Ulrich Schraudolph is the founder of XentiQ, an integrated product development firm in Singapore. He has over 20 years of product design experience, working with multinational corporations like Colgate, Unilever and Alcatel. He has also been a consultant with the Korean Institute of Design and Packaging (KIDP) and a lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and CREAPOLE design school in Paris. He shares his views on design and the role of product designers in Asia.
The Columnist (TC): How did the idea for XentiQ come about and why did you choose to base yourself in Singapore?
Ulrich Schraudolph (US): While in Europe in the 70s, I could foresee that product design’s future would pan out in Asia as the manufacturing bases were moving there. Asia was also the source for new consumers and trends. It probably started with the small Sony TVs in the 70s.
In the 90s, I worked regularly on assignments in Korea and really enjoyed it. However, I felt that relocating there would be too disruptive for my family. When offered an opportunity to work in Singapore, it seemed to me that this country had the right balance between the East and the West. I signed the employment contract early in the year when it was wet and cold in Germany! In Singapore, I could have been enjoying myself in the pool all year round.
I started out working in large organisations but found it difficult due to the restrictions on creativity. I realised that I needed more freedom to achieve what I wanted. It took a while, but I finally succeeded and started XentiQ. By this time, we had developed a niche in creating high value technological devices, providing a bridge to convert ideas into commercial products.
TC: What is the principle driving the design process?
US: Design is a way to tackle ill-defined, open-ended problems and turn them into opportunities and finally, solutions. Some call this design thinking, others just do it, it does not matter how you describe it. What is common is that you always need a balance between naivete and expertise, you have to be always asking “What if?” If you always think “There must be a reason why nobody is doing it like this,” you are probably not thinking like a designer.
TC: What is it like to work at XentiQ?
US: Our overriding principle is to blur the professional boundaries between design and engineering. I love it when our designers speak like engineers and vice-versa. Obviously, we also need to bring a lot more specialists into the mix. This includes researchers and marketing experts. Our people respect expertise, but are not in awe of it. Anybody can challenge one another, even on ‘foreign’ ground. It is always about the product, never about your background or standing. It is about innovation, not where it comes from.
TC: When people look at your products and design solutions, what is the message?
US: There is no overriding message, I don’t see it as our role to teach others lessons. When I was an Industrial Design (ID) designer in France, I loved to visit the shop floor of our clients. I watched the products being assembled and admired the machines producing them. It fascinated me how these products led to the set-up of factories, generated profits for the companies and provided a livelihood for the workers. These products made life more comfortable, joyful and exciting for its users. Some could even save lives!
The designer holds the key to unlock all this value. It is sad to see that some designers are not more humbled by this, we really need to understand all aspects along this value chain and care about sustainability. Unfortunately today, an aspect of ‘celebrity’ clouds the product design scene, with ‘star designers’, who have barely any successful products hogging the limelight and drowning out the more serious and relevant messages from our industry.
TC: You have worked in Europe and Asia. What is the difference between the two regions in terms of working with clients?
US: I like that you have more opportunities here to do complete projects, from the creation and research through to prototyping, engineering and manufacturing . In Europe, the maturity of the industry led to a situation where there is more specialisation and projects get broken down into smaller bits, executed by specialised agencies.
The issue here that we are currently grappling with is what we call the ‘supplier model’. Often, clients don’t see you as a partner in a win-win collaboration, but rather as a supplier in some kind of layered system. You have to deliver what is your part on a silver platter, without much interaction, discussion and access to information. But in the end, if something goes wrong, you are the party to be blamed.
Many clients have a blind spot and cannot see how much value evaporates due to such thinking. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, a CEO will be actively involved in design activities and will try to extract as much value as he can out of his trusted partners. Here, it is often hard to get such trust in the first place. If you are not in the same company, you are often automatically seen as a supplier. In this situation, both parties stand to lose.
TC: What do you see are the challenges facing the industrial design sector?
US: To make ourselves heard, understood and respected.
In the 25 years I have been in this profession, the industrial design sector has become so much more sophisticated. The number of design firms – as well as in-house designers in Europe and the United States – has grown exponentially. The number and intake of design schools have increased dramatically. But do we have the adequate tools to practice? Do we have influence on the corporate side which would benefit companies as well as their customers? Have we been able to pass our knowledge on in a way that organisations can incorporate it to become more effective? On these aspects, we have barely improved over the last 25 years.
The commonly cited Apple Inc. got much inspiration – not only aesthetically, but also in design management – from Braun. German car brands and companies like Nestle also come to mind. Beyond that, you would have to look hard to find companies with true design business excellence. If you find them, they are more likely to be SMEs with a founder who personally believes in design rather than MNCs. After all these years, the argument is still that the importance of design and the work of designers is ‘not understood’. When will we realise that we have done such a poor job in conveying that?
TC: What are the plans going forward?
US: Besides our consultancy projects, we are active in commercialising our own niche products to practice what we preach. Such entrepreneurial activities help us to understand our clients better, teach us a lot about design and how to grow the company.
We focus on professional, high-value innovative products as we feel this is the right positioning for Singapore, with its high production costs and a focus on exports. These products have to be truly innovative. We will only embark on concepts where no such product currently exists and we can see it solves real ‘pain’. It doesn’t have to use cutting-edge technology, though.
TC: What inspires you every day?
US: I am fascinated by the impact of technology and innovation. It is so ubiquitous that we can’t see it anymore. But the truth is, while technology permeates into our lives to a degree that our parents would not have imagined (in spite of flying cars not having materialised so far), we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Our children’s lives will be transformed more dramatically. Technology itself bears within it the good and the bad in roughly equal measures. Scientists often have an ambivalent view on that. In their view, one has to research, no matter what. They do not want to hold back knowledge. However, I see the designer’s role as fighting for the good in technology, to wrestle with it for the better. At the end we have to come to conclude for ourselves whether or not we have succeeded more often than we have failed. We have to ask ourselves if our products have improved lives or contributed to the growth of landfills.
Can we get out of the trap of overconsumption? One of the most positive developments for creative minds I sense lately is the notion of renewed convergence of Art and Technology, after centuries of divergence. Perhaps in this, we can find the key to use our knowledge to create sustainable value, not short-term material gain.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.