Saturday, November 29, 2008


Forty minutes into a mountain in Taipei, Taiwan, a private elementary school called “Seedling” sits quietly by the hill side. Every morning, its students gathered at the bottom of the mountain, waiting excitedly to be picked up by the school bus. As it slowly roams uphill into the deeper mountain, scenery gradually changes from skyscrapers to grass and trees. The urban traffic noise diminishes as the sound is replaced by the flowing streams. After a short tunnel followed by a bridge, the Wu-Lai waterfall where students often dive and swim in would soon appear in view, located right behind the school.

Unlike the public educational system in Taiwan, students in Seedling are not restricted under a preset curriculum. Instead they are given control of choosing classes according to their interests. Other than the required math and Chinese, students are offered untraditional courses such as outdoor survival, acting, cooking, and much more. Even though there is no minimum limit of the number of classes each student must take, the classes were interesting enough that everyone tries to register for a full schedule.

In Seedling children are given almost complete learning freedom under little restrictions, and students are encouraged to put their ideas into reality. One year for example, I decided that the students need food supply since it lacks vending machines, so I started a “convenience table” where a few of my friends and I set up a station for the rest of the student body to buy food from. We were responsible for everything that our “business” required including setting up, splitting profits, supplies, etc. Also at the end of every semester there is a talent show for classes to present what they have learned. The performance was again hosted by students where they are responsible of coming up with their own script and program.

Another special charateristics in the school system is a court system. The judges include one teacher, and at least two students, elected by the student body. Whenever a conflict surfaced, one then may file a “court examination” request. The court checks the request box every day at noon and call people to trial, and the court session is open for everyone to witness. After the prosecution, the judges would then deicde whether the defendant was guilty and deserves the appropriate punishment, often an apology or school cleaning service.

The school was originally designed by a group of parents whose children were told that they do not fit with the national educational system. In contrary, these parents believed that their children were able to learn much better if learning was not forced. When the school was first established many, parents worried about their children falling behind on their studies since program gives children the freedom of choosing their studies. Surprsingly, it turned out that almost all the students who graduated from the school successfully adapted to middle school and even performed better than average because they knew clearly of the things they wanted to become and what they needed to do to get to their goal.

In Seedling the students feel a sense of belonging to a part of the small community. It is a great example of a system design where the users were not only willingly involved but enjoyed its activities. The wide variety of class choices provided its users the feeling of freedomm while the flexible structure allowed its students to improvise the current status and changing it according to their best interest. The system succeeded at allowing itself to evolve and at the same time, keeping its core idea: for children to learn happily.


At the age of twenty-two I still think back often at what I have experienced at Seedling. Even though I have only attended one year in the school, I have learned to remain curious and go after my interest rather than being told what I should do only because everyone else is doing it. In Seedlingm each child is a unique character, and everyone shares knowledge with each others, collaborating to accomplish what they feel is important or necessary. This system greatly affects me as an industrial designer, teaching me to look before pursue, and to remain motivated to my interest, finding simple solutions to improve human everyday lives.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Art Versus Design

When industrial design first began, it was targeted towards mass-manufactured products heavily emphasizing usability and functionality. In contrary, art remained to be the process or product of deliberately and creatively arranging elements that appeals to the human senses. In recent years however, as design continues to evolve, many designers have begun to create emotional provoking objects that are highly visual, and sometimes are limitedly produced.

During class on Wednesday many works of contemporary designers were shown. Rather than emphasizing on functionality, these works have either deliver personal expressions or provoked emotions. One that especially intrigued me was the work of Tokujin Yoshioka.

Many of Yoshioka’s works involved experimental processes and often portray elements in nature. Clouds, for example, was an installation that established by countless numbers of fibers hanging from the ceiling over the entire exhibition space. The transparent fibers created a cloudy atmosphere and are imitation of a natural phenomenon.

Yoshioka’s Venus Chair is another example where a chair is created by first making a skeleton using a sponge-like polymer elastomer then soaking the entire piece in a tank full of solution for crystals to form. The crystals will grow according to the law of nature, and therefore each chair is unique and cannot be replicated.

In an interview Yoshioka talked about his hope to establish a connection between human memories and the law of nature. Yoshioka believes that in the future design will focus more on designing for emotions rather than for form, and nature will become the essential source for these inspirations.

Considering the uniqueness and the almost un-replicatable nature of his work, the characteristics of Yoshioka's working process seems to make him more of an artist than a designer. In reading the responses of his work, people also have a pre-judgment of whether it can be “refined enough” to be considered “design.” Many commented on the un-realistic factors of his Venus chair, and questioned how this can be called “design” if the product is beautiful but could be extremely painful to sit on? Is design merely an art under the constraint of having to be perfectly functional?

It seems as there is a predetermined distinction between art and design. People tend to see a piece of art as only to serve an aesthetic purpose, to be more highly conceptual and conveys a high emotaionl quality. Although partially agreeing with such statement, I question whether design may achieve the same quality while still maintain its functionality. Is it necessary to determine whether a work is considered an art or a design?

The boundary between art and design is slowly merging. From the case study of Tokujin Yoshioka's work it is obvious to see that both artists and designers are creating things from both spectrums. I believe that soon, there should be no more distinction. From the design point of view, the functionalism and aesthetic values will merge and this collaboration and will further our understanding of how this collaboration could be useful to the world.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Biomimicry: Sharks

Learning from nature, Biomimicry is a new science that studies how different aspects of nature can be applied to design and better our world. Animals, plants, and microbes have survived through ages on earth and have great lessons of survival strategies for the human race.

One of the case studies was a research on shark skin and its possible applications on human products. For decades the shark has marveled us with its high movement efficiency in water. Its skin structure turns out to be a crucial part of this ability. The shark skin is constructed with dermal denticles, or small scales with longitudinal grooves. These small teeth help minimize water turbulence that is created when fast-water moving over smooth surfaces. Furthermore, the grooves on the scales act as a guiding channel for reinforcing the flow direction of water.

Another function of the scale is to prevent the marine organism to contact when they constantly hitting the skin as sharks are moving through water. These micro-organisms can adhere to the skin surface and are hazardous to sharks. With its skin accelerating the water flow, the shark can reduce the contact time, and the skin’s nano-texture also helps to reduce the available contact area for organisms to adhere.

Based on these findings, the shark skin has inspired design in many ways. Today the boat coating surface has emulated the shark skin to limit possible micro-species from attaching onto its surfaces and has greatly improves the boat’s energy efficiency. This way it also reduces the use of toxic chemicals which were used to clean the boat surface.

Recently the shark skin has yet made another great impact in the swimming industry where the skin texture is applied on swimming suits that helps improving the swimmer’s speed by three percent.

More applications are being developed from this inspiration, and there are much more from the nature for human to learn. For more information, visit the Biomimicry Institute’s website at

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Closed Cycle Humanitarian System

In his lecture Dr. Becker’s discussed the topic on fugitive camps and the various issues relating to food, water, sanitation, shelter and medical care. Since fugitive camps are always a result of an immediate mortality event, it is difficult to pre-design a system with consideration for each camp’s specific needs. In result, many solutions are thoughts during disaster aftermaths.

One of the things that struck me the most during the lecture was when Dr. Becker explained how refugee camps can last a few generations or even a life time. Perhaps it is also for the notion that a refugee camp being a “camp” rather than a “settlement”, that when the general public is thinking about contributing to the refugee camps, most donations were done in consideration that the camp is short term.

This is clear even during class when we brainstormed about the design of the fugitive camp bathroom. Most concepts raised such as using a bucket or digging a big hole in the ground were not meant to be used long term. No one mentioned the idea of establishing a toilet system. Also, even though people donate food to the refugee camps from all over the world, few talks about the possibility of helping the camp to grow or raise their own food.

Another problem that lies within the donation system is that the products given to the camps are often items needed to be disposed, which results in either the product being too fragile, useless, or dangerous to the human body. Some examples were given such as the plastic buckets that are used to carry water. Although they work as containers, these buckets were most likely used to carry gasoline or other dangerous chemicals before being donated. Many medicines are also donated under the condition of being close to or after its expiration date.

Since refugee camp have always been seen as something that requires constant help and supplies, this also leads itself to become a legit trash disposable system for the people who have too many resources. Being aware of this situation, how can we change this as designers?

Ever since I was a child my father has stressed the importance of helping others. Every Chinese New Year after receiving red packets, we would put together an amount that would generate enough interest to support a child’s monthly expenses. This funding becomes a permanent support for the child until they are able to become independent, then is passed on and continue to support the next child with needs.

The same concept can be applied when we think about the needs of the refugee camps. As the old proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” if we can figure out a way to educate the refugees to learn about ways to self sustain, such as growing their own vegetables or how to construct better tools with their natural resources, the camp would gradually demand less supplies, and those who have become more skilled can also act as an educator and pass on his knowledge to others or even another refugee camp. I believe rather than endlessly giving, creating a closed self-sustainable cycle system would lasts much longer and be much more helpful.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Design of Product Image

If a person is being asked to describe what a businessman look like, what elements are included in his style? Most likely it would be a mid-age male who is holding a briefcase or a wallet, wearing a collared shirt with a tie, a suite jacket and a pair of nice pants accompanied with fine leather shoes. Products such as tie or wallet become associated with a specific gender role. From history these products are embedded with meanings but today the power of design can chang their perceived values.

The earliest example of wearing a piece of fabric around the neck was found in Egypt. The rectangular-shape cloth was a very important part of a men’s outfit for it represented social status. However the tie did not become popular until when the French King Louis XIV took up the trend of neckerchiefs. By the 1980s the wearing of the tie has spread through Europe and to the United States. The popular patterns at the time showed themes of the country of origin and loyalty. Gradually a variety of colors and patterns were introduced to the product. Tie became a personalized object for men. It became a representation of individuality.

The importance of the tie increased even more in work settings. It became one of the most essential elements to a man’s business uniform and many companies began to include tie as a part of the dress code. Tie became a symbol for professionalism; it transformed from a personal preference to a basic rule of etiquette.

Wallet is another example with a similar product image evolution. The folding pouch was developed in the 1600s when the first paper currency was in use. Men would utilize wallets to store not only cash but identification or business cards. A wallet was seen as a convenient alternative for men who did not like to carry bags. When the first credit card was introduced around the 1950s, the wallet became even more ubiquitous. Its compartmentalized structure allowed men to place any credit-card sized object in an organized fashion.

Both the tie and the wallet were largely related with male for their related functions in the workforce. These associations have demonstrated how the power of a usage in a specific environment can establish a fix image for products. The question is, may design manipulate these factors and affect its meaning? Yes. In fact, many design brands saw the opportunity in both tie and wallet as a show-off object. By building another layer of meaning, fashion, on top of the existing ones, tie and wallet slowly were transforming to serve a new function.

In recent years the practice of wearing tie to work has slowly fell out of favor. Many workforces today promote a casual-look which does not require wearing a tie. And with the influence of pop-culture, once a symbol for professionalism has grown to become a fashion statement. Although tie continues to be predominately a male product, it is beginning to be worn by women during fashion shows and is applied by many female celebrities. Wallet on the other hand has been transformed by design with a different material and compartments that targeted towards female consumers’ needs. Today it has become a widely used product.

From looking at the history, both products had large association with the male image and were used only by men. They represented status and social value. Design however had slowly blurred the gender distinction of usage. It challenged the product perception and powerfully alters the meaning into a new representation.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Step Closer to the Unknown World

Ever since the internet became available to public, it has been the dominant tool for researching and data gathering. The massive information center is available anytime, for anyone to access, to link across the world. It is said that the internet has made the world smaller by allowing just about every activities to be done in only few clicks including looking up an equation, shopping for new shoes, meeting new friends in a foreign country and many more. It seems almost convincing that with the help of this vast knowledge bank, anyone is capable of reaching out to the rest of the unknown world; but is it really true?

While researching for “History of the Wheelchair,” I came across an image of the first representation of wheelchair, an engraved Chinese image in 525 A.D. Intrigued by the picture, I continued exploring and hoped to find the name of the inventor or the detailed story on how it was made. To my dismay I found nothing.

How could the internet, the greatest source of information in the modern era be lacking resource on such a simple quest? Finally I abadoned my usual key word searching routine and took a different approach. Since the engraved image was found in China, I thought to search in Chinese on a Chinese search engine instead would help me obtain the missing information. As a result, the name of the inventor was found within only few searches, and I was also able to read in depth about his background.

This got me thinking about the limitation of technology and how much we believe in its power. We assume that the internet has made a perfect connection between us and the rest of the world. All we need to do is to simply learn the tool. We also assume that the internet can provide any network for anyone to reach any culture, and through this network we are capable of utilizing any sources efficiently and effectively. We become rather overly dependent on this presumably omnipotent implication without realizing that ultimately, it is only an instrument, a vehicle that only drives as well as our skill allows it to be.

As a child I spent the first twelve years of my life in Taiwan. From then on I was traveling between two countries for school and family visits. Constantly immersed in two separate cultures, I was often amazed at their many value differences. Even with the advanced technology today, the internet, which allows people to communicate globally, discrepancy always exist on the most fundamental perception of things.

A good example is language. Aside from the differences between the Chinese and the English wording structure or grammar architecture, there is a large distinction on the act of writing. In English, the articulation of ideas emphasizes highly on logic and organization. The message needs to be lucid, delivering clear ideas for effortless comprehension. On the other hand most Chinese writings tend to have a complex wording structure. The vocabulary intricacy and the construction of the story atmosphere are paid with much more attention. The writing content may require more interpretation and imagination, but being poetic and painting a beautiful picture are the most important.

The cultural gap becomes even more apparent when chatting with friends from the two countries. I especially find it difficult to translate jokes from one language to the other. While the content remains alike, the story that one culture finds humorous can be terribly dry for the other. Here culture becomes a particular set of mind that constitutes its own unique way of thinking. In spite of being a bilingual person, even when I speak or type in a language, I can feel that my thought process converts and my way of expression changes.

Nevertheless, I became conscious of the existence of cultural differences. Not only cultures from country to country, but to any clusters in society, from cities, to offices or even families. I began examine my findings more critically and kept myself more attentive to my surroundings.

As an Industrial Designer, I would also like to share how different cultures can heavily influence the way a product is perceived. There was a study that tracked how toilets were used when donated to undeveloped countries. No direction was given on how they should be used, and the users were being observed. One group decided that the toilet is a cooking tool where they can cook inside and flush to put out the fire afterwards. Yet another group thought that the toilets were for food washing. They placed fruits and vegetables inside of a net and let the dirt flush away. This instance left me with great impression that a tool may have many subjectively interpreted usages, all perceive on the basis of context.

Thus, over dependency on a single tool is dangerous. This confidence blinds us from the acknowledgment to our lacking understanding of others' views. This then narrows our ability to see in a broader picture. We should be always be careful of our biased assumption and always remember that there are many types of other perspectives in the world that we still may have no idea about, no convenient way to access, and no skill to comprehend.

As our world becomes more global and the accessible information growns increasingly abundant, it is important to be conscious of the limitation of technology. We should be more considerate of other possibilities beyond the things that we see and at the same time, strive to immerse ourselves in new environments in various ways: cultures, languages, practices and perspectives. In the end, it is not the technology that furthers our understanding of the world, but our curiosity to learn about the unknown that excels our minds.

Saturday, October 11, 2008