Kevin Chiam (BA Industrial Design 2017) emerged as won Gold award winner among contenders from across the world at the 2017 Taiwan International Student Design Competition (Product Design category). We are thrilled to have an up-close and personal interview with Kevin recently.
What is the most memorable experience you had as a student in NUS SDE?
The experience at Division of Industrial Design (DID), SDE can be characterised by several qualities. Firstly, as the program is structured primarily on studio projects, with most linked to an actual client, expectations are real and thus we are naturally conditioned to perform in a holistic, industry-relevant environment. Second, as the nature of the projects differ, we gain the opportunity to appreciate different design domains, training us to be multi-disciplinary. Third, tutors in DID challenge us to be critical in design thinking by equipping us with different lens so that we can effectively question, discern, filter and assess the situations we tackle. Last, the design exchange program, which I consider to be a valuable exposure, allowed me to immerse myself in rich, foreign culture and accept differences in design approaches. These foundational pillars greatly helped shaped me as a critical thinker and designer.
As a designer, I learn to appreciate and accept cultural differences. More to academics are the many international friendships that were forged along the way. I guess that is truly the highlight of an international exchange. 6 months abroad is neither short nor long yet it has given me more than I ever could have expected. It has definitely been a pleasant eye opener, insightful exchange and wonderful opportunity to forge new friendship.
What inspired you to come up with the design concept for Folks Kitchen ware for the blind?
Even with sight, cooking can be daunting, much less without vision. For the blind, preparing food naturally becomes challenging as they learn to cope with the uncertainties of spills or injuries like knife cuts or burns. I was thus surprised to find blind MasterChef Christine Ha working the stove and knife like a seasoned hand. Later, I come to understand that she could accomplish this only through rigorous practice. This process however takes time and can be demoralising in early stages due to injuries - to an extent it discourages many from continuing. I was thus curious as to how we can imbue these individuals with confidence so that they can overcome physical and mental barriers to attempt and appreciate cooking.
Essentially, I realised that the blind’s actions are guided by spatial judgements which are formed by sensory references – our bodily senses. Accidents occur when they have insufficient information of the environment due to the lack of cues. As it turns out, when rich, tactile feedback are provided to inform the blind, they can better grasp the context and avoid making poor judgements. Hence, this became the seed for the Folks initiative.
Are there challenges in the process of working through the ideation to product realization stage? If so, can you share briefly what these are and how did you manage them?
The main challenge of this project lies on empathy. Being a sighted individual, it is difficult to truly empathise with the blind as daily decisions are often made with the aid of vision. That said, I was able to negate this via several channels. First, I participated in “Dialogue in the Dark” to experience how it feels to be visually impaired as I run through daily scenarios in a completely pitch black environment (under the guidance of a visually impaired). Second, interviews and home visits provided me a better understanding of the pain points faced by the blind. Last, role-playing is carried out to verify the pain points and also filter potential opportunities to be worked on. Having actual users greatly benefited the project as the feedback was realistic and helped to ground the project during the ideation process.
What are your hopes and vision for this product?
I began the project with the intention of helping the blind gain confidence with cooking. Hence, I hope to be able to rope in interested parties who share the same vision and will be willing to provide the technical expertise to manufacture the solutions so it can eventually reach the homes of the visually impaired. At the end of the day, the collection is designed for mass production such that the blind can benefit at an affordable price. I am currently in talks with SG Enable and Mr. Aaron Yeoh, Co-founder & CEO of Etch Empathy Ltd to validate and produce the collection pieces.
Who inspired you most as a young budding designer? And why?
I am widely inspired by the works of Benjamin Hubert, who runs layer design – a studio situated in London. Despite his relatively young age, Mr. Hubert’s work are mature and user centric in approach with high sensitivity to details. His drive to explore socially responsible design also resonate well with me as a designer.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I hope to see myself as an active practitioner in a design agency while giving back as an educator who can share and exchange ideas with students in the design field.
Kevin is currently working at NUS Smart Systems Institute (SSI) as a research assistant and has plans for further studies. Thank you Kevin, and we certainly wish you all the best in your designer journey!
Change is the only constant in my life. Growing up, I went through changes in circumstances when my father’s business in the car trade hit a roadblock and the family faced financial hardship. Right now, I am also going through change on all fronts of my life. My two year-old start-up Nature’s Nest just emerged from competition against industry bigwigs to win two out of the five categories at the Singapore Food Innovation Product Awards (Most Functional Food award and First Runner Up). We are trying to raise between S$1.5 to S$2 million to mass produce a plant-based protein (a new food genre that has caught the attention of prominent people like Bill Gates and Lee Ka-Shing, who have invested in startups developing this product), and target to start production in late 2017. And I am getting married [a week from this interview].
DOING IT HIMSELF
I worked with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) while serving my scholarship bond, and then as a commodities trader. The transition from army personnel to oil trading, and now running a food company, might appear to be a series of very big changes. Looking back, it would seem that I have been preparing for this stage all my life. I was into science even in primary school and won at the school science fair – and now I am running an innovation-forward food company. At National Junior College, I became interested in sports and health, rowing with the dragon boat and canoeing teams, and also for Singapore’s canoeing team at the ASEAN games. This interest in wellness steered me into the business of selling traditional herbs.
The SAF taught me about loyalty and integrity, and my time in the finance industry from 2012 to 2015 taught me the core value of perseverance. I have absolutely no background in this dog-eat-dog industry, and I have had to put in a lot to be able to think sharp, analyse deep and fast, and work long hours. Years as an employee enabled me to save up enough capital. Starting my own business has always been my goal because I believe that if there is something revolutionary that you want to do, the best way to do it is to do it on your own. I am the kind of person who always wants to push boundaries. In 2005, as president of NUS’ motoring club I converted the school carpark into a go-kart racing track. A lot of people said I was crazy, but we did it anyway! By 2007 the event had grown into a national-level, half-a-million dollar project that saw Caltex coming in as the main sponsor. It is a noteworthy fact that the F1 Night Race keynote announcement was made at our event!
While in JC, I came across this saying: ‘The greatest pleasure in life is doing what others deem impossible.’ I have been living by it.
When I saw a gap in the traditional health food market which could be filled by doing things differently – and hopefully better – I started Nature’s Nest. Through innovation I want to improve the efficacy of traditional herbs and its convenience in terms of how it is consumed. For example, our birds’ nest are not bleached, yet they have been cleaned and are ready-to-cook. Another example is the plant-protein – a source of first- class protein just like meat – that we have successfully developed.
We hope it will change the way people eat.
STRONG CORE VALUES
Embracing change is important not just for the individual, but for Singapore. Our country’s competitiveness depends on how we react to the changing world in order to stay relevant. It is not just about being able to adapt, but how fast we can adapt. When talking about change, it is important note that there is a difference between being adaptable and being fickle. One needs strong core values to stick to the course – important because the road for the game changer, beating out a new path on his own, is rocky. My advice to anybody who is thinking of making a change – either a big career switch orjust trying to improve the system – go in with your eyes wide open. Have a sense of danger.
I don’t change things for the sake of it. It is about proving myself. I was one of those kids who felt side tracked by the primary school streaming system, and since then I have worked very hard to improve and prove myself. The cynical side of me also tells me that I am nobody– I don’t come from a prominent family or have a privileged background. So I try hard to value-add for others in my relationships.
One way I do this is to empower others by showing them that they too can change their lives for the better. As a district councillor for the South East CDC, I speak to a lot of youths-at-risk who always feel that things will never change for them. At the same time, those from average family backgrounds are also finding it harder and harder to break out of the social class [system]. It is difficult but it is still possible, and I hope to be a living example for the average person. This is the impact I want to have as a change maker.
That is why change is an integral part of my life. Only through change can I challenge myself to go beyond my existing capabilities. I hope others can also step up – don’t be the person who complains about how the system doesn’t work for you; be the person that spreads the positive energy of change.