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Designs on future of business

Published on Friday, 22 Jun 2012
HKDC executive director Edmund Lee says the design sector will shape economic and cultural trends.
Photo: Nora Tam

Design products, systems and thinking are changing the business world, providing vast opportunities for those involved in the field. At the helm of the Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC) since 2010, executive director Dr Edmund Lee Tak-yue has witnessed the growing dominance of innovations and designs in our society.

An expert in microbiology, with more than 20 years of management experience in public and professional services, Lee shares his insights on how to incorporate design-thinking more fully into the economy.

What is your role at the HKDC in formulating Hong Kong’s strategy for the design industry?
My role at the HKDC – a design promotional agency – is to advocate the use of design and promote its wider use in the creation of business value and progress in society.

I am talking about design with a capital D. It is not just about aesthetics, or making things beautiful on the surface. I am referring to design thinking and how you integrate it into your overall system and strategy so that it can deliver an outcome with a bigger impact and a greater efficiency, or even cost-effectiveness.

It is our hope that more executives in the business sector will come to better understand and appreciate the power of design, both in terms of differentiating their companies and in creating value and impact.
How can design create value for businesses?
The role of designers and design is becoming more prominent in our society. The world is running with a creative mindset and the design industry is going to influence economic and cultural development. Asian cities around Hong Kong – such as Singapore, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei – are deepening the culture of design and creative industry in their communities. The sense of appreciating design, its use as a style and knowledge, is going to be emphasised.

Designers need to grasp opportunities, as we will venture even further across disciplines to create the “wow” impact. It is not about technologies but about your mindset and how well you master your tools and work with other masters of other disciplines.

What opportunities and challenges are there for creative minds?
Nowadays, a creative mindset is about cross-disciplinary innovation. When you integrate technologies and different design disciplines, you need to have the business vigour to see through the conceptualisation and implementation of the entire thing.

That’s why the HKDC has done a lot of preaching and advocating to the business-of-design community. Users of designs include corporations, any level of professionals, policymakers and the public sector.

How does that affect designers and people working with them?
The design field is very vibrant. With more and more arts venues being built in Hong Kong, there is a huge demand for professionals to curate, manage and implement programmes.

At the HKDC, we see a need to emphasise education, particularly in continuous professional development for designers, managers and executives. This year, we are launching the Institute of Design Knowledge for experienced managers and executives, to help broaden their horizons through a knowledge-exchange platform.

Learning about design is a vigorous process. It involves an insight into problem-solving, research ability, concept formation, prototyping and drafting of solutions.
The whole process is very systematic. Through our programmes and dialogue, we try to question and revisit the relationship of design with the economy and the society, and education.

How can people develop a creative mindset?
Making a creative mindset more powerful means starting training as early as possible. Children who are still in their formative years therefore need to be exposed to all kinds of liberal arts and cultural studies.

All creativity starts with an inquisitive mind – a state of mind. A creative mindset is constantly being inspired by different sources. And most likely, this kind of inspiration comes from outside your own profession.

Design leaders – not necessarily those by training – can be sensitised by the environment, by social problems or cultural developments. These are all sources of new ideas.

What are the most important qualities for “non-designers” who wish to succeed in the industry?
The design community consists of people who cherish values such as truth, goodness and beauty. These people, perfectionists at times, try their best to make the most out of their work. So I think they deserve some respect. But any profession deserves the same kind of respect. When business people connect with designers, the connections are based on factors such as mutual respect for each others’ professions, heritage, history and personality.

You have to learn how to work with each other by knowing what others do. Then you will start respecting and fulfill the objectives. The issues designers need to deal with may be about finding a solution for a company problem. You will still need multiple stakeholders to work together. Designers are not the solution to all problems, but we can leverage their ability and energy when solving the problems. A mix of the left and right brain will makes things more powerful.

What is it like working at the HKDC?
We are a small organisation, so all of my staff are versatile and good at multi-tasking. We work through a collaborative approach by building a wide network to exert our influence. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. Currently, we have about 50 staff and will keep hiring as we expand our projects and our incremental funding.

It is a unique organisation. We are not an events group, but we use events as a vehicle to advocate, educate and disseminate design thinking and its power. I don’t have a design background, so I have a steeper learning curve as I become more closely involved in this industry.

What is the challenge of heading a non-profit organisation?
Managing a non-profit organisation is a tough job. You are going after the objective of mission impact and increasing such impact with very limited resources. So you need to know how to build on partnerships. A business-driven spirit can keep us flexible, with our feet on the ground.

I am constantly inspiring my staff to learn the smart way, and we have to be accountable because we are using public funds. We need to improve our corporate governance; it is our responsibility. But at the same time, we cannot become a bureaucratic body, so rigid that we can’t make anything happen.

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