Veteran designer and educator Nathan Yong shares his experiences as a student, and discusses the challenges faced by the new generation of design students.
I’d like to begin by sharing a little about what it was like, back when I was a student. In 1989, I belonged to the second batch of students taking Singapore’s first design course, off ered by the Baharuddin Vocational Institute (now Temasek Polytechnic). There were only 16 of us in my cohort and, because it was a new course, the Ministry of Education invested a lot of funding in the programme. That meant that we enjoyed the luxury of good machines, on which to hone our wood- and metalworking, as well as plastic moulding, skills. We had a very big workshop, and were supplied with plenty of materials to practise on. That, perhaps, is the biggest diff erence I see, compared to design courses today.
Nowadays, students have to purchase a lot of supplies themselves, and the schools are not properly equipped with machines for students to work on. Furthermore, there seems to be an over-reliance or focus on computer rendering when it comes to design, which is sadly perpetuated by the institutions. In my opinion, that’s silly because product design is also about proportion, size, weight and texture, and these are qualities that cannot be felt or experienced in a 3-D rendering. Whether you are a product designer or a student in that field, it is important to be able to feel what you are creating and have the ability to make it yourself – that’s a skill that goes beyond computer renderings – a skill which many schools are not imparting to their students.
This is happening because the world is too caught up with ideas about computer aided technology and staying ahead in the digital age. When everyone is blindly chasing technological advancements, they tend to forget that product design, which is object making, is an innately humanistic endeavour. At the end of the day, we still need to cater to our human needs of wearing shoes, or using a table, for example. Technology is only one component of design, which can be used to find a solution when creating a piece of furniture or product, but isn’t an end in itself. Being forward-thinking in terms of design doesn’t mean one has to be utterly futuristic. It could mean reviving the art of craftsmanship, because it is facing the threat of extinction. Product design has to be more than just a tech-based approach, as it is closely related to our human nature and values about life and living.
When I look at students today, I feel that because of the hectic way the modern culture operates, they have lesser time to understand things. There’s not enough in-depth conversation on issues about how things come together, not just in terms of product design, but in other areas as well. Their study of an issue is skin-deep; because design is such a subjective topic, if you don’t treat it seriously and go beyond the surface of the problem, your designs can end up becoming frivolous and not functional. And that’s what I call lazy design.
On the other hand, I know many students are told to “think out of the box” when it comes to creativity but, sometimes, they are pushed to think so far out of the box that the solution doesn’t make sense anymore. If you want to embark on a project that is very abstract or conceptual, at the end of the day, you still need to anchor it in something concrete. You cannot just have a great idea and think that it’s a great design. Ideas are not design; they are just things that help you to design. Students are not aware that good design doesn’t mean it has to spring from a very innovative idea, and not all innovative ideas make good design.
I think the role of a designer right now is a bit confusing, because it is so integral to every touchpoint of our lives: Everybody knows about design, yet nobody really understands what design entails. Good design requires critical thinking, and that’s one of the skills I hope to impart to the students I teach.
VISION FOR S TUDENTS
All I hope for our future designers is to be good at whatever they choose to do. Don’t produce half-hearted work. Instead take your time and be precise in your work, because there is no shortcut to good work.