"There is this inexplicable need for me to design every day", says Shaza Hakim, a principal designer from Stampede

Shaza is one of the design and remote working pioneers in Malaysia. Having founded digital creative agency Stampede almost 15 years ago in 2006, she has experienced the unfolding of Southeast Asia's entire design journey firsthand. In this interview, we discuss her early beginnings, pros and cons of running own business, what it is like to work remotely from a tropical island and also talk about the future regarding the evolution of UX in the region and beyond.
By Jan Takacs, Editing by Alexis Ernst, 14th January 2021

Early Beginnings

Jan: Hello Shaza, thank you very much for taking the time to talk about your design journey and how you got to where you are today. Let's start at the beginning of your career - when did you first decide that you're going to be a designer?

Shaza: Hey, Jan! Initially, when I started, I didn't set out to be a designer. I was not trained as one. I graduated in IT, as a jack-of-all-trades; master of absolutely nothing. However, I was curious about how people come out with beautifully-designed products; I wanted to know how all that happened. My original training is in science and technology, so I always look for the rules and mechanics behind things.

Back then, I started to look for "rules" in design, and I was trying to figure out "how do you make a design so good that anyone can use it?" When you look at a beautiful, well-designed product or a service, you don't have to explain it, because it's intuitive. So, in the beginning, I was setting out to understand "what makes a good design".
You have been self-employed for almost your entire life. Why did you choose this direction for your career?

Initially, I didn't set out to be self-employed. I thought that there were certain pre-qualifications for you to have before venturing into entrepreneurship; such as having a big network with many years of professional experience, or life savings to fund your entrepreneurial adventure.

It just so happened that when I was starting as a web designer, it was not a career that was widely available fifteen years ago like it is now. As I learned more about design, I knew I wanted to practice it. There is this inexplicable need for me to design every day.

What helped me immensely in my early career was that I was able to produce designs, and then code them into HTML and CSS on my own. This gave me a huge competitive advantage. My work started to get noticed in early 2006 through various CSS galleries. Suddenly, I had inquiries from clients in the US and Australia. Which, retrospectively, I'm hugely grateful for as I probably wasn't employable material in Malaysia back then [laughs].
The four core buckets for measuring the business impact of design (Source: Designer Fund)
Shaza speaking at an event in Kuala Lumpur.
Can you share some of the advantages and disadvantages of being self-employed for so long? Are there any such examples for you?

Well, I'm going to start with the downside of being self-employed: If you're self-employed and you're the only employee — In essence, you are a freelancer. You do have a lot of freedom in terms of only needing to take care of yourself. This is about what you want to do, what you enjoy doing, the kind of clients you can get, the type of work that nourishes you.

Still, the moment you employ someone else, suddenly, you're responsible for them — for their career growth, for being able to pay their salary, but in some way you're also accountable for their entire family's livelihood.

That's a scary thought. I would not necessarily call it a "downside". This is just another form of responsibility. It is something that weighs heavily in my mind — even until now.

The real "downside" would be that every single decision you make, you need to think of the consequences beyond just yourself. In a way, when you are an employee, you are shielded from that. More than likely, your boss needs to make that decision for you.

However, the up-side of being self-employed: You are the master of your destiny. You can say, "Yes", and "No", to particular projects. You have the agency to decide which direction you want to go, but various factors contribute to your decisions. There are economic factors, there is push-and-pull, considerations that you need to do; and ultimately, you are in charge of making decisions.

If you are the sort of person who loves making decisions based on information, based on very dynamic conditions, then being self-employed is like a new level every day. I have truly enjoyed that part of being self-employed.
"When things get tedious and overwhelming, and you don't have the support, it can be lonely."
Did you ever want to work for a company instead of running it yourself? Was there a moment where you were like, "Screw all this. I'm just going to go find a job, and I'm going to be okay." Or has that never happened?

That thought crossed my mind when I had a small team. We grew our design team very slowly. Within the first five years, there were maybe only one or two of us. This small group was a challenge for us. When things get tedious and overwhelming, and you don't have the support, it can be lonely. You are unsure if the decision you are making is the right [design] decision.

So, that was the point when I was thinking, "Should I give this up? Perhaps see if whatever skill that I have right now is something that the market is looking for."

On the other hand, it was only a passing thought. I never explored it thoroughly because I think I would miss the rush and the ability to make my own decisions and be fully accountable for it. I would have missed that part.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Community love. Stampede Makers is a quarterly meet-up for community of designers and digital tinkerers in Malaysia. Stampede also runs hands-on workshops to help bridge product strategy and design execution.
You are a local leader for IDF in Malaysia and a curator for the UX Malaysia initiative. How did that happen? Do you feel that you have some responsibility towards the community of UX designers in Malaysia?

It could come off as a sense of responsibility and still, to some degree, I feel there was a need for sustenance through the community. We could thrive alone, be the solitary kid genius deep in our little caves, or we could be open to embracing the complexities that only others like us can appreciate.

I do it because when I think of myself when I was twenty years old or so, I would appreciate similar support and an initiative like that. We didn't have that many high-quality resources like now. I also feel that the new generation of upcoming local designers benefits from having someone that tells them, "I understand where you are right now, it's hard. I've been where you are. I'm telling you if you continue and you persevere, you're going to get there."

This sort of confidence, I didn't get that when I was starting in design, and it would make a big difference, especially earlier in my career. So, I am trying to provide that kind of environment for the new generation of designers. Seeing the fruits of this type of work always satisfies me.

I came across this very inspiring quote from Paula Scher [one of the principal designers in Pentagram — note], she's in her seventies now. She said that "I'm driven by the hope that I haven't done my best work yet." She never wants her best work to be behind her. Hope is knowing you have more to give. That's something I identify with, that kind of looking-forward mindset drives me daily. Because of this, I try to spread this level of confidence to others and nurture and build a community in the process.
Growing young designers

Stampede runs Makers community meetups and workshops to share their love for design craftsmanship with fellow makers, designers, developers and tinkerers alike. They also conduct a 6-month long Stampede Apprenticeship program for design hopefuls — their Alpha class apprentices will graduate this January.

Internally, the team also organizes design hackathons and regular tactical sharing sessions, to stretch and flex our creative muscles outside of client work. This blending of design education and practice provides a fertile ground for young designers to grow.
"I do it because when I think of myself when I was twenty years old or so, I would appreciate similar support and an initiative like that."
Grab operations span across 8 Southeast Asian countries (Source: Grab)
Remote ≠ work from home. "Remote work to me is the freedom to associate work with a creative state of mind, instead of physical spaces."

A founder's journey

Let's talk about Stampede [user experience and digital creative agency Shaza founded — note]. It can be tough to run a business such as UX design agency in emerging economies, where the level of design maturity is still relatively low. Is it hard for you to get new work and clients for Stampede in Southeast Asia? Or are you trying to diversify a bit more and go beyond the region?

I would say that in my experience, it was the other way around. When we first started Stampede, we were not into UX design that much. My earliest window into UX, like for many other computer science students I suspect, was in the form of HCI: Human-Computer Interaction. Looking back, I didn't know UX at all.

I started as a web designer and the first eight years of my career was mostly about web design, then responsive design, and only then UI / UX design came into play.

Our very first client was actually from the Netherlands, and this was because I did a design, I put it on one of the CSS galleries, and it got noticed.

For the first 10 years of Stampede, our clients were not from Malaysia at all. We worked with clients from the US; we worked with the City Council from Australia. One of my favourite clients was the Museum Of Sex in New York. They were our second ever client. The curator at MoS introduced us to a young skincare upstart with a small brick-and-mortar shop at 7th Ave in Chelsea, Malin+Goetz, which then promptly became our third client.

And what I like about the relationship is that we have been remote since day one and some of our clients we have never met till this day, and they are still our clients from fourteen years ago. That's huge for us. In terms of business, we had a very nice niche in a particular moment when we had a combination of two marketable skills: Design and CSS.

Because of that, we developed good relationships with clients, and they needed more and more. So, we have always had very generous clients, very kind, very supportive in our business relationship with them.

Then five years ago, we hit a turning point in Malaysia. Design was reaching a new maturity level — designers were no longer part of this secretive group; they spoke more openly in meetups, community events, mamak places [street food open-air establishments — note]. Businesses started to be design-savvy and created positions for designers to get a much-coveted seat at the table. Overall, conversations started happening, and we began to get more local clients. Clients of any design maturity and size.

At that time, I also started to pay a lot of attention to the business side of design things. I had to learn about the economics of pricing, keeping the lights on, diversifying our income streams and hiring right. Like many things, these don't come naturally to me. It's still something I'm learning every day.

This new experience of working with clients from your backyard made me look back critically at the impact of our work on our clients. I became very curious about these opportunities we can now pursue through design — in various industries and even countries. Can we start infusing the high accessibility standards of Australian city councils into Malaysia's own? Can we breathe in that Malaysian warmth and personality into American's straightforward approach towards getting things done? All these things are exciting to me as a designer.

To summarize, we found ourselves 14 years in and in terms of opportunities, strangely enough, we are pretty busy with our Malaysian clients, but we're still working with our international clients as well; at a balanced 70% Malaysian and 30% global split at the moment. Needless to say that, we have a development arm too, which keeps our designers honest and in their own quiet and productive way, continue churning out applications for our European clients and creating a lot of demand for us regularly.
Grab operations span across 8 Southeast Asian countries (Source: Grab)
The pivot to remote UX. While the team has been remote from Day 1, many of Stampede's UX practices like workshops and design sprints were run on-site. COVID-19 changed all that. The shift was challenging at first but since then the agency have run many remote design sprints, workshops and usability tests, with participants across Malaysia and Europe.

Working remotely from a tropical island since 2006

Remote working culture is at the heart of Stampede — almost since day one. Do you feel that it's possible to grow and scale your business entirely remotely? Or do you still need your physical presence, for example, to build key client relationships?

If I were to look at our experience, I would say that we have maintained good client relationships, even though we have met only a few of our international clients personally.

One of our clients has been with us for fourteen years. We have never met them, and they have been one of our anchor clients. That kind of relationship sounded a bit nuts in Malaysia and Southeast Asia at first; even though it was prevailing in the US and Europe.

In Malaysia back then, people thought that a company without a physical office doesn't have any credibility. A lot of people still feel that way even now — until COVID-19 happened.
"I wish that I would have had more knowledge of hiring and hiring smarter. Back then, not many people understood remote working."
Did COVID change that? Or is it still the same case with your Southeast Asian clients now?

Well, COVID changed everything. If you asked me this question a half year ago, I would have said that yes, the clients still needed you to come and run design-related activities there physically. My travel itinerary was crazy, pre-COVID.

The MCO [movement control order, a term for lockdown in Malaysia — note] was a big chance for me to finally stay home. I was delighted by the fact that I haven't needed to travel so much.

I have lived in Langkawi [a tropical island off Malaysia's western coast — note] since 2006 — I love the island so much. However, the majority of our clients are localized all over Malaysia and need to have a steady, experienced hand to guide them.

I have always travelled from Langkawi to Malacca, Penang, or Kuala Lumpur for client engagements and other sessions throughout my career. Sometimes, it got crazy with me travelling between the airport and offices in different cities all the time. There were stretches where it got quite funny because I would land at Langkawi airport, my husband would fetch me, and 24-hours later, I'm back at the airport.
You are a big promoter of remote working. The internet is an endless black hole about remote working and about what's right and what's wrong. So, my question is more about your specific approach to it. You are now almost fifteen years smarter in running the remote-based agency. What things would you have done differently — if you had the chance to go back in time?

I wish that I would have had more knowledge of hiring and hiring smarter. Back then, not many people understood remote working. The best talents out there were looking for a stable office job. Remote working did tend only to attract people used to freelancing and people who didn't like going to offices. So, in Malaysia, it was quite disadvantageous to be running a remote company. Which I'm sure it wasn't the case in Europe or the US.

‍As you said, fifteen years means I've made fifteen years worth of mistakes. How do you determine whether someone is a right fit for remote work, you ask? Because not everybody enjoys the solitude of making things, and not having the office environment. What I have learned is that a good remote employee would be an excellent employee anywhere. That has been one of the key things I realized.

Over time things have changed because we have hired enough and we have finally understood and defined what it takes for a person to be a significant part of Stampede. We now know what makes a good team member at Stampede, especially when it comes to the remote setting. When you're hiring remotely, you need to be able to trust that person from day one.
"You need to watch out for communication skills, especially in a remote team because this can make or break the team."
What kind of qualities and traits are you looking for, when searching for new designers?

I can give you an example that I stole from this book, called "The Ideal Team Player" by Patrick Lencioni. He said that an ideal team player has three traits: That person needs to be humble, that person needs to be hungry, and that person needs to be people-smart.

‍At Stampede, at the very least, you need to be humble, and you need to be hungry. A hungry person will be a great remote worker because you don't need to nudge them to do something. These candidates maintain a high discipline; they are very curious; they are always eager to initiate and find out things. And these are typically self-motivated people. This makes it so easy to work when your colleague is hungry for knowledge, hungry for new skills, hungry to grow.

‍Additionally, I want to highlight the trait of being people smart. That is hugely relevant because all the time, you need to watch out for communication skills, especially in a remote team because this can make or break the team.

‍If you don't communicate clearly, you're leaving it to chance that people can read between the lines. If you don't have the high emotional intelligence to empathize with the person you can't see at the end of your Slack chat channel; then it makes communication so much harder.

However, being people smart, we found, is something everyone can learn; whereas, hunger and humility are something that people either have or don't have. I learned this the hard way after many unsuccessful hires. I want to think that I'm getting better at it, but I also realize that hiring right is only half the equation. Your next job as a leader is to put fire in their bellies, making them see the heights they could reach and equipping them with the necessary grit to get there. I found it very satisfying to help others grow and fulfil their potential. It has taught me so much about people and myself, but that's quite another story to tell.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Practicing what you preach. Design tacticals and UX exercises are activities that Shaza and her team do beyond client engagements. Design is deeply embedded in how Stampede continuously improve their team experience and service design capabilities.

Looking into the future

How do you see the evolution of UX in the region here? For example, now we can see the emergence of customer experience design, which goes way beyond apps and websites. We can see that many design roles are being more specialized now. What kind of a future do you see in your field?

That reminds me of an article that I read maybe a few years ago where designers kept asking for a seat at the table, but the moment they get that seat at the table…
..they didn't know what to do with it?

Exactly. They don't know what they need to do. I think that's going to be more and more obvious actually. I believe in Southeast Asia, simply because we have such a young demographic of designers and they mostly learn by imitation. I'm probably going to ruffle many feathers by saying it, but even I am learning by imitation. One of the very first design tutorials I did, if you could call it that, was a mimic of another designer whose work completely and thoroughly inspired me.

Until now, I feel like that kind of mastery in design skill is out of reach for me, even though I've met him, and I told him this. But that's how I started because when you're not formally trained in design, the next best thing you're able to do is mimic and hope that by mimicking, you will be able to deconstruct what makes that good design and then to reconstruct again.

Because we learned through reverse-engineering design by others, we have designers who are very good with churning great visuals but lacking that deep understanding of design principles. It makes our foundation very much like Swiss cheese. There are many holes in the foundation, and this kind of foundation can only support maybe a five-story building.

Nevertheless, the moment you try to support more and more stories, the foundation starts becoming shaky. The building crumbles. Rebuilding that confidence back is going to take some introspection and time.

And the moment you have to start advising businesses, and you have to start advising decision-makers, you realize that the language of design that you have is not their language at all. I think that this will be a challenge for many Southeast Asian designers because when we are so focused on mimicking, we lose the sight of the bigger picture. We can see the trees, but we can't see the forest.

And decision-makers look for the forest. More designers need to have this strategic view of design. The big picture view, and how they bridge the design from the surface level to the larger picture of decision making in the boardroom. As a designer, the habit of agonizing over pixels is still deeply ingrained in me. So at times, I find myself needing to make that conscious effort to take a step back to see the forest. The more I do this, the zooming in and out from micro to macro, the more comfortable and the more automatic it gets.
"More designers need to have this strategic view of design. The big picture view, and how do they bridge the design from the surface level to the larger picture of decision making in the boardroom."
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.
Working from a tropical island like Langkawi got its perks,...
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.
... beautiful nature and no traffic jams around. (Photos: Shaza's archive)
Is there anything specific that you dream of achieving in the future? Is there something that you would like to accomplish in your life in terms of design? Any particular goal?

Earlier in my career, I had this belief that if I can design something that outlasts me, then I would have left a decent legacy of my life's work. Fast forward a decade, I still feel the same, but the subject matter has changed. I want to unpack design out of the black box it has been so exclusively made of, making it more accessible to others, regardless of profession and background, showing them how to use design as a tool to deliver better experiences to people around them.

‍To me, design is a language, and a language changes the way we think. It breaks boundaries. We inherently trust and empathize with people who speak our language. The more people speak the language, the more pervasive, influential and powerful it becomes.

‍We have design apprentices with us at Stampede for six months. And one of the things we realized was that many designers learn about design methods, but they don't see how design methods can apply to their relationships with people around them. For example, can you design the experience of people working with you? Can you design the experience of a developer working with you?

I think that you can design that experience, and I think you have all the tools to do it because you have been doing it every single day, but for projects, products and clients. This is the reason why I love speaking about design to non-designers because I feel sometimes we designers are not making our job easier by making design a very exclusive club to get in.

‍Often, we defend that only designers are qualified enough to do design. Which is something I'm afraid I have to disagree with because I have seen many different essences of design that don't originate from a trained designer. Engineering-oriented design is, for example, quite complex, rooted in math and science. It is highly logical and just overall magnificent to watch.

‍At the end of the day, we know that design is about solving problems. Yet somehow along the way, we started equating some great design solution with gorgeous visual execution. I have certainly been guilty of this tendency of designing for designers. Now, I believe that anyone interested in solving problems efficiently and elegantly, be it developers or analysts or testers, can and should practice design.

‍This view has given me inspiration from the unlikeliest of places. When I speak about this to developers, I could see light bulbs going on in their heads. Every good developer continually seeks for the most elegant way to solve problems, and they realize that they too can practice design to achieve this.

The more people who speak our language, we designers, as a whole, will have stronger voices. The moment people understand design and people know what design is made of, they begin to appreciate design. When this moment happens, designers don't need to fight for design anymore because it will have so many allies. This is a future I would think would be fantastic to live in.
Thank you very much for your time Shaza, all the best for you and Stampede.

My pleasure, Jan.
About Shaza
Shaza is a partner and UX principal at Stampede, a digital creative agency she established in 2006. She focuses on designing and building digital products for both enterprises and startups worldwide. Stampede works closely with clients such as PETRONAS, MaGIC, MDEC, Malin+Goetz, Australian city councils, Human Rights Foundation in Cuba, Piktochart and many others. She loves the fact that her design is yet to be dictated by a tool or a brand, and she enjoys reading immensely. You can drop her a note via LinkedIn here.
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