Starting Out is a series about designers who have recently struck out on their own. More than a string of studio visits, the articles profile talented, risk-taking professionals all around the world. We hope their anecdotes will inspire your own entrepreneurial spirit.
In our third installment, we visit Alice Wang in Taipei, Taiwan. We met her first at the world famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung, and then at her studio, where after only one year, she has a large team of employees under her wing and a brand new magazine to boot.
Top: Alice Wang and her studio bunch, wearing a set of laser cut glasses made to surprise Alice on her birthday. Bottom: An image of Controlled Experiments, a series of design projects in the spirit of science fairs.
Core77: Alice, tell us about your studio practice.
Alice Wang:: I have a background in product design and interaction design and a childhood dream to become an artist, so as a result, I think what I'm doing now is a mixture of all three.
Instead of designing products that solves problem, I use design as a language to illustrate stories, social trends, common issues seen among us; to observe and remind people about issues left hidden or forgotten; use parody and irony to ask people to laugh and self-reflect.
Alice takes us on a tour of her impressive studio, just a year old.
C77: How and why did you first start out?
AW: I started out by accident. I had to ship my project to Milan for Salone Satellite and it was too heavy to ship it as an individual, so I registered my company asap just so I can get those boxes to Europe.
C77: Your practice is very diverse. Tell us about all its different facets.
AW: My company is loosely divided into 5 parts:
Research & Collectables: On the side, we work on a wide range of self-initiated research projects, and sometimes, the outcome turns into a design collectable or an installation for gallery and museums.
The Binder: A new magazine we started on April Fool's Day this year, it mainly focuses on art, design, fashion, psychology, social trend analysis. The magazine has three holes and comes with a binder hoping to encourage readers to tear out pages and reorganize them when archiving them into the Binder.
Controlled Experiments: With this series, we're aiming to merge the process of scientific experiments into the design process. Each project starts off with a hypothesis and goes through data collection and observation before it researches the analysis and conclusion procedure. We're not sure what the outcome of each product will be as it may be influenced by the participants and the data collected.Education: I am hugely disappointed with the design education in Taiwan, and therefore decided to start my own lecture series. The lectures happen once a month and the topics are generally art or design related. Some, I talk about projects that interests me; Others, invite guest speakers by inviting them to lecture via skype. So far, it has worked extremely well and we've had on average 150 audiences per lecture.
Client Projects: We work with a wide range of clients on projects ranging from graphics to product to installations.
Controlled Experiments continues Alice's exploration into the often comical and absurd side of human life. Using a witty and irreverent—yet still utterly rigorous—research-oriented approach, she creates methodologies to design objects that will satisfy needs and curiosities that are often taken for granted, or even ignored. Each project focuses on exploring an issue and experiments are then designed around it from art, design, science and psychological perspectives. The first experiment, Bladder Project, attempted to uncover any correlation that might exist between age, fluid intake, and nighttime bladder capacity.
Shots from the studio, from top to bottom: interns and employees work hard in the main workspace; the studio's growing collection of reference materials; Alice in her conference-room-turned office; the studio kitchenette; an array of enviable Taiwanese snacks; and hacked Ikea light fixtures.
C77: How do you use your space? How has it grown?
AW: I had my first office in Starbucks. Not cause I love coffee so much, but mainly cause I was so broke. I calculated the expenses that's needed to work in Starbucks and cross compared it with the rent and bills I had to pay if I had a proper office. Starbucks was way cheaper, so I worked there for 3 months until I got 2 assistants and the Starbucks staff started to hate me.
When I finally rented my studio, I only had money left to redo the toilet, buy 3 desks and some shelves. The studio was extremely empty initially, but gradually grew as we finished more projects. For each project we do, a percentage of that money will be allocated to build up the studio and get equipments we may need. Now, we have a meeting room, big TV, Nitendo Wii, a small snack bar, small kitchen and sofa area and a messy room with tools and machines for model making. Our next goal is to get a dust extractor for wood work and a small laser cutter.
C77: How do you make business decisions? For example, how do you price something, know what parts of the office to grow,and what projects to accept or decline?
AW: We don't really have a "menu" or price list, we dissect each project brief and see what it involves. If me or my staff can learn and experience something new from the project, then the pricing will be cheap. If it's a repetition of something we're done before, then the price will be marked higher.
Top: The first issue of Alice Wang's new magazine, The Binder. Bottom: The view from the studio.
C77: What have the high points of this process been? What about the challenges?
AW: The moment I stood in my first studio (the one after starbucks) was definitely the most memorable. I remember standing in an empty room thinking "WOW! I have a studio! My own studio!" But since then on, the pressure is ON! Having to pay the rent, the bills and the staff can be quite stressful at times.
C77: What do you think of Taipei? How does it impact your practice?
AW:Taipei is a great city to live in, cheap taxis, good food, lovely people, but its not the best city for people working in the creative industry! The city moves very fast, people eat fast, walk fast and even design fast. We often get clients who want us to design a website, and want it to be up and running in 10 days time!!
Another thing is that designers aren't really well respected in Taiwan. Designers are viewed as executors, not thinkers, and are expected to do everything the client orders them to. It becomes very difficult to propose any new concepts if a majority of the clients think this way.
Asimov's First Law: Artificial intelligence is a topic widely used in the media, however, exactly how far are we from such technology? Are these fears towards robotic developments necessary or purely irrational? What is it about these currently fictional characters that scare us? Are there existing domestic objects that already break this law? Weighing scales, although don't perform physical harm, have been subtly damaging us psychologically. Should objects like these exist in a complex society like ours where people are more emotionally fragile? Pictured here are Half-Truth, a scale that is read by a friend, giving them the opportunity to decide what to tell you, and White Lies, where the futher back you stand, the lighter you become.
When there's no time for a proper meal, vitamins can be bought as health supplements. But what happens when there's no time for relationships? ">Pet Plus cheekily explores the role that pets might play in overbusy human lives through the design of an accessory line.
Chairs for the Dysfunctional wonder if there should be different chairs designed for people with different sitting habits. Do you sit on all four legs or just two? Do you continuously shake your leg? Or do you like to sit with your back facing the public? This series of chairs illustrates each of these stories. Will these chairs become props that normalize the unwelcomed habits? Or will they act as therapy to "cure" one's syndromes? Shown here are Constant Shaker and Silent Farter.
C77: Who do you look to as your professional contemporaries and peers?
AW: In Taipei, there aren't that many designers / artists doing what I do, so most of the time, I still look to my RCA colleagues and tutors. And luckily, there's also a bag designer, Wei Wei Chang, working in my studio, we went to the RCA together, so we're quite used to having discussions over lunch about different projects we're working on.
C77: Describe your working process or typical day. For example, what are your primary tools?
AW: My typical day begins with breakfast while I look through a list of websites and blogs. It is then followed by a 30 minute journey to the office where I check progress with each project manager. The afternoons are usually filled with meetings with clients or collaborators. And progress check with my staff again before I head off for dinner. After dinner, I either head home to work on articles for The Binder or head back to the office to wrap up cases that are coming to an end. I end my day around 3am in the morning where I write reminders for the office and a bit of time with my sketchbook.
C77: Give one piece of advice for others who are thinking of starting off on their own.
AW: DON'T DO IT! But if you must, then hold tight and hang in there.
If you've got a story of your own to share, let us know, and you may find your way here. Email your details to blogs [at] core77 [dot] com with the subject line "Starting Out."
Lisa is dedicated to promoting the American contemporary design scene. She keeps herself busy as the co-founder of the Object Design League, an association of independent designers in Chicago, and design practice Smith&Linder, both co-founded with Caroline Linder. She also teaches foundation research studios at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.