Stuck: A Culture of Collaboration
Stuck is a multidisciplinary design company built on camaraderie and a desire to create smart, easy to use products. Luo Jingmei writes.
More minds are better than one. For multidisciplinary design studio Stuck, this mindset has allowed for many successful collaborative opportunities that straddle the fields of branding, and product and interactive design. “We find it tiresome to work alone, but together we are energised,” says Donn Koh, design principal and one of Stuck’s five co-founders.
Koh, together with Lee Tze Ming, Yong Jieyu, Hans Tan and Edwin Low, were from the early batches of the National University of Singapore’s Industrial Design course. This year marks the fifth year since they first came together as a “small, elite team of individuals” to provide savvy design solutions on a per-project basis.
The team has grown to 14-persons large and collaboration is still a big part of their manifesto. “It has always been about being able to work and collaborate with one another, and being uplifted by that energy and variety that comes from a mix of people,” says Koh.
He describes how each co-founder brings a different skill set to the table. Both Yong and Tan – who has also won a President’s Design Award for his Spotted Nonya series tableware – furthered their studies at the prestigious Design Academy in Eindhoven, thus bringing a conceptual edge to the studio’s work. Low, who is also founder of the highly successful local retail design boutique Supermama, is the “strategist and business guru, who is sharp with opportunities and has a good sense of both the short run as well as the long run,” says Koh.
Meanwhile, both him and Lee bring to the team their experience from renowned design agencies in designing highly commercial, mass-produced technological lifestyle goods. “This covers directing projects and processes with big brands as well as product-based start ups, and helps give the team the rigour to handle detail and feasibility so that we can develop projects all the way to manufacturing,” says Koh.
This explains the multifaceted portfolio of Stuck, where mobile fitness apps sit alongside product branding and design for water heaters and vases. The name ‘Stuck’ also reveals the studio’s playful approach to design. “Stuck is a word that quickly takes on a negative connotation in people’s minds… [but it] can be used very positively as well: from ‘ideas that stick’ to ‘stuck on you’,” says Koh. This, he expounds, represents the studio’s approach in turning perceived problems into opportunities.
“While being very flexible and playful with the perspectives we bring, which provides the spark, the wit and the ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that’ quality in our works, we are at the same time highly pragmatic, implementation-oriented and detailed to the point of being obsessive. This allows our imagination to meet with reality. Clients will find that our works are rooted in manufacturability and marketability even whilst they stretch boundaries and exhibit fresh thinking,” says Koh.
An example of a product that stems from this approach is the Air+ Smart Mask, which was jointly innovated and designed with Innosparks (a member of ST Engineering). “Protective masks have been conventionally oriented for industrial use and therefore lacking in consumer-level comfort, aesthetics and usability… the results are leakages and trapped exhalations that raise internal temperatures, moisture and carbon dioxide levels. Wearers are often forced to abandon the masks, leading to further exposure to air pollutants,” says Koh and Innosparks.
The Air+ Smart Mask solves all of these problems. It is available in three sizes and has in-built respirators and clever add-on Micro Ventilator Systems to create an unprecedented level of ergonomic and airflow comfort. Humidity in the mask is reduced by up to 40 per cent, temperature by up to 4°C, and carbon dioxide levels from 5 to 1.5 per cent.
The Air+ Smart Mask is especially timely during the current haze season. Innosparks and Koh highlight how aside from its flat foldability, its face-neutral shape minimises the ‘social distance’ a mask creates during face-to-face communication, making it more wearable. “The mask is also certified under the American NIOSH and European CE Standards for its N95 level of filtration capability and facial seal. Released only several months back, it has consistently been the best-selling mask in Singapore and is frequently sold out due to overwhelming demand,” Innosparks and Koh share this with pride.
Recently, Stuck has also started developing their own range of product lines. “We’ve come to realise that a long-term model of investing in our team’s own capabilities, and taking our own risks, is a good supplement to external projects,” says Koh. “It also allows us to work with each other in even more interesting ways.”
A result of this is the Souvenirs from Singapore collection that “document the history of Singapore in ‘object stories’” that do not come in the form of cheesy “junk” souvenirs targeted at the clueless tourist. “The objects had to be what we could be proud of [so] even the locals would want to buy them. We also wanted them to be recognised as good design pieces but still at democratic prices so that more people can enjoy them,” says Koh.
Ranging from cuddly and quirky to practical, these well-designed souvenirs were popular from the moment of release. The streamlined shape of the Kopi Bag Mug, for instance, resolves the problem of ‘standing’ plastic bags of coffee purchased from the ubiquitous coffee shops in conventional mugs.
Another popular item is the Merlion ChouChou soft toy. It has sparked a social media phenomenon while endearing Singaporeans to an icon that is often dissed as an object marketed at the tourist, Koh muses. “Our reinvented incarnation has seen locals queuing over thirty minutes to get it during its launch, and subsequently use it as a photobomb star, ‘wefie’ partner and Instagram model,” he shares.
Currently, Stuck is working on a variety of projects. This includes designs involving robots, aircraft seats, vehicles, tech wearables, military gear and software, IOT products, and mobile applications for consumers and enterprise productivity. The team is also developing a new collection of products to enhance HDB living and designing new products for the Souvenirs from Singapore collection.
No doubt, there is a lot on Stuck’s plate but these challenges are part and parcel of the everyday at the studio that they look forward to. In fact, it is a key ingredient to being successful, as Koh says in his advice to young designers. “If one is truly pushing the frontiers – as design always should – it doesn’t become any less challenging because of accumulated experience. However, we grow over time to enjoy the challenges more, and the difficulties become delights. So learn to get comfortable with uncertainty and resistance, for it will always be around if you are truly doing good work.”