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The Shapeshifters

Voon Wong of Viewport Studio talks about why you should take a multidisciplinary approach to solving design problems.

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BY Janice Seow

February 5th, 2015


Illustration: Fredrik Yeo

Thanks to the Internet, our worlds have recently become broader and filled with opportunity and possibility. Our interests can now be cultivated that much more quickly and easily; research material can be obtained and interest groups located at a click of a button.

With so much on offer, it is no wonder that Generation Y no longer needs to be defined by singular interests or professions. The marketers and trend forecasters have labelled them the slash/slash generation. Not referring to serial killers as the name might imply, it describes a group of people who are defined by multiple facets and activities. They might not be just an engineer, but a “piano player/activist/videographer/foodie/outdoorsman/part-time barista” as well.

Engaging in multiple activities is one way of making ends meet in our uncertain economic times, but it isn’t always about money. Generation Y wants to be fulfilled and for their work to reflect their values. And surely their complex psyches cannot be summed up in just a singular activity; only a combination of different strands can fully describe who they are.

This slash/slash mentality extends to the design world as well. In the UK, Thomas Heatherwick and Barber Osgerby are leading examples of this genre-busting, multi-disciplinary approach. Their work encompasses product, exhibition, transport and interior design as well as public art. Before you dismiss them as Jacks-of-all-Trades, the quality of their work is a testimony to the same rigorous design thinking applied to all their projects and to the macro view that comes from working in different genres. The Heatherwick Studio started out in 1994 with window displays at London’s Harvey Nichols, seating for Magis, to the new design for the iconic red London buses and have now moved on to full scale architecture with their proposed work for the Learning Hub at NTU in Singapore.

We at Viewport Studio have always had our fingers in more than one pot. We have found that the same design thinking can be applied to various design disciplines, be it architecture, interiors, transport or product design. Sure, each of these disciplines has its own constraints and particularities, but the overall problem solving approach does not differ greatly. Our recently launched Upper Class cabin interior and bar for Virgin Atlantic Airways, is in many respects, the project that best sums up this approach. It was a small piece of architecture set within an airplane interior. The spatial dynamics within such a compact area required architectural skills of planning, but product design skills were needed for the rigorous detailing to bring the design past testing and then to manufacture.

In addition we were charged with documenting the passenger experience throughout the journey from check-in to touch-down. The touchpoints of this journey informed the design of the cabin interior and were enhanced by our lighting design within the cabin. What was game changing was that we were asked not just to solve problems, but to come up with an overall strategy based on our understanding of the passenger experience.

Clients are placing increasing importance on a holistic experience within which architecture, design and lighting can plug in. As design becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it becomes less of a differentiator for an airline, hotel or restaurant. What differentiates such a business from another now is a macro overview of strategic thinking and customer experience. This will, in the near future, present a sea change in the entire design eco-system.

Design practices need to exercise flexibility, agility and good ol’ thinking-out-the-box within this changing marketplace. Designers need to not only respond to a brief, but sometimes also to participate in the brief-writing. The creative thinking that we learnt in design schools must be applied not only to the task at hand, but to the nature of our profession as well.

This article first appeared in Cubes Indesign issue 68