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Dreaming of a Better World: Ken Yuktasevi

From small family businesses to large organisations, Ken Yuktasevi and his multidisciplinary team at ONG&ONG’s new experimental arm, OX:D, are showing how Design Thinking with a dash of storytelling, art and architecture can build greater businesses, environments and people.

Dreaming of a Better World: Ken Yuktasevi


February 19th, 2014

It’s not often that a writer gets interviewed by the interviewee, but this is what happens during our meeting with Ken Yuktasevi, a director at ONG&ONG who, together with Mark Wee, leads the charge at the firm’s new experimental arm, OX:D (Experience Design studio).

Frank by OCBC – designed to engage the bank’s GenY customers

“So, what made you go into journalism?” he quizzes, “What do you love most about what you do?” This is the same process he takes all clients through at the start of each project, and it forms an essential part of OX:D’s Design Thinking approach.

Frank by OCBC

Yuktasevi studied art and design at Stowe College in the UK, as well as film and cinematography at Bond University in Australia. A passion for storytelling and people then drew him into the world of filmmaking before the passing of his mother, who owned an interior design firm, changed his path.

Salad Stop
Salad Stop – the team designed the entire experience, including the menu, packaging, wall designs, uniforms and even how the staff conversed with customers

“I tried to run my mother’s company, but totally failed at that, I was 25, inexperienced and still finding meaning in what I did. Half the staff and clients left,” he candidly recounts, “But in the process of doing that I discovered that some of the things I learnt in film/storytelling can actually benefit interior design, that you can actually tell a story through space,” he says.

Salad Stop
Salad Stop

“I realise I’m not the kind of designer who gets satisfaction from just pulling concepts out of the air. I always need to find out the story behind the people, the users,” he continues, “As a designer, I [do not see myself as] the most important person in the project; the most important person is the user… Out of instinct, I used to spend a lot of time with clients, just interviewing them, finding out not just what they want but why they want [what they want]… the truth.”

Salad Stop

Still new to the industry, Yuktasevi also sought out other designers in a bid to learn more about the business and in the process, he met Mark Wee, an architect and project architect for such projects as Bethesda Hall Church and The New Majestic Hotel. Discovering their common interest in human centric Design Thinking processes, they came together to form UNION Experience in 2006 to put their approach into practice and to create that they call ‘experience design’.

Salad Stop

Yuktasevi explains that ‘Experience Design’ is both a 180-degree departure from traditional design and a return to what was important. The focus is on understanding human motivation and the user’s needs. As a holistic approach it encompasses three key aspects of design: Environment, such as urban planning, architecture, interior design and the virtual world; Communication, including branding and service design; and Process, which involves organisational design.

Salad Stop

No actual designing is done until the project has undergone a rigorous ‘Discovery’ phase that involves extensive interviews, observations and ideation workshops with a whole range of stakeholders, from the CEO to the staff to the end users, and even culture makers. Problems and needs are then scrupulously identified and prototypes are made to test out different solutions before design begins.

SIA’s new Silverkris lounge in Sydney has been designed as a home away from home

“Design thinking is collaborative. Most of the time the involvement of just one discipline producing a ‘cool’ looking design doesn’t give you a holistic answer. We engage a whole bunch of people from different [fields of expertise], including the users. Creating in an ecosystem with the client and the user to make their world better… I just fell in love with that thought,” says Yuktasevi.

Silverkris lounge in Sydney

Things were not quite smooth sailing at the start however. “We used to go in for a client pitch to present our process and literally got laughed out of the room, Seriously, it was painful.” he says. “You knew it was a great way of doing things but the thought was so alien to them.”

Silverkris lounge in Sydney

Things took a turn after they used design thinking to design Singapore Airlines Service Center at ION Orchard. They proceeded to design experiences for OCBC Bank, HDB, Sentosa, The Singapore Police Force and a Kempinski Hotel in Moscow. In 2012, they were presented a new opportunity when Group Managing Director of ONG&ONG, Tai Lee Siang, offered them the opportunity to integrate their experience design (XD) practice to create something special and to bring it to a bigger stage.

Silverkris lounge in Sydney

Under the new name of OX:D, the team of 15 today includes not just interior designers and architects, but also brand strategists, organisational designers, product designers, anthropologists and filmmakers. Clients include Singapore Airlines, Sentosa, Changi Airport, and Singapore Stock Exchange to SMEs such as Salad Stop.

Two years ago, OX:D got awarded the project to design a new lounge concept for all of Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) Silverkris lounges around the world. With the Sydney lounge just completed, Yuktasevi reflects on the experience.

Silverkris lounge in Sydney

“We threw [SIA] a dinner /workshop. We literally curated the dishes as conversation pieces, and each dish came with a question, such as ‘What does travel mean to you’, and ‘What do you love most about what you do at SIA’. We also helped to facilitate conversations but it was all very purposeful. That night over dinner and post-its we dreamed about the future of travel,” Yuktasevi explains.

Silverkris lounge in Sydney

“We also spent 120 hours at the lounge, being a fly on the wall, following passengers around and watching their behavior and how they used the lounge to get our insights,” he continues. Aside from designing the lounge interiors, OX:D’s scope of work also included concepts for service, F&B, art and story.

‘We realise that a lot of times, clients aren’t just seeking something beautiful, they seek a solution, and a solution is not solved just with space. Sometimes the design is not enough. You need more than that, to truly make an impact,” says Yuktasevi.


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