Designing is more than just making something look pretty. It can bring about change for society as a whole.
From the directions you come across while travelling to the labels on the things you buy, design is so seamlessly immersed into our daily lives that, unless you’re trained to do so, often receives less credit than it should be getting.
Contrary to popular understanding, the role of design is much bigger than just ‘decorating’ as a practice. With the limitless potential to explore between the areas of design and science research, what are the possibilities of design making an impact on society?
Discovering her passion since the age of 10 and later truly understanding the concept of design, Ts. Dr. Pouline Koh, Head of The Design School at Taylor’s, is dedicated to bringing purpose into design, specifically for social good, through her research projects and role as an educator.
Q: What are some of the research projects you’re currently working on?
A: I’m currently working on a few different research projects, which are guided by a single objective in mind — design for social good, specifically on emotional and well-being, behavioural aspects, user experience, and problems within specific community groups.
On User’s Experience
The first project, also an extension of my PhD research, examines information design for different types of people. There are lots of issues in the way information is designed. For example, nutritional labels are often designed by nutritionists to assist people to make informed decisions but, ironically, the design of the information lacks consideration.
And this isn’t just faced by the older generation. Many educated young adults also find it a nuisance about what, where, or how to read them. During the project, I’ve benchmarked the types of nutritional labels designed across different countries and have even made an archive out of it. This area has so much potential and, though I’m still actively researching it too, I hope other researchers will also pick up on this in time to come.
Ts. Dr. Pouline as a guest speaker at a Life Sciences seminar.
On Emotional Well-being and Behaviour
My other on-going project revolves around the relationship of design between emotional intelligence (EI) and food — simply put, how design affects your eating choices. I’m working with an amazing researcher, with a background in emotional intelligence, to see how people eat during the lockdown, which EI component is likely to affect food choices, and if the design of food labels plays a conscious role in making choices.
We looked at how people consume during the lockdown. Based on our findings, Malaysians are unsurprisingly lacking in self-control and rather poor in self-awareness when making food choices, especially at the start of the pandemic. We’re still gathering more findings so that we can present it to the public in future.
For Specific Community Groups
I’m also researching user experience in wayfinding design which started off with a simple question in mind: How do young solo tourists in KL navigate and what are their preferences for a better designed directional signages?
While this helped the town council to rethink the navigation experience, a meaningful question was also thrown at me by an elderly person: “Can your research help seniors navigate in a big city without having the fear of falling down?” This question hit me hard and I realised that there are more vulnerable groups of people in greater need that tend to be sidelined.
That’s where I’ll be paying attention next and expanding into vulnerable groups with limitations; physically or in literacy.
Q: What inspired you to research these particular areas and what are your hopes for them?
A: As design becomes more integrated into life and designers start becoming influencers and shapers of culture, we’re presented with a tremendous opportunity to create change. With these research projects, I often ask questions that’d drive me to seek closure. Why’s something designed the way it is? And, if it isn’t ideal, how can I do it differently?
I’m clear with my role as a trained designer and I aspire to design with a purpose behind each of my projects. Somehow, this unplanned intention always ends up with people or the specific community group that I draw so much into. This is very similar to my approach of teaching too, where I encourage my students to question things.
I hope to have my findings adopted by the country's decision makers so that people can benefit from it. I envision having an interactive design research exhibition, instead of the conventional approach, at the National Gallery or Museum showcasing all the interesting findings to engage and educate the visitors. It’ll be such an achievement if I’d the chance to share this to people across all ages and ethnicity.
Ts. Dr. Pouline presenting findings from her National research.
Q: What are some of the memorable moments throughout your research journey?
A: Receiving my first research grant. Not only was I still a PhD student, many seniors were impressed with the awarded amount received for my social science research. I remember one of the senior researchers saying, “That amount is usually given to science discipline research”. Being a recipient taught me a lot and guided me in upcoming grant applications. I’m looking to explore industry grants which is another level of challenge and learning to be gained.
Apart from grants, being awarded an Emerging Scholar at a prestigious design conference enabled me to get into the global design circle where I’ve gained more than just exchanging design perspectives. The friendships I’ve made with the world design leaders through this opportunity is most invaluable. I wish to kickstart a mega project that serves to change lives across the globe through design by gathering and working with them.
I’d also love to eventually create a tangible product or an object based on my research. Engineering researchers do this often, but it’s rare for design researchers to move beyond the research framework and prototype to an actual product in the market. Ideally, I’d like to commercialise and place it in the market.
Ts. Dr. Pouline is one of the recipients of the Emerging Scholar award for design research excellence in Canada.
Q: You’ve spent some time in the industry before entering the academic field. Why did you switch and has your working experience affected the way you teach?
A: To be honest, I never imagined becoming an academic. I was certain about my interest in design at a very young age and always envisioned myself as a designer working in a quirky creative agency.
In less than two years after graduation and while I was completing my Master’s Degree, I became a Junior Art Director at a reputable creative agency, working with major clients and multiple big projects. Working for a creative agency definitely comes with glamorous perks — a great place to develop new skills and take on big challenges, despite the long working hours. With all the projects, it opened up a very different way of thinking. But, as I was moving up rapidly, I felt my belief in design for social good was starting to grey and dilute.
I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing, often feeling vacuous emotions, and felt less grounded. When I decided to take a break and re-evaluate my next move, my friends spoke highly about the purpose of teaching jobs. I thought I’d give the role a try to see if I can apply my beliefs in designs for social good — which I definitely got.
Q: What’s one memorable moment for you as an educator?
A: I love engaging with young people. The very individualistic, unique, different, and hard to get along with or understand students often pique my interest. Many experienced colleagues have advised me to focus on those that can accelerate easily and the rest will follow suit. Being a strong-headed individual, I always go for the opposite.
In my 2nd year as a young lecturer, I came across a hearing-impaired student in my design class. I was very concerned if she could understand and cope but she came to me after the class and wrote, “I was rejected by many institutions because they can’t teach a deaf student. Don’t worry about me — I can read the teaching materials and figure out the learning myself. I’m willing to work hard. This is my 1st trial week and I don’t want to be terminated. I hope to continue and graduate to be a designer.” I saw her vulnerability and enormous courage.
My desire to include her during my teaching drove me to pick it up in the quickest time — 3 days in total with her help, so that I can teach and sign at the same time in the class. Soon, other students slowly picked up signing as well. This effect was very unexpected
Through this experience, I realised sign language depends a lot on visuals.
Since one can’t hear, the immediate reflex is to depend on your observation to receive cues which is the attention to detail a designer needs to be familiar with. I somehow found that, in a world full of noise, being able to communicate through sign language allowed me to pace myself, pay more attention to my response, and connect properly with the other person. It also widened my perspective in designing possibilities.
I found that drive in me to teach and challenged my students to question what we know and to make things better.
Ts. Dr. Pouline teaching sign language at a Petronas science festival.
Q: How can students be a part of change and use design for social good?
A: Design for social good means using your particular design skill sets, no matter the kind, to contribute meaningfully to the world and help create positive social change. I’ve no doubt that a lot of this change is already happening out there and I’m optimistic about the young design students and emerging designers leading the change around working for purpose over profit.
I’ve been on the journey of design for social good in my research approach for a few years now and it’s an ever-evolving, changing area of design. Many students have approached me over the years to share their interest in getting involved and making their design projects serve a bigger purpose. I often throw them a few simple guiding questions to help them kickstart.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to young designers out there?
A: Don’t get blinded or shadowed by what you’re chasing for out there because you’re busy coping with a designer’s job and taking instructions. You’re trained to question things — whether it’s in a provocative or conventional way.
Constantly question yourself and don’t forget why you wanted to be trained in design. There could be many different reasons. For me, I wanted to use design for social good.
At the end of the day, we’re all trained under the masterminds from the design field. If you’re not happy, you can always make a U-turn to chase your purpose again.
Ts. Dr. Pouline with her students at an interview on NT7 featuring leading students projects.
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