How can Design and Designers Help Improve Malaysian Society?

 Dr Goh Yi Sheng shares her experience that dispels the common misconception about studying design. Having spent many years abroad, she aimed to improve society through the creative lenses of design. When asked what she teaches at university, her reply of ‘Design’ is often met with a stout reply of ‘Graphic design or Interior Design?’.

To Dr Goh, graphics and interior are among the many subsets of design. It is more than making things ‘look pretty'. To understand this, it is vital to know what design is. Design is a series of exploration and research about the problem sphere, identification of the core problem, and an iterative process of ideation and prototyping to find the best possible solutions to the problems at hand. This is a human-centred process where every designer plays a different role in every organisation as they can be involved in user experience, user interface, product visuals, conceptual and design strategy, architecture, and many others.

Brand perception, customer experience, satisfaction level, and other factors are greatly affected by a well-designed solution. Hence, designers need to bear those in mind and explore the problem sphere and conduct extensive research to understand the core problem to solve before they can even start drawing or sketching the outcome. If the designers explore the wrong problem sphere and fail to identify the core problem, the subsequent design process will be futile.

After achieving a certain level of understanding of the problem scape, the designers then proceed to ideation. At times, ideas and solutions emerge almost at the same time as the core underlying problem surfaces to the knowledge of the designers. During the ideation phase, designers not only create feasible solutions to solving the identified problems but also add value to the solutions through meaningful creations. A good solution is aesthetically pleasing to the eye, emotion, and experience. The outcome of the design process is not confined to a beautiful and functional artefact but also one that elicits emotional experiences such as emotions and nostalgia when using it. 

Upon arriving at a concrete solution to the identified problem, designers usually undertake prototyping and testing activities. This is an important phase to test the ideas. Sometimes, a seemingly good solution does not work as expected and the designers will go back to dig deeper into the problem or iterate in the ideation phase. If the prototype performs well, minor modifications will be made before finalising the solution. Following this will be the production and/or implementation in the real world.

From here, one can then examine how design can contribute to Malaysian society. One area that can be adopted is social innovation. This is defined as:

“the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress. Social innovation is not the prerogative or privilege of any organisational form or legal structure. Solutions often require the active collaboration of constituents across government, business and the non-profit world” (Sarah A Soule, Neil Malhotra, Bernadette Clavier).

Hence, it can be said that social and environmental issues are wicked problems that need to be tackled with joint efforts between different sectors and organisations. Designers are the ones trained to delve deep into the problems to unravel the issues and challenges and come up with solutions to provide potential solutions to the problems. Designers have the ability to contribute to social innovation by applying these skills.

An example of how designs and designers help improve Malaysian society is the Sungai Lima project. Dr Goh carried out a project with her team in Sungai Lima where she researched to understand the culture, core values, and problems faced by the local villagers. A proposal was designed using experts from habitat conservation and tourism management to address the identified issues. Here, the designer’s role is to explore the problem scape, including understanding the context and values of the village and identifying core problems, then ideating with the necessary knowledge and support from various experts, and leading in prototyping and collaborating with an even bigger network to implement the solutions.

Like any other real-world challenge, this is a long process and would need contributions from all parties involved.


Dr Goh Yi Sheng
School of Arts


This article was first published on 2nd August 2021 in The Edge.