"I am a slave to time." says interaction designer Kai Leow (Part 2)

Kai is an established senior interaction designer from Singapore – and one of my colleagues. In the second part of the interview, we talk about alternative career options, being a generalist vs specialist, ASEAN's potential, future technologies and talk about what would Kai change if he had infinite powers.
By Jan Takacs, 26th May 2020
You can read the first part of the interview here.

Alternative careers & Pi-shaped people

Was there ever a moment in your career, when you have been completely fed up with a design and wanted to get away from all this? To change a profession entirely or just do something different for a while?

I did record myself playing the guitar and posted it on Instagram the other day,.. so I was thinking about it in a way, in this stay home situation, but I will say no.

I love being a designer; it completes me. I don't think I'll ever stop creating things. Today, being an interaction designer is just one part that scratches an itch. I don't see myself switching anytime soon. Midlife crisis is still hopefully far away. Maybe ask me again in about eight years. When it hits and then yeah, I might give you a different answer.
So you being a guitarist was the closest... Can you imagine what you would be if not a designer?

What would I be if not a designer? Tricky question. I wouldn't be a chef because of too long hours, and my dad was a chef. I could see his hairs on his arms have been burned after long hours of standing in the kitchen. So that's not my thing. I would probably be a music composer. I wrote songs in my youth. So yeah, I would totally do that.
"I love being a designer; it completes me. I don't think I'll ever stop creating things."
Why didn't you continue in that direction?

Because it can't pay the bills!
Efficient Singaporean thinking.

Haha yeah, welcome to Singapore!
What are your thoughts on being a specialist versus a generalist? Is there any advice you would like to give to the younger folks who are just starting their design journeys?

I believe every designer should be a generalist in the beginning. This gives you essential knowledge of how everything works on the basic level. As a junior designer, I don't think you need to be good at any of the core skills like drawing, creating, etc. You don't have to be. Don't give yourself too much pressure over it. As you go up, you need to be a specialist. You need to be a master at something, become a T-shaped person.

But today, I don't think that's enough. You need to be a pi-shaped person (π - note, author). You need to have two specializations that you can create a new meaning of. Create your unique discipline by merging two skills. Make this your brand where you can own the category, and that's how you can differentiate yourself as the designer in the industry.
In a parallel universe, the world welcomes yet another hipster musician breaking into the scene
Experimentation of animated type
Can you expand on this idea for a bit? What piece of advice would you like to give to juniors reading this? How should they start?

Just become your one-person or one-woman company. Start with your product, own the marketing, own the business, own the production. Own the various verticals of your project. And then once you do this, you will realize what you're good at, and what you're not. And you are (hopefully) going to discover what you're passionate about and then grow from there.

Do show eagerness to learn and that you can grow beyond what you are today. I think that's a fundamental mindset to have - as a junior going up as a mid-level designer.

The future, space race & superpowers

Let's go away from the design - and let's talk about the future. Is there something you are especially looking forward to? For example, any technology that makes you particularly excited - or worried? Something that you think it's going to change the world?

OK, that's a big one. My first knee jerk reaction was to say flying cars.  But, what I am really looking forward to is that global understanding to consume less - and more consciously.

Which means things like new experiences and products have to be different and exciting, build to fit our lifestyle better.

Technology-wise,.. technology is always going to be better, faster. It's going to be incremental, though. I have faith in humanity to do that.
Thinking about the region here, we are dealing with a wide range of issues in ASEAN - pollution, inequality, rapid urbanization, various environmental problems,.. Is there something specific where you feel that design and innovation are incredibly well-positioned to make a big change? To help everyone in ASEAN to live better? More sustainably?

There are so many challenges that I would love to tackle. Healthcare is something that I'm very passionate about. Having a connected healthcare experience from inpatient, outpatient, even helping the doctors streamline the process of giving care to patients. So many things can be done. I think as future design leaders, we need to help to move forward this conversation.

Design in ASEAN, I would say, is pretty much still in the early stages. It's growing at a steady rate, though. The perspective of design as purely aesthetic has moved away during the last five or so years. Transferring the design conversation from aesthetics into something that creates meaningful experiences has shifted quite a bit, so yay for us. It's a wonderful time to be a designer.
"If you want to have a good life, work. If you want to make it big, network."
I have a couple of closing questions to make it a bit more fun; If you could turn back time and talk to 18-year-old Kai, is there something that you would like to tell him?

Go out more. Have an exciting childhood. Studying is not everything. Maybe it's because I had to pay for my school fees growing up, I felt this sense of loss aversion that each day, I don't commit myself to my personal growth, it's a wasted day.

Oh, there are two sides to the coin. So some will say, "No, Kai, I think you did the right thing." Some will say, "No, you got to have fun more. Hang out, drink or whatever,.."

But the idea that I didn't socialize as much in my youth is kind of wasted. I spent a long time in the design studio, making things. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube tutorials and all that. 18-year-old me didn't know that network makes everything work. If you want to have a good life, work. If you want to make it big, network. Yeah, so 18-year-old me would truly appreciate that.
Kai shares snippets of the design process at a Kuala Lumpur meetup
Kai shares snippets of the design process at a Kuala Lumpur meetup
If you think about the world right now; is there something that you would like to change or do if you have infinite powers? Think like removing borders or eliminating racism, anything,... If you would have complete control and power.

Yes, yes. This has got to do with my personal ambition, which is to continue the space race. So I think that it's pretty exciting that NASA is going back to the moon next year. So I think in terms of evolution and exploration, a sense of adventure, yeah, we should prioritize going back to space.

You see your parents' eye light up when they remember them on TV watching humanity land on the moon. I think a monumental event like this is something that we lack today.
"I think that it's pretty exciting that NASA is going back to the moon next year. We should prioritize going back to space"
If you could have one superpower, what it would be and why?

If I could have one superpower, it is to teleport because I hate travelling. I hate the idea of staying in a vehicle or a plane sit just to get to another place. So by snapping my finger, I can get to that place immediately. Oh, that would be fantastic. That would help me save a lot of time.
Why do you hate travelling so much? It's because you think you're wasting time or...

I am. Like I said earlier, I'm a slave to time. I always have my eBook ready, just crunching up articles and whatever so that I just feel that the travelling time isn't wasted.
Exploration on expression with loops
Exploration on expression with loops
Where is this time pressure coming from, by the way? Do you feel the pressure of the finite time that we have in our lives? Why are you putting so much pressure on yourself?

This stems from my earlier days when I didn't have enough sleep. Then I realized a lot of successful people sleep only like six, five hours a day. And for myself, when I was 21 years old, I said, "Kai, you need to have seven to eight hours of sleep every day."

Because when I was a teen, I had a terrible temper, and when I got enough rest when I was an adult, that temper went away. So I realized, "Hey, it's got to do with my sleep cycle." So having enough sleep is a must. I get to perform better in the day, but that also means lesser awake hours to do things. So, time. Everyone has the same limited amount of it.
"When I was 21 years old, I said, "Kai, you need to have seven to eight hours of sleep every day."
I think that's a great way how to end this. Thank you for all the answers!

Cool. Thank you, Jan!
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