Session 9 Speech
Mr Ernie Koh
Executive Director (Marketing)
Koda Pte Ltd


Designers in a business disruptive economy

Designers, in today's business disruptive environment, has a very different role to play. Today, designers are no longer engaged in pure design work but rather, being placed in different areas of businesses where a different thought processes (that is usually an intrinsic part of a designer) is necessary for the survival of businesses in a disruptive economy. 

Designers can play an apt role in sales and marketing, as well as in running a design focused department or in a company that embraces design thinking. As a case in point, my company ( Koda and Commune) has charted career growth progressions for various design talents.  We have a fine arts student who is in charge of sales and marketing of our contract division in the Singapore HQ and   a product/industrial designer who is a General Manager of my China franchise operations (that has over 50 franchise shops).  They are being strategically placed in their current roles with the specific intention of capturing their design thought processes, which may not be so prevalent amongst those trained in other fields (eg business, engineering etc).

Businesses are restructuring to face the challenges of the future and designers play an important part of the business eco environment. I will state some important areas that designers can make a difference in the businesses.

  • The use of design thinking to solve practical business problems

Design thinking is increasingly being used to solve issues such as productivity, formulating business strategy, reformatting business processes and adopting on the manufacturing floor.

For instance, if we are able to use design thinking on our hawker centers, we can have a better eating environment!

Hawker centers in Singapore have evolved from the days of street vendors. Not much has changed, except that it is being placed in a cleaner and tidier environment. Seats are still placed like the olden days, beside every vendor, and vendors basically operate the same manner as when they are out on the streets, cooking within a tight area and washing their dishes the same old way. Plates are left on the tables when the customers finish eating. Efforts of encouraging the return of utensils are basic and achieving little success.

If we apply design thinking in the hawker environment, I am sure all of you  as designers will have wild but interesting ideas that can make eating and vending in our hawker centers a better experience. I am sure the lay out of the hawker centers will be very different, taking into consideration the user experience of eating out. Stores will be placed differently. Utensils will be returned in a fun way and the entire environment will be more friendly.

Productivity can also be increased tremendously with labour saving ideas resulting from this. I can state many more examples of design thinking applications to our daily living environment that we are able to change the user experience totally.  Petrol stations, coffee shops, use of void decks (for weddings and funerals) can all have a better user experience with design thinking applications.

I am sure many of you have done some design thinking courses and we in the business need you to step up and step forward to solve common issues that businesses and environment are facing

  • Designers for non-designers work.

We are seeing an increasing number or forward thinking businesses hiring designers for non-designers work. It's not because designers come cheaper! Nor is it because designers cannot get a job after graduation! Rather, forward thinking companies recognise the full value that designers can bring to life in businesses, as designers’ thought processes are a little different (in a good way).

Retailers are engaging designers to do high level sales as emotional selling (again, user experience) is an important element of closing sales. Designers have a greater sense of emotional 'sensing' (yes it's true!) where they are able to identify the emotional needs of a consumer. For instance, designers are hired in the furniture retail environment to sense out the needs of consumers walking into a shop. Rather than selling a product, we need to sell an experience to potential consumers. Once this need has been identified, the closing of sales becomes easier.

  • Designers are placed in managing millennials.

Millennials are a group of intricate people that need to be managed very differently, as compared to traditional (or should I say older!) staff.

Productivity of millennials is determined by the fulfilment of their emotional needs rather than their monetary needs! Designers working alongside HR managers are able to 'design' an environment that is able to highly increase the productivity of this generation.

  • Designers are placed in management position.

In many businesses today, competitive advantages are no longer gained by only improving businesses processes. Design (products, brand, environment etc) is increasingly becoming a very important part of a competitive advantage.

Apple’s success is based on the design of their user friendly IOS and a very well designed iphone.  Nike never own a factory but is highly successful in its brand and products. All these businesses are consciously using design as their main key business competitive advantage and many of the management position are held by designers.

  • Asia, the next frontier.

With the anti-globalism thinking of many large economies, Singapore has to look at the Asia region as the next frontier.  The positioning of Singapore is ideal for us to take advantage of our ability of understanding both the Western culture and the culture of the East and establish ourselves as a gateway to Asia.  

Our ability to adapt to different cultures make our designers able to be flexible in adapting international taste and culture.  China has a unique Chinese design footprint.  Same as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.  However, Singapore does not have a unique footprint of a ‘Singapore’ design.  We need to take this to our advantage and build on this to create designs that are acceptable in this region, by combining elements of designs from all over and apply it to the regional context. 

Partnering up with regional designers is another option that we can consider to create items that are commerciable in markets that we are targeting.

  • Designers for design. 

Of course there is still the work of a designer for design work!  It is getting more important as Singapore moves into the next economic development. 

In the recent CFE (Committee of Future Economy) report, the government will be placing a lot of emphasis on innovation and IP (Intellectual Property Protection).  As for now, the government is looking at innovation as more of an advance technical innovation rather than design innovation.  However, any technical innovative solution or idea needs the input of design to help it sell (especially for consumer goods).  

Many industries are pushing the government to take Branding and Design as another focal point for the future of the economic development of Singapore.  We are pushing for EBD to consider attracting international design houses to have their regional headquarters in Singapore, using talents from this region to develop and design items for markets in Asia.

Having said all these to motivate you, what should you do? My advice is to continue learning and applying what you have. Look at areas that you find yourself lacking, and continue to gain knowledge. Work alongside non designers, use their strength (they are practical people!) to enhance the business that you are in.

If a company were to hire you for a non designer position, ask them why and what they think the values of a designer can bring for their business. I tried hiring designers for non designers work and designers turned down the offer as they only want design related work!

If one day, you were to manage your own business or were to run one, use your intrinsic talent to your advantage. Remember, you are a little different from the rest. You can learn the practical knowledge of others, but others cannot have the intrinsic values that you are born with!

Remember, the practical people will see you and your views and thoughts as strange. Perhaps it may be strange to them. Perhaps they are right. You need to understand the practical world and work alongside them.  They will also need to understand your world and work along with you!

Good luck in your future endeavours and God bless you!