The Straits Times: Bird cage chairs and buddy benches: How design can change lives

26 April 2024
The Straits Times
Media Coverage

By Nur Hidayah

When was the last time you saw an infographic that moved you?

If you can’t think of one, you are definitely not alone. Infographics are simple to comprehend and easy to digest at a glance, and for this reason they are often used to share information. From topics such as Central Provident Fund schemes to HDB flat housing models, we are used to seeing explainer infographics on a regular basis.

However, what infographics lack is emotional resonance. At a time when Singaporeans are bombarded with more information than ever about important issues, it is time to rethink how we can design in a better way to send clear messages and connect with people at the same time.

For instance, amidst recent robust debate in Parliament about mental health in Singapore, one of the challenges raised was that of limited awareness and understanding of mental health conditions. The widespread prevalence of mental health stressors across our population, from youth to the elderly, was also highlighted.

Inspired by the need for more effective public health communication, artist and storyteller Josef Lee created Happie In July as part of his MA Design thesis project at Lasalle College of the Arts. Happie In July is a comic series about a girl named July and her depression, a cartoon character named Happie. The gentle, vibrant comic combines the simplicity and clarity of infographics and the emotional power of visual storytelling and appealing characters. Happie In July has gained over a thousand followers on Instagram since it was launched in January 2024.

A nation by design

When you think about a designer’s work, the first thing to come to mind might be aesthetics, or form and function. But increasingly, it is about bridging gaps and solving problems in creative ways. Mr Lee’s project on designing better communication is just one example. What the next generation of designers has learnt, coming of age in the Covid-19 pandemic, is that human connection and care are now more critical than ever, and our future needs solutions rooted in empathy and community.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once said: “Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself. Somebody thought about it, made it happen.”

Singapore will see many more profound changes and challenges arising over the next decades: dense city living, an ageing population and climate change, to name a few.

Our sustainability goals set out in the Green Plan 2030 give a glimpse into our vision for a future city. Targets include having 75 per cent of peak-period commuters using public transport, and the reduction of energy consumption in existing HDB towns by 15 per cent.

We will also need to tackle multifaceted issues such as urban heat, wayfinding, housing and public spaces, to make Singapore a more liveable and enjoyable home for its residents. This will need design with empathy.

Empathy in action

So how can we make all this happen? The problems are myriad and complex, and there is no silver bullet. But it turns out that small changes through empathy-centred design can be very powerful.

As an educator, I was inspired and moved by how design students pursued their passion during the pandemic. With limited access to resources, amid social restrictions, students used unconventional ways to approach design-making. In the years since, I have seen a steady trend of young designers with an increased sense of social responsibility, as well as interest in solving problems within their own environments and neighbourhoods.

Some of our students have done work studying the needs of communities. They came up with practical solutions such as a bird cage chair that would allow a pet bird a seat at the kopitiam table, or helping isolated seniors with the ordering of food and groceries on their smartphones. These designs help alleviate loneliness, make spaces more harmonious for residents, and promote care for one another.

Many of us now turn to food delivery services due to their ease and convenience, but we need to consider the impact of single-use packaging. Ms Wendy Chua and Mr Gustavo Maggio from Singaporean design collective Forest & Whale spent months speaking with hawkers, doing research on our local dishes and the containers they are served in. They found that the biggest challenge for hawkers is to quickly open reusable containers during lunch hour.

To address this, they prototyped a reusable container inspired by standard white styrofoam boxes. The container’s ease of use, for both hawkers and customers, makes it more likely that we will adopt environmentally conscious behaviours in shared reuse systems.

On a larger scale, we have spaces such as Kampung Admiralty, a “vertical village” designed by WOHA. Kampung Admiralty is Singapore’s first building to bring together a mix of public amenities and services under one roof. Childcare, active ageing and senior care are co-located, creating a communal space for our young and old to connect. Seniors find it easier to socialise and stay active with barrier-free and wheelchair-friendly architecture, as well as integrated transport links. Simple features like “buddy benches” at shared entrances provide spaces for interaction.

These visual cues and inclusive systems are small but significant ways that design can nudge us towards happier, healthier lives.

For a better future

In imagining what our lives might look like in the future, we need to consider not just current issues, but also what future concerns will be. We have to consider themes surrounding lifestyle needs and changing patterns, systems of care, diversity and inclusion.

Design touches every aspect of our lives. How we design our homes, schools, workplaces and public spaces – from wayfinding to workflows, systems and processes – will impact how current and future generations live and experience the world.

For all these reasons, the work of designers must increasingly be centred on care, respect and empathy. As societies evolve, our concepts and values around life, interpersonal relationships and work will change. We must acknowledge and address these shifts.

I am reminded of the words of George Bernard Shaw: “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past but by the responsibility for our future.” Our responsibility is great, but so is our potential to inspire, innovate and transform. After all, a better future does not just happen. We design it.

About the author:

Nur Hidayah is dean, Faculty of Design, LASALLE College of the Arts.

Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction. Access the original story here.

Image: Happie In July by Josef Lee