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.