Sonny Lim Designer Q&A

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Sonny Lim - Product Designer

Sonny Lim - Senior Designer BMWDesignWorks USA Singapore

Sonny Lim, Senior Designer at BMW Group DesignworksUSA Singapore, shares his thoughts and advice on the role of a senior designer, working in-house versus working for a consultancy, working across multiple offices, the state of design in Singapore and much more.

1. Sonny, Welcome to Design Droplets. Thank you for taking the time to chat, could you please give a quick introduction on yourself. (about a paragraph).

My heritage is probably the most interesting thing about me. My parents are originally from Singapore & Malaysia but moved to The Netherlands a long time ago. I was born and raised there so my native language is actually Dutch! That was just pure luck because The Netherlands is an amazing country for designers. Great design community, lots of talent and very self-critical. After graduating from TU Delft and working in Germany for a couple of years, I got the chance to move to Singapore for my current job. It is funny how working as a designer brought me full circle and back to my roots.

2. You are currently a Senior Designer at BMW Group DesignworksUSA in Singapore, can you tell us a bit about BMW Group DesignworksUSA?

There are around 135 people working for BMW Group DesignworksUSA, spread over three studios in LA, Munich and Singapore. Obviously we do many projects for our mother company which includes BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. We also work with a lot of external clients and design everything from consumer electronics to aircraft interiors and yachts. However, as a Strategic Design consultancy we can do so much more than just designing beautiful distinctive products.

We can show other companies how to define their entire product range in order to stand out, how to create new innovative products & services, how to become a design leader, how to be more sustainable and so on. It is much more holistic and mature approach towards design.

You have to look very closely at the world around you. A good analogy would be an architect who creates a city wide master plan rather than designing just one building. Or a graphic designer creating a complete corporate identity and not just a logo. The impact of strategic design on a company is much larger and more permanent.

Personally I think this approach and project mix makes it one of the most exciting design consultancies in the world. And we definitely have the longest name.

3. As Senior Designer, what are your roles and responsibilities, as oppose to the roles and responsibilities of someone who is a ‘designer’?

A Senior Designer takes the creative lead in a project. In other words he pulls and steers the less experienced designers while still creating designs himself. He is also the go-to-guy for any questions, feedback and to get things done. There is a fair amount of project management involved too: reviewing designs, planning, filtering information for the team, translating client/engineering/marketing/vendor feedback to relevant designs and so on. It is really like keeping a lot of balls in the air while trying to be a designer at the same time.

I enjoy the multiple roles and responsibilities and it keeps things interesting. It is very satisfying to guide a design team so they create great ideas as opposed to just focusing on your own work. When I started working I wanted to leave my mark in the design world and get exciting products out on the market. But after having done that for a couple of years, I felt a need to grow creatively. It is only natural that more experienced designers want to take more project responsibility too.

4. You have worked for companies in-house (Sony Ericsson and Adidas) and you now work for a consultancy, can you tell us a bit about the difference between working in-house and in a consultancy? How much of a difference is there in areas like workflows and methodologies?

Working as an in-house designer you usually work on one kind of product and experience everything from the first sketch to production. You really become a design specialist in that particular field. Your daily work is focused on creating the best product possible. As a consequence you learn a lot about designing a real product and the realities of mass-production. You also work closely together with other disciplines like marketing, engineers and developers. You learn how to listen to others and when to fight for your design. I think in-house design departments are great places to start your career. There is enough time and resources to develop your skills. Lots of opportunities to gain experience and to get an idea how big companies work.

On the other hand, a designer can experience many different projects and clients in a design consultancy. It could be a car interior design one week and a context research project the next. BMW Group DesignworksUSA tries to let designers work on as many different kinds of projects as possible. Cross fertilisation of skills and flexibility of mind are key to innovation and creativity. Usually there is less time for a project and deadlines are tight. You learn how to focus on the most important aspects and use creativity tools effectively to generate maximum results in the available time.

5. One of the key requirements in any design project for an established brand is designing the product to fit within that brand (its history, its current state and its vision for the future). When designing for a particular brand, as oppose to designing for a new brand or for no brand, what do designers need to take into account?

The designers need to have a deep understanding how the brand works, what the brand thinks is important, how they want to present themselves. In short: their brand values. More than often brands tend to describe themselves in relatively general terms like high-quality or innovative. It is part of our job to find out how these values translate into a tangible design. How to show a particular quality or value in a product is a creative process too and an essential skill when working with established brands.

6. BMW Group DesignworksUSA is an international team with offices across the globe, what does this mean for designers at the project level?

On a project level it means that every designer can tap into a vast pool of knowledge and experience from the entire company. Sometimes we get up a bit earlier or stay longer in the office so we can talk to the other teams in LA or Munich and share our thoughts. In the Singapore studio everybody is fluent in two or more languages and has worked around the world. That helps tremendously in communication and cultural sensitivity. Occasionally a designer flies to the other studio for a couple of weeks or even months to work on a project.

7. In one of the products you have designed, the Sennheiser OMX 980 earphones, you used materials extremely effectively to create a product with an aesthetic that speaks about exclusivity and luxury. In your opinion how important are the materials used in a design and do materials influence the overall success of a design?

Very important! Materials are often underused in product design. However they are only one aspect of a successful design. On the earphones we started with understanding Sennheiser’s heritage and brand, which spans more than 60 years of audio excellence. They have a simple philosophy of creating the best possible audio product and are commercially very successful. Sennheiser earphones were well built and monolithic but a little austere in their essentiality. I didn’t want to detract from any of that, but I did want to add something more in terms of recognisability. That ‘something more’ had to start from the silhouette, what you see first from a distance, to then continue along the surfaces and into the smallest detail.

The idea of aiming for a distinctive silhouette is based on two things. The first is technical in nature: there are many parts that need to come together and the earphone has to be comfortable. We wanted to emphasise how ergonomics and Sennheiser’s sound expertise define both function and aesthetic elegance. We worked very hard to make the earphones as simple and light as possible. For example the OMX980 has half the amount of hinges and moving parts but is more comfortable and elegant than competitors.

The second aspect is communication: defining the ideal design symbol gives the brand incomparable strength.

Every detail, including material, is conceived with quality in mind and expresses a sense of exclusivity, but also the characteristic purity of a precious object. One of the secrets of this earphone range is surface treatment on a very small area. It is the feeling of knowing how to balance convexity and concavity, and the way light interacts with the surfaces. This is where our expertise and finesse in automotive surfacing is visible. Our earphones do not look like technical dentist’s instruments but like objects of desire.

8. Can you talk about your creative process and where you get your inspiration from?

I see design as looking for possibilities and possible futures, instead of only solving present-day problems. Products are a means of get people to behave and to feel in a particular way. Products earn their meaning in their interaction with people. The way you use a product is determined by the context for which it is designed. This context can be the world of today, tomorrow, or may lie years ahead. Future contexts demand new and different behaviours. My creative process is context-driven and I often ask myself questions like: “why does this product exist? And why does it exist in this way? What aesthetic conventions does it use? How has it evolved to be like it is?” The fun part is developing the meaning and a vision of what the product should mean to users. In essence this is the story the product should tell.

9. What are your thoughts on the current state of design in Singapore?

Singapore has a young and compact design scene. There is definitely a lot of attention for design and many people understand its value. In addition it is actively supported by initiatives like the DesignSingapore Council. The quality of design education varies quite a lot but the best design students are able to globally compete on the highest level. One of the biggest obstacles is cultural in nature. Academic achievements and grades are often perceived as more valuable than creativity and there is a lot of peer pressure on the kids to perform. Of course this attitude might lead to well-educated accountants and lawyers but rarely produces good designers. Ideally Singapore would have a design kindergarten where creativity is channeled and given a proper place.

10. Sonny, thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at Design Droplets. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for Design Droplets readers?

In Asia companies have a tendency to treat design like ketchup. It is seen as an instant and easy way to make a product look good. If companies want to gain a long-lasting competitive advantage, they need to invest time and resources to get their design management right. Deep thinking and taking the time for development lead to great design. There is no design award for speed or consumer recognition for fastest time-to-market.

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