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Kuldej Sinthawanarong: JARKEN Driven By Design Thinking

The managing director of Bangkok-based multi-disciplinary firm JARKEN tells us how the promotion of ‘design thinking’ internally has propelled JARKEN into a diversified business.

Kuldej Sinthawanarong: JARKEN Driven By Design Thinking


July 14th, 2015

When Kuldej Sinthawanarong co-founded JARKEN over 12 years ago, it originated as an architecture firm with only four employees. Over time, the firm grew into a holistic architectural, interior design and branding agency with over 200 employees and multiple international awards under its belt. Despite its achievements, Kuldej believes that JARKEN is a work in progress and is constantly introducing and implementing new practice measures to ensure growth in the business and its quality of work.


Tell us about the foundation of JARKEN.

I finished my Ph.D. in Design Management 12 years ago in the UK. I came back [to Thailand] and started my own practice. That was during the economic meltdown. I started my company at the lowest point when most architects and engineers had lost their jobs as our currency became devalued. There was nearly no one left in the industry, but we jumped in.

What gave you the confidence to do so and what challenges did you face?

Because there was no one left in the industry. It is basic principle in economics – high demand and low supply. However, it was challenging to build a new belief that architects and designers can still help increase business value. It was difficult to find jobs at that time. Most architects and designers were presenting the same designs, well, similar to each other. So we knew we had to differentiate ourselves by bringing in new designs – not just new ideas but value.

People call it styles these days but we don’t stick to one style, we stick to the way we think; the way we are firm to our clients and the way we pass on our expertise, not only to our clients, but to the clients of our clients. So we add value to the business. Just like that, the property cycle came back.

Right now, we are doing B2B, rather than B2C. This is the reason why JARKEN is not an ordinary practice. We are not only a multi-disciplinary firm, we keep thinking. We are going to be listed in the stock market in Thailand very soon. Our strategy is unlike any other professional firms where they try to gain access to financial markets because they foresee that the next generation will not be able to carry on their legacy in the firm. We see it as an opportunity for business diversification. We have access to investment and funding to carry on our business in a very different way.

House of Five

Where do your projects originate?

80% of our projects are in Thailand. We have consulting projects in the Philippines and Brunei. We did a few projects in Scandinavia – we got these clients from Phuket, where Thai people call it a country itself, as real estate and property is run and has been bought by foreigners. It is a strong and tough market. It is bigger than Singapore but the market is so tough. Demands are very diversified. The British and Scandinavians are a long stay residents there. Since we did a lot of projects there, we developed connections to do residential projects in Scandinavia. We have also completed projects in the Middle East.


What are some of your business activities in Singapore?

This May, we signed a MOU with Consulus Consulting and Singapore Design Business Chamber to expand our business across AEC [Asian Economic Community] and of course, they would like to expand their business into Thailand as well. We would exchange our consultants, architects and we would finally have an office here.

This is a big step. After all you started out as a small architecture company…

Yes. We were very small. Four people. Right now we have over 200.

Curated space 

At which point did you decide to become multi-disciplinary?

We always think about ourselves, not as designers, but people who deliver whatever that has been promised to our clients. In Thailand, ten years ago, even when you have delivered good design, you cannot deliver a good end product, so you cannot deliver a good project. So our clients ask us to finish the construction, decoration as well as the whole building. At that point, clients would bring in marketing people, strategists, graphic designers, financiers and we work together as a team. We saw ourselves as consultants rather than designers or architects. Most of the consultants who came from the client’s side had to learn from us. We decided, why not do it by ourselves, so we decided to recruit new people: graphic designers, fashion designers, brand designers and so on.


This took over 12 years to build. We encountered rough stages along the way, learn from our mistakes. I always tell my colleagues that if you want to be a part of the JARKEN culture, forget who you are and ask yourself who you want to be. You do not need to be a designer. You need to become a solution. It is a very dynamic environment here, like a research lab. We try new things all the time. We keep pushing our limits.

We work as an agency rather than a designer house that churns quickly. People move all the time. We study society and the transformation of cultures. We amalgamate different cultures into our design culture. We learn from our clients and suppliers. We send our people all over the world, and they come back with new ideas. This is how JARKEN has grown, intrinsically and extrinsically. People love being with us. 50% of our designers and architects have been with us for a long time.

Office Design

‘Design Thinking’ seems to be an important aspect across the company.

Design Thinking is to me, is thinking like a designer. You find a problem, test it, test again and retest again – not until your clients are happy, but until you are happy. As a designer, there are a lot of new technologies that allow you to turn things around to see if your design works. Design Thinking works the same way. You are looking at problems at different angles. You step outside the box. Of course, you need to draw lines so that you know your benchmark. We apply that into business.

We have started accepting clients who want to use design concepts to improve their organisation and performance. We even go deep into numbers and profits. Our clients don’t want us to just design something. They ask us how much profit they would make when they work with us. At the beginning I could not answer that question. I said to them, you need to bring in your finance people, but after awhile, we started to see how financial people think, which is totally different from how designers think, and we learn from them.

Dr Kuldej Sinthawanarong speaking at MAISON&OBJET Asia 2015

You spoke about branding and retail at this year’s MAISON&OBJET Asia – what was the experience like?

Retail and branding in Asia is something that the French is very interested in. In Singapore, there are too many shopping malls that look the same. In Thailand, while there are still a lot of spaces to fill, when it comes to retail you have to be able to differentiate yourself. You have to combine the psychology of branding into the designs. I spoke about an hour on that particular content and I think they are quite happy about it. We are going to run the same content in Thailand in a publication.


Can you tell us about the retail industry in Thailand and the opportunities available for designers?

The market seems converse, but it is actually diverse. We have everything from street food to super high end luxury products from all over the world and strong demands to consume that too. There is a lot of room for designers and architects to become strong significant figures when it comes to retail because there is a lot to play with.

What does the road ahead look like for JARKEN?

To be honest, I have not had a plan, since the beginning. Most of the time I work on ad-hoc basis. I read 5-6 newspaper and 20-40 magazines a day. Everything that is new and interesting, I pass it on to my research team and ask if they can come up with something better. I always tell my colleagues to never stop thinking.

Read the interview with JARKEN’s other co-founder and design principal here.


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