In conversation with: Chua Jia Xiang on the role of design in the fight against COVID-19


Ask Chua Jia Xiang about a typical day at work, and he’ll rattle off a wide-ranging list of tasks that would not seem out of place in a Silicon Valley startup. “There are about 15 people in our team. Some days we run workshops: co-creating workshops, ideation workshops, design thinking workshops. Some days we’re down on the ground to look at what’s happening and figure out ways to improve processes. We use lean and design approaches to solve problems such as improving visitor experience in our campus or streamlining work efficiency in the workplace.”

Except Jia Xiang, who graduated from LASALLE in 2014 with a BA(Hons) in Design Communication, doesn’t work in a startup. He is a Senior Service Designer in the Kaizen Office at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), a nimble team named after the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement. Put simply, they harness the power of design innovation to make things better.

OTmakeathonDesigning Personal Mobility Aid (PMA) experience workshop with occupational therapists and the community.

TTSH is home to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) — the heart of Singapore’s fight against COVID-19, where Jia Xiang is putting his passion for service design to good use. One project that recently came to fruition is a new face shield prototype, which came about when Dr Shawn Vasoo, senior consultant and clinical director of the NCID, noticed problems with traditional goggles such as discomfort and fogging from prolonged wear.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, frontline healthcare personnel are wearing personal protective equipment for longer periods than ever. “We also saw a lot of photos where doctors and nurses had a lot of marks on their face due to prolonged usage,” remarks Jia Xiang.

“So we talked to ground staff to find out about their needs and their working environment. Based on an old prototype of a face shield used during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, we spent two weeks — and over a hundred iterations — coming up with a new design to create something that would be comfortable, safe and easy to wear and remove, as well as cost-effective to produce.”

The face shields have completed the first phase of user acceptance testing, and are already being rolled out in mass production for use at TTSH. This is just one of the many innovations Jia Xiang is involved in with his work at the Kaizen Office, which also manages the Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI)’s makerspace — a collaborative work space called the CHI Living Lab (CHI), where healthcare professionals can work together with designers to turn ideas and concepts into prototypes.

Portfolio2018-1-_Page_181Vertical Kampong, Jia Xiang’s final year project at LASALLE

Jia Xiang credits LASALLE with starting him on the path towards service design. “During my last year at LASALLE, I was already thinking about how to do something more meaningful with my design skills. I didn’t want to go into advertising or design another financial product that people do not need. At LASALLE, we were able to carve out and make decisions about what we wanted to learn, while getting support and guidance from lecturers. It was such a conducive environment to grow as a designer. My lecturer Joselyn Sim was a great source of support to me. She was very positive about my interests and always ready to give advice.”

Jia Xiang’s final year project at LASALLE, Vertical Kampong, was a platform designed to facilitate social integration of new migrants in Singapore through sharing food recipes, culture and stores. He won Best of Design at the Crowbar Awards 2014, which cemented his determination to keep making meaningful work. Jia Xiang went on to pursue a MA in Service Design at the Royal College of Art in London on a DesignSingapore Council scholarship.

MF19GrpPhoto1Jia Xiang is a part of the TTSH Management Fellowship programme, which grooms executives for directorial roles.

Today, Jia Xiang has been working at TTSH for two and a half years. In 2019, another LASALLE alumni Shaina Tan, who graduated as the College’s top BA(Hons) Design Communication student, was also hired by TTSH as a Service Designer. Jia Xiang sees design taking more and more of a central role in the success of organisations, regardless of industry. “We are no longer taking a backseat waiting for people to come up with design briefs for us, or seen as just there to make an aesthetic suggestion. Nowadays, designers are at the forefront of identifying organisational issues and challenges faced by users. Companies from banks to utilities and healthcare have in-house design and innovation teams, or even a Chief Design Officer.”

Jia Xiang’s top tip for fresh grads? “You’ll need strong interpersonal, collaborative skills and learn design facilitation. Have the business sense to understand the needs and priorities of your management, your organisation, your users and your stakeholders. Once you align all these things, you can truly create something of value to everyone.”

Photos: Chua Jia Xiang