from user research, I was already familiar with the field of digital innovation. I like the challenge of uncovering and doing new things - when usually nobody can tell you how and what to design, build or test exactly.

I love how design research helps you uncover the drivers of human behaviour and understand it in the context of the culture. I like going out there, talking to people and solve their problems through great design.

2/ How do you feed your creative energy?

It’s a tough question as I never actively tried to feed my creative energy - but I feed it through my experiences such as travelling and studying languages. While travelling, I love to have super local experiences, talk to regular people, eat with them, try to understand their culture.

Other than that, I’m reading quite a bit about tech trends and like listening to TED Talks and interviews about all kinds of topics. And I like trying out new things such as taking a Mandarin class, joining a beach volleyball team or a Bachata Social. With these new activities, it’s easy to meet new people that have different mindsets and do different cool things - which never ceases to inspire me.

3/ You have been travelling quite a bit across Asia - what's your favourite discovery so far?

For me, the greatest lesson from travelling and living abroad has been what you discover about yourself. Learning, that I actually need a nature dose once in a while was new to me, having lived in the German countryside and in small cities where nature was always just a stone’s throw away. My nature highlight was Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Standing at the edge of an active volcano, just protected by a 30cm high railing that was more a tripping hazard than anything else, gazing into the smoky crater after taking a jeep ride in complete darkness to the top of the hill - is just indescribable.

Beyond that, I enjoyed deep diving into local cultures, being welcomed with hospitality in all places.

My favourite was spending Hari Raya with a hostel owner’s family and fellow travellers in Langkawi, visiting the open houses of three family members, eating delicious food in all places. I just imagined a group of strangers would walk into our house on Christmas - and my grandmother’s shocked face. I love these cultural differences.

4/ What advice would you give a young design professional, looking to move to Asia?

Do it! It's amazing. Come with an open mind, know that many things will be new to you and many challenges will seem very big and you'll work hard, but that's just what makes living and working in Asia so interesting and meaningful. For me, I achieved personal and professional growth. Understanding people and solving their problems while you're outside your own comfort zone of your native language or country broadens your horizon and makes you much better at your craft. Use this chance!

5/ Is there a design challenge you are keen to help solve - or a dream project perhaps?

Education. I know it’s super broad - there are so many ways in which education can be designed in a better way. In Germany, I’ve always found school uninspiring. Programs, classes and homework - all need to be designed differently to let students identify their passion and become great at what they enjoy doing. The learning experience has to be a more positive one and more customised to individual talents, needs and interests.

And then, in developing countries, I would love to make education more accessible. When I was in Myanmar, I met a group of village kids, that enjoyed speaking English to me. “See you tomorrow, see you tomorrow!”. I realised how curious and eager there are to learn - yet they don’t have a chance to study, often dropping out of school early to earn money for the family. This is a challenge I’d like to work on.

Friday Five with our Design Intern: Carina

The Swing Ring, designed by Carina.

The Swing Ring, designed by Carina.

1/ What made you pick Industrial Design as your major at uni? And what do you like best about it so far?

When I first started University, I did not consider Industrial Design (ID) — I was intrigued by what it was, but dismissed it as I was under the impression I did not meet the qualification requirements (I did not study higher level chemistry or physics). I’ll admit that I was misled by the word “industrial,” having pictured factories, machines and gears. Interestingly, I was pursuing a Global Studies degree when my ID friends showed me some of their work. I was so inspired; it seemed like a more fitting way for me to do work that would add meaning to the world. From there, I discovered I actually met the qualification requirements and transferred to ID.

The best thing about ID so far is it’s versatility. It’s possible to work with a wide range of tools: from traditional materials such as foam/wood for quick prototyping to more advanced technologies like 3D printing for detailed modelling. We also apply design thinking and the design process to a wide range of disciplines. In order to understand how something works, we have to study people, processes, and systems. Some examples of this are: studying how a kettle works to reinvent a new one, observing people’s spending habits to create an app that promotes cashless payments, and researching on trends around the world to 3D print a piece of jewelry.

2/ What is the one thing that has surprised you about learning/practising Design?

Everyone has a different collection of experiences, knowledge and thought processes, so much so that even if a design brief is given to a class of students, everyone still comes up with different ideas. There is something unique about the design process such that everyone’s outcomes/solutions are different. Each person also has their own style and differing interests. It’s pretty cool to think about how even though everyone is studying the same thing, we will probably go to different fields, work on different design projects with a different perspective, and create different kinds of impact.

3/ Who or what inspires you?

This question is tricky, because I think almost everything can have the potential to inspire me. I believe that the more you read, observe, and discover about the world — whether it’s directly related to design or not, the stronger the grasp you have in designing for people. Unexpected situations or circumstances can serve as a catalyst for the next breakthrough that you have. That being said, I am usually creatively stimulated after watching good films, looking at design blogs, reading articles/examples about innovation, reading up on global issues/ anecdotes, and sometimes even just by identifying problem areas I experience in my own life.

For example, UNHCR recently piloted an eye scanning payment system for Syrian refugees living in Jordan using blockchain technology. This enables Syrian refugees to access cash grants with a scan of their eyes. With this, there is no need for them to provide a passport or official documents, which can be a problem with refugees. Blockchain also records these transactions to deduct amounts spend on food from the cash assistance refugees receive from the World Food Programme. To me, this kind of innovation that empowers and provides for individuals is so inspiring and motivating.

4/ How do you think young designers can help shape future of Singapore?

Be optimistic. I read somewhere that to design is to be optimistic, and I’ve come to realise it’s quite true. Designers have to think and ideate on a future that does not yet exist, and work on finding opportunities to bring that future to a reality. We have to convince ourselves that we can use design as a tool to change mindsets, behaviours, experiences, policies, etc; we have to see problems as opportunities. It would be hard to do our job if we have the mindset that change is impossible.

5/ What do you believe is the greatest challenge for design students these days?

Balancing between ideating (thinking) and doing. It’s easy for me to get caught up in my own web of ideas, trying to think of the best one to work on… without actually doing anything. In that sense, it seems as though there is zero progress, because everything is in your mind rather than something tangible. When it’s hard to find a solution, it may be discouraging to start prototyping as well. However, I’ve come to realise that ideas can surface while prototyping. Similar to writing, sometimes you just need to type something out — no matter how bad it is, at least that’s a step towards correcting something to a better version of what it was previously.