"I am a slave to time." says interaction designer Kai Leow (Part 1)

Kai is an established senior interaction designer from Singapore – and one of my colleagues. We sat down (remotely) to discuss the current COVID craziness, demystify the world of design frameworks and methodologies – as well as talk about his early beginnings and working under the ever-present pressure of deadlines.
By Jan Takacs, 16th May 2020


Every day I am surrounded by many inspiring and uplifting individuals. They are continually pushing me forward and tend to give me a boost of energy, motivation and enthusiasm for new things.

This gave me an idea to start a series of interviews, with the intention to share their stories, backgrounds, ideas and experiences and also to shed some light on disciplines I am passionate about - especially in the domain of design, business and technology.

For the first interview, I chose my friend and colleague from Singapore. We have shared a bunch of adventures with Kai already, both inside and outside the office. We recently led a design team for a significant project for a Fortune 500 company here in the region; so to start with someone like that felt like a natural choice.

The New Normal

Jan: Hey Kai, welcome! To start on a simple note; the entire world is going crazy from COVID and everything around it, so it makes me wonder - how do you adjust to this full remote working style, and how do you cope with all that's happening right now?

Kai: Hey Jan, thank you for having me. To be honest, it's new for everyone, especially if I look at how my family, my family runs a business, they run a music school, so that has to be closed - and that obviously has consequences.

As for working from home as a designer, I always joke that as introverted designers, we have been preparing for this our whole life. We don't have to go to the office anymore. It's funny, but staying at home for the past several weeks, yeah, it gets to you.

You're no longer breathing fresh air. You're now stuck. Your workplace is also your bedroom, so learning how to draw boundaries is very important. Learning how to count time into segments is also critical to one's sanity. So yeah, learning things as you go along, you get better at it as the weeks go by.
Everything suddenly shifted so quickly into the digital world, into this virtual space that we have built over the last couple of decades. Some people and businesses are thriving, some less. We have more tools and technologies available to our disposal than ever, but still - what do you think that can't really be transferred into the online space yet?

I would say that there are a lot of things that are tested to the physical space that are very difficult to translate. If you look, for example, at how the Disney imagineers work, how they design a theme park, they consider every single sense, smell, sight, touch. All this adds to the collective experience that we just can't have online.

Also, in digital, as powerful as digital can be, we are still limited to the physical screens and their limitations. Like a limited amount of colours compared to the real world, for example, so from this perspective we still have a couple more years to go. But in terms of making the world more convenient, more connected, I think digital is doing excellent in this.
"For me, I like learning new things. It keeps me awake. It keeps me energized. It keeps me looking forward to the next day."
And when you think about this from the other side, from the creator's point of view - what do you miss the most about being able to be physically present in the office?

To me, it's the sense of collaboration that you get in open offices and having someone to talk to, to mingle with. You have an idea, you can bounce it off, and then you get immediate real feedback. So now, working from home, I guess, everyone back to the good old days.

You need to set up a call, set up a meeting. You just have to secure someone's time. It's a bit less spontaneous. I guess that's what... yeah, less spontaneous. And of course, the physicality of having like a stand-up, for example, talking through what we have done today, I kind of miss that. Now, it loses the sense of physicality. Yeah.
Mentioning all this, what keeps you in good spirits these days, do you have any unique sources of inspiration?

What keeps me in good spirits, ... I draw a lot. Recently, I have a new hobby of doing shot one-second animation with just twelve frames. It's called Looom, L-O-O-O-M, that's three Os in the middle.

It's really fun. It's a fun app that has zero labels. All the menus are just shapes and figures - there are zero words in it. So that's really cool from a UI perspective. I think that's what drew me in the first place.

So I spend time creating like GIFs that repeat, that goes on repeat every one second. I only have twelve frames to work with. So I challenge myself by making this twelve frame tell a simple story, as short and as simple as possible. So that's really fun.
Do you feel that finding new hobbies beyond what you usually do is vital to open your senses a bit more? And to be engaged and occupied these days?

I guess it's person to person. For me, I like learning new things. It keeps me awake. It keeps me energized. It keeps me looking forward to the next day. I know some people love to cook. They want to try a new recipe. A good balance of novelty and familiarity is always healthy. So yeah, you got to find the right balance.
Focus on showcasing your value as a designer. Utilizing a case study approach instead of showing a collection of UI samples without any context is the right way how to do that.
A moment of reprieve from the tumultuous corporate designer life

A design journey

Let's dive into the world of design. What inspired you to become a designer in the first place? How did that happen?

How did that happen? It happened when I realized there so many subjects to choose from,... I did my studies in Singapore. We have about 10 years of compulsory education. So after my 10th year, we're allowed to pursue higher education where you get to delve into a subject of your choice.

But at that time, as a teenager, as a freckled 16-year-old teenager, it's difficult to commit and make a choice and say, "Hey, that's something I'm going to do for the rest of my life." So, of course, to avoid the whole situation and embarrassment in my adult life, I picked the somewhat more prestigious course, which was architecture. Making buildings.

So after three years into the architecture school, I realized I really liked making things with my own hands, finding the meaning behind a drawing, space, just trying to understand what is the value of an object that we create.

I decided to continue my education in industrial design, or product design. That got me deeper into research and into making the right things. So today, digital design translate well from there. I am still making things with my hands, I am creating new meaning, new interactions, new experiences that people can find valuable. That's what keeps me going as a designer.
"I would say, having a sense of idealism is critical in the success of any designer, regardless of discipline."
What are, in your mind, the fundamental qualities that every designer needs to have? What are the skills or capabilities that you think no designer can't ever live without?

I think that there are two parts to this answer. The first part is about talent and the second part is about, I will say, skillset. So, then again is a question of nurture versus nature, right?

I would say, having a sense of idealism is critical in the success of any designer, regardless of discipline. As an idealist, designers need to see the vision, the end goal of what it can be.

How a designer is different from an engineer, an engineer takes a more scientific approach. A designer needs to be more idealistic and know when to push boundaries. This is nature part.

Then there is nurture. A good designer never stops gaining knowledge, peripheral knowledge about the world, about anything. I always preach that as a great designer, you need to have an excellent visual vocabulary. You've got to be a lyricist. you need to know a variety of words, difficult words to create poetry. As a designer, a deep visual vocabulary add to your ability to create. Senior designers are not just good because they have excellent hard skills. Their value comes an extensive vocabulary to help them create new things and form meanings in creating something new.
Would you say that as you grow into more senior roles, then the hard skills become slightly less important compared to the other abilities? Compared to soft skills, for example?

Definitely. Hard skills give us the foundational knowledge in estimating how long it takes to create and its required processes. It also grounds you in the sense of realism for tasks not possible within a timeframe.

As you move up, it's more important that we take on more leadership and coaching skills because, at the end of the day, great design comes from working in a team. Full stop. You cannot produce a great product by yourself. It will take a ridiculous amount of time unless you're incredibly talented. You just got to learn how to work in a team.
"At the end of the day, great design comes from working in a team. Full stop."
We can see a considerable rise in the usage of tools like Mural, Miro or Figma right now. Do you have any quick tips for younger designers, on how to be better at online collaboration? Or how to start at all? Anything you would like to share with people to help them in becoming better designers?

When it comes to design tools it's crucial to choose right. Pick the one tool that has the lowest barrier of entry. I'm not endorsing any products specifically, but any product today with a free tier is a fantastic way to start and get familiar with.

Start in choosing a tool to be good at. For online tools, my personal favourite is Miro, formerly known as Realtimeboard. In Miro, it's terrific to see a replica of the experience of using post-its. As designers, we organize our thoughts in buckets and move transpose these ideas to other places. I think to have this online and in real-time for many users at once is fantastic.

Another tool that I use is also called Notion. Notion is a competitor to Evernote but with the ability to create nested pages intuitively. There is also a built-in Kanban board and all that. Of course, it can be your own personal Trello task-checking board as well. It's just so powerful. I've basically moved all my notes from Apple Notes to Notion, it’s a one-stop shop to do everything. I guess that's pretty much the trend now, a one-stop-shop.  A single software to covers all the bases - mapping, IA, Kanban etc..
Focus on showcasing your value as a designer. Utilizing a case study approach instead of showing a collection of UI samples without any context is the right way how to do that.
Kai’s design for PIONEER Magazine, a digital publication for a Singapore Government Agency
Is there anything that you would like to see in the future? Where do you think we are heading in terms of tools?

Direct publishing. I think that's the direction. I think the future is moving towards that.

Today for digital design, we need to ideate. There's one tool when you present slides. Then we need to create hi-fi screens. Hi-fi would translate to a developer for staging in another environment ending with a test environment for testers . There will be an eventuality where all will be compressed to one tool.

I'm not saying that developers or designers will be made redundant, (a lot of jobs in the future will be made redundant, regardless). Everyone's going to be a designer in a way.

Just look at Canva and I even say that they are making design into a commodity, which I agree is in the right direction. Make it so that every marketing person, every startup owner, the business owner has a tool to create whatever artefact they require. They may not make the best outcomes, but at least it's a tool that's accessible to them and this abstracts the entire design process for them.
"Give yourself space and time to create, to explore. Just be mindful of not giving yourself too much."
Now, to continue on another note, I know you're a big fan of frameworks. And I know that you approach the design work with almost a surgical precision - and in a very controlled way for the whole team. So I'm curious, how do you find the balance between this sort of a more stringent approach and between a bit more lenient setting?

OK, so yes, I am very conscious that I've been known as a design system, process and framework freak. But the point is there is a time and space for everything; a dedicated session to do explorative design, to throw the wildest thing out there, a platform to have critique, receive feedback and to iterate your design based on that input.

I am a slave to time, I will say. I try to timebox as much of my work as possible because design is a never-ending process. As an idealist, you will never get there. It's all only as good as time limits.

My takeaway from using frameworks this saves you time for productivity sake. Give yourself space and time to create, to explore. Just be mindful of not giving yourself too much.
How would you explain this to a team of people who might find this approach too limiting, with so many restraints and rules? Do you take your time to sit and talk to them like, "Hey guys, in the long term, it's going to be more efficient for you. It's going to save time. We have tight deadlines, and it makes more sense." What do you usually tell them?

What do I usually tell them? Well, time is the ultimate measurement. If you do not have enough time, it's because you don't have the right inspiration or you're not in a suitable state of mind or environment to do it.

As a junior designer, know how to find your zen, your inner zen and get inspiration where you can. I think it's part of our design training back in design school to know when you're stuck in that creative... what's the word again? Creative block. The black hole. Creative black hole. That's right. Yeah.

If you're stuck, know how to look for help. I mean, if you're running a team, know that your fellow designers can inspire you as well. So knowing how to ask is also a skill that we learn along the way. Sometimes we forget how much we need it.
Focus on showcasing your value as a designer. Utilizing a case study approach instead of showing a collection of UI samples without any context is the right way how to do that.
Maggi Slices embodies the Kai’s design philosophy of pragmatic aesthetics in this packaging design project
Right now, with all that is happening across the world - it might reshape the entire global space for years to come. Did you have an event in your life or some paradigm shift moment that redefined your career? Was there any experience that changed Kai as a designer?

Well, now, that is a difficult question. Nothing comes to mind that I would say changed the paradigm for me. Maybe that,... I used to think that me being schooled properly in design makes me the best advisor and a knowledge centre for all things design.

I mean, in hindsight, that was a bit not right. There are other perspectives based on your upbringing, based on your environment, based on your actions that change what is true to you. So me realizing that somehow opened my eyes a lot.
"If you do not have enough time, it's because you don't have the right inspiration."
Do you feel that having an academic degree (in design) makes you more qualified or competent - compared to people who don't have any formal design education?

I think the flaw that I had was ... I thought being academically correct was the only way to go, which is not true, of course. Being academically educated gives you a baseline, a solid baseline - but that doesn't mean that this should be accepted by everyone and anyone in the world.
Let's talk about design methodologies. When we think about them - they are all so well-defined right now. Almost every designer is using either Double Diamond or some design thinking practices, and nearly every company is implementing it.

Do you occasionally feel that you want to do things differently? Or does the current repertoire of methodologies provide you with enough options to experiment, to define your own way? What's your take on this?

If it ain't broken, don't fix it. Yeah, don't fix it, right? (haha) I've been taught the Double Diamond and design thinking since my schooling days, so I haven't really been exposed to other ways of designing.

Back in architectural design, there is no Double Diamond. No such thing. So what we had in the past was this thing called programmatic design. Buildings are not sculptures. They are not for aesthetics. It needs to have a program, an activity that you must contain within the space they are designed for.

So what it means is you've got the list of all the different factors of success. These different parameters will help you construct your design. The design parameters that help you get to your goal faster because the design needs to fulfil an objective. You're designing for people - you're not designing for self. You are not an artist, and you're here to combine both form and function. I think that much is very clear in the field of design.

Will there be any new methodology that comes up? Definitely. Humans are great in re-doing things all over again. History always repeats itself. But will it be better than the current methodology that we use? Maybe. I'm not sure.

I think each procedure has its pros and cons. I guess people, looking at the modern-day society, we need to choose the best way to tackle a situation. So, having a broad view of all the different methodologies out there that can allow us to help us choose better.
Focus on showcasing your value as a designer. Utilizing a case study approach instead of showing a collection of UI samples without any context is the right way how to do that.
Form Analogy is a simple exercise to train Kai’s cognitive muscle for associating shapes and meaning
Focus on showcasing your value as a designer. Utilizing a case study approach instead of showing a collection of UI samples without any context is the right way how to do that.
Chromaticity is a 2016 project by Kai that demonstrates colour theory into the 3rd dimension using implicit qualities of light
Are the current design thinking techniques (and the Double Diamond) providing you with enough gear to tackle all the problems and issues that you are facing these days?

Well, that's a tough one. So the Double Diamond and, basically, Google Design Sprint, all that - they tackle the issue of innovation. How do we generate new ideas, novelty?

So it's a framework that pulled many brains together to help you generate quickly new ideas, iterate on it, create something, test it out, push it out. I think this has worked exceptionally well for digital products.

We can't do that for, let's say, other design fields. Let's say product design, I mean, physical product design. So this method doesn't work. There are different methods out there which are specific to the field. But overall yeah, I think I am fairly happy with today's growing standards.
In the second part, we will explore alternative career options, ASEAN's potential, predictions for the future and talk about what would Kai change if he had infinite powers. Read here.
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