What makes a design project memorable?

There will always be projects you feel could have been better.

In a consultancy like STUCK that dabbles in a plethora of projects, design work can become a blur, but some things just stick. Jieyu shares his most memorable and disappointing projects that he has done at STUCK over the years, as he recounts the lessons learnt and experiences had. He also dives into client-consultancy working relationships, and how that develops and gets strengthened over time.

Summary

  • Jieyu’s most memorable project was a self-initiated project called Hello Singapore, which was launched to celebrate our foreign construction workers who literally built Singapore from the ground up
  • Hello Singapore was memorable because it involved the whole team at STUCK and also collaborators from Hello Strangers and In Merry Motion, and was a short sprint to completion
  • The project was purely from the passion and motivation of the team, with no client or money involved, so everyone was putting in extra time and effort into pulling it off
  • The project also brought the team out of their comfort zones in unfamiliar territory; “it lets you grow and learn and understand yourself and your team a little bit better”
  • For a project to be disappointing, it is often because there is misalignment, unclear end goals, or expectations that both the client and consultant did not prepare for
  • One of the projects that Jieyu was disappointed with fell short when the client’s engineering manufacturer did not deliver on the proposed designs, and the client “had to put out something that could have been so much better”
  • “You feel very disappointed… (when) you’ve done your due diligence in the design side but then it didn’t get pushed through.”
  • On client-consultant relationships, it is important to understand the kind of client profile, mindset and motivation that aligns with your work as a designer, so that you can create relevant value to the client and enjoy the process as well
  • Both sides learn in the process; designers learn about a whole new field in the client’s industry, and clients are able to see their field with fresh eyes, and “it becomes a very mutually beneficial exchange”
  • In building a relationship in the long term, even if not many projects are done between client and consultant, it is no longer only transactional, but therein lies trust and an avenue for exchange of expertise and experience

Full Transcript

And the client with the budget gone, had to 3D print and put together casings of his own, so I felt really bad for the client. In the end, he had to put out something that could have been so much better.

DESIREE
Hi Jieyu, so today we have some questions more relating to your experience at STUCK. So the first question is what was the most memorable project that you’ve ever done with STUCK and were there some key lessons that you’ve learned from it?

JIEYU
I mean honestly the most memorable project was actually not a client project. It was a self-initiated project that was done almost, I don’t know maybe like seven or eight years ago. It’s called Hello Singapore. It was memorable because the whole team was behind it, and at that time the team was really small and we had to turn around that project or rather deliver the project by National Day, which was like in a week or two. And that project idea just came about when having lunch with Tze and we were just chatting about how do we celebrate local heroes which are typically missed out in National Day celebrations. At the time, we wanted to celebrate the foreign construction workers that were building Singapore literally. So that project was very memorable for me.

DESIREE
It seems as though it’s quite relevant especially now, or at least from what I’ve seen online and things like that. There’s been greater, I guess, general awareness of our foreign workers especially with the whole outbreak in the dormitories. So yeah I don’t know, do you think it will ever come back like as a second round that STUCK initiates?

JIEYU
Yeah I don’t know. I think it’s good that the topic or the subject matter has gotten a little bit more interest and I think it’s brought to surface and light a lot of things that goes on behind what we see in Singapore. And I think there’s a lot more social issues and things that’s happening around us that we should spend time caring for. So I think that’s just the general good thing about it. As for starting and doing another project like this, I don’t know. Because it did take a lot from us, like a lot of energy and a lot of friends came by to help. There was Hello Strangers who set up for the photo booth, In Merry Motion that came down to help rah-rah. So it was really a cool project. I’m not sure we’re still trying to do one more exactly like that, but we’ll definitely still maybe look up for other projects that at that moment in time, when you feel about it and you want to use or bring the team, capability and capacity of the team to do something about it, definitely I think that will be cool.

DESIREE
Yeah so what made it the most memorable? Was it in terms of the amount of effort that was put into it or about the social impact that it was able to bring or yeah, were there any particular lessons that you were able to take from that project?

JIEYU
Well I think it was very memorable because there was no client involved and there was no money involved. It was purely from the passion of the team and it wasn’t something that was a project that people had to work on it, it wasn’t like you’re tasked to be working on this project.

So that kind of self-initiated passion and willingness and motivation to do something, that energy is something you can’t replicate.

So that was really enjoyable, that everyone was putting in extra time and like into the late night where we had to set up at like 8pm just to do photo shoots or photo pop-ups for construction workers at different locations was very interesting. And I think it was also a little bit out of our comfort zone because we never did… it was a little bit like a production project right, you help them take photos, you print it out, let them send back to their home, like those photo booths. But at the same time we wanted to communicate a message about celebrating this group of people, so then we had to put up a website, we got on radio shows, so it was a little bit like a production thing that we never was comfortable with. Also the subject matter as well, we never had any experience with going into construction sites or dormitories. We had nothing preparing us for what we were going to face, like the amount of people as well as the environment, so we just went in blind.

And I think that’s also something that made it really memorable. Because you are really out of your comfort zone, it lets you grow and learn and understand yourself and your team a little bit better as well.

DESIREE
So on the flip side, were there any projects instead that you were a bit disappointed in? Was there a reason as for this disappointment and how did you then turn it around?

JIEYU
Haha I think this one I’m spoiled for choice, I got a lot of projects that I think can be better. But okay, disappointed with, I think there are along the way. Along the way there’s quite a bit of projects, and it’s not so much disappointed but you always feel that they somehow could be better. But at the same time there are projects that you were hoping that it would have been more, in terms of impact or in terms of resolution, you were hoping maybe that you could push it a little bit more. But due to many different reasons and circumstances, yeah things just happen.

Maybe not so much a project. I think most projects have their good and bad, but the ones that typically end up slightly more disappointing would be the ones that are misaligned in certain ways, or that the client wasn’t too sure about where he wanted to go, or due to unrealistic or rather non-prepared expectations. I think it’s both sides.

For example, we had a project that was really cool. The technology was cool, the application was cool, and the client did pay for a full industrial design kind of project, so we did manage to finish to a really nice industrial design concept and that was ready for to move into DFM (which is designed for manufacturing). But at that time, because of the quotation of certain partners that he got, he chose one that was relatively cheaper but at the same time because of that, the manufacturer or the engineering firm that was in charge of this manufacturing didn’t really work closely with the design firm. They just took it on and eventually they didn’t deliver at all so they even breached the contract and did not deliver at all. And the client with the budget gone, had to 3D print and put together casings of his own, so whatever he spent and did for design in terms of positioning, colour material finishing… and actually it’s all doable, it’s just that during the design for manufacturing phase, the engineering firm didn’t really do a good job on that in terms of mechanical fitting and housing. So I felt really bad for the client. In the end, he had to put out something that could have been so much better.

But I think there’s a lot of learning points there, both for clients and us, is to ensure that whatever we design, we must ensure to help, maybe even let the client know that engineering is really important and maybe you should budget a bit more for the engineering and DFM. Of course naturally the client has to be comfortable with sharing with you how much budget he has and things like that, so I think it’s both learning curve for our side and them.

DESIREE
It seems as though because it’s something that seems so out of control from our consultancy side, simply because we’ve already tried our best to put forth these recommendations and then the slump comes when it gets handed over, I can see where the disappointment comes in.

JIEYU
As a design house or as a designer, you feel very disappointed because all the effort that the team had put in to make sure that this potentially has a really selling edge from a design point of view… naturally there’s many considerations about success in market, but you’ve done your due diligence in the design side but then it didn’t get pushed through, then that typically falls quite disappointing, knowing that also your client didn’t get the best out of the deal in that sense.

Yeah, but I mean something interesting is that we’re still quite close, we Whatsapp each other very often, me and the client.

And knowing his business model now, even when he comes to STUCK to say that, hey I’ve got a project and I would like STUCK to design, I actually sometimes tell him that, “You don’t need STUCK to design.”

“What you can do is that you can just get these components off the shelf, edit it slightly.” Sometimes I even send him the link, where to get components and, “you can save, you know it’s going to cost you like you know a few thousand, you can save quite a bit of the consulting fee.” Because his market didn’t really need as well a full-fledged outright industrial design project because his benefit was already apparent and his technology is embedded so spending too much on that design aesthetic might not be suitable now. Naturally I think if he wants to or needs to branch into different kinds and he’s going for project-based sales, so looking at his business model it’s not that important. His bang for buck will be better spent when he spends the money on his R&D or on sales acquisition, you know things like that, rather than trying to get a very nice casing at this moment in time unless his clientele starts moving also towards requiring a nice aesthetic. And even nice aesthetic has a different range.

So knowing that, it’s also through this learning of disappointment in certain parts of his project that along the years we have then discussed and been always keeping in contact and knowing his business growth, therefore being able to just help in different ways.

DESIREE
It seems as though from what you’ve described with this particular example, it seems like it’s quite a good example of a good long-term client relationship. And yeah, having this, what I see to be synergy with your clients, have there been any other projects that you think, wow it went so smoothly and so well simply because you had this synergy with your client?

JIEYU
Yeah I think the client wavelength matters and that’s something you learn along the way. It’s to slowly understand your team or if you’re an independent designer, understand yourself, what kind of parameters you work with, and therefore what kind of client suits you. And over the time we started to realise that for STUCK, the positioning and the team dynamic is that we can’t deliver a quick turnaround, affordable industrial design, skin job sometimes. And sometimes it’s not that we don’t want to do it but sometimes it’s also the motivation and the stage of your client requirements.

I think the long story short is that it does help us understand what kind of client profile and mindset and client motivation, the reason why they are doing things is very important actually.

So other than industrial design, if you look into more strategy work or research work right, if you know right up front that the client was not truly genuinely interested in pushing the boundaries or the environment or advancing his particular discipline or area, then typically STUCK will come in as not that useful because STUCK will always question. As a team, not so much as a company, but I think the people that we have put together naturally questions “Why are you doing this?” and “Is there a better way to do it?”

And because of that, then the client can either find you really difficult to deal with because you’re always questioning me or questioning his team’s decision, or he could find you really helpful because it helps him ask the critical questions that sometimes they might be so entrenched in it.

So I mean there have been projects like that. Maybe not naming the clients because some of them are still ongoing but there has been projects like that, that you find that the outcome is drastically much better and the process is much more enjoyable.

Because it’s not so much about delivering a commercial scope project, it’s more about the journey.

And both sides learn, especially for a design firm, which is very interesting because we go into so many different subject matters, different fields, that every time, it almost is a new learning experience. While for the client, it’s that because you’re asking such critical questions, maybe because you also have a fresh eye and you genuinely want to help them advance, they also find that they learn a lot from you. Then it becomes a very mutually beneficial exchange, even from let’s say a monetary perspective, because they don’t feel that… you know it’s cool, you’ve got these guys and they’re not just transactional, they’re not like “Okay I got this phase or scope done and therefore you pay me this amount.” But you can feel that they genuinely care about his business or his industry or his motivation and agenda. So I think that always creates a very good synergy of that trust. And then they will share more information, they also get you onboard earlier in certain processes, that allows you to work with them, to come up with fundamental questions in the first place before even the project is scoped out.

DESIREE
Has there actually been any clients whom through the process of maybe a few projects together, that you’ve sort of developed a friendship with the client? And if so then how does this affect the working relationship?

JIEYU
I think there’s a lot. I think most of the clients, or rather most of the projects, if I’m more hands on on, the relationship tends to be deeper. And very often, which is not a good practice where you end up sending Whatsapp messages about work, but you also end up sending Whatsapp messages just slowly over time about different things.

And a very good example is, we did a project quite a few years ago and in the end it was the same issue, that through pivoting and understanding their business a bit better along the way, they realised that oh they couldn’t do the design but they wanted to just roll out certain things in a hacked together manner. So they did that and they’re very successful now actually, and they’re still hacking things together in the manufacturer’s side because again it was the same situation where the technology was more important than the packaging, and really the format was very clear so there’s no need to redesign format or re-look at it; the business model was clear. But recently, because we are also looking at launching our own products and they are in the product—they are at the other side of the spectrum where they are selling, they are trying to get the sales and they have got experience in that, so I’ve been talking to them, asking them for advice about what should we do if we are doing our own product, and what should be the margins and things like that. Because we as design consultants, we are very good at the conceptualisation part, understanding a little bit of the strategy and we’re good at that but the actual roll-out of it, I think there’s still a knowledge gap.

And it’s nice that over time, although you don’t really do a lot of projects together, the trust has been built and the relationship, and you know that their inner compass or the way that they believe or see things or bring value to the market is aligned. So with that alignment, you keep that relationship.

It’s rare though. I mean maybe it’s the age thing, it’s rare to start hanging out. Yeah it’s rare to start hanging out. So you still keep in contact and you know you can trust this guy and you ping, they also ping us with certain things in mind, but yeah we don’t really go and hang out. Maybe it’s a life stage thing.

DESIREE
Yeah actually for one of the projects, that was actually with you also, in the end we kind of started following each other on social media. And yeah it seemed a bit like, oh it’s just you know meeting new people in school, it felt the same probably because they were around the same age. Then after a while then I realised, “Oh actually, they are our clients ah, should I be (refraining from) some information sharing?” because now we follow each other on social media. But yeah it was just a thought that came by but it went away quite quickly.

JIEYU
I think it’s fair and it’s important to just know where the line is but at the same time, nothing is stopping you from being friends. Even with friends, because it’s NDA right, so a lot of things you just don’t discuss because you know the line. Like for example with this client, one of their clients as well so we were on Whatsapp and he had this idea that he wanted to do and he was asking me how to do it and if we want we want to do it. And I already knew that there was a conflict of interest because we are actually working on another client’s work that is similar to his, similar technology and that he’s thinking of applying in the same industry now.

So I just told him that I can’t talk to him about this because there’s a client that we’re working with that is similar in this industry, and he respects that. And I think the mature ones typically understand your position because they know that you are working in this. And I think it’s equal; he wouldn’t want you to be sharing his things with other people.

So he actually knows he can trust you when you tell him that you can’t share certain things. Then as to being friends, I think that’s fine as long as when the discussion goes into work or professional subject matter well you just have to keep it professional.

DESIREE
Okay so maybe just as a last question. It might be a silly question, but knowing that STUCK has done different projects in different areas, but if there was actually only one type of project that you think STUCK should do or can do from now on, what do you think it should be?

JIEYU
Okay I mean if you ask me personally, if there’s only one type of project that STUCK, I wouldn’t say should do, well it’s really hard to choose. I think okay, disclaimer first, or rather I think we will never be able to do only one type, I think it’s not possible.

One is because I think knowing Tze, Donn and myself right, we are all very interested in too many things. It can be a bad thing right, we’re just so interested in too many things and we get bored when we just do one thing, and I think that’s why we are in consulting. But that’s just from a character point of view, and that’s why the team is also quite diverse now we’re all doing all sorts of funny funny things right. And so knowing that, I think STUCK will never end up doing only one type of project.

It’s unhealthy as well, because I think the world is much more connected now, so you do need a little bit of everything to make something work well, so I think doing one type is also not healthy.

But personally I think I’m interested in going into STUCK doing more community/social/public good kind of project. It can pay well or it doesn’t have to, but I think the idea is that if you have a team with interesting capacity or capability, how do you use that to create impact? I think that has always been what the company is about. So that kind of project will be interesting, maybe using a different kind of angle or different kind of technology or different kind of approach to start working on things that’s slightly closer to home. That’ll be nice for STUCK to do more of I think.

THE STUCK IN DESIGN TEAM
Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong

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