team

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.