Create change at the grassroots by sharing the power of design — Marisa Yiu


As Co-Founder and Executive Director of Design Trust, a NGO based in Hong Kong, Marisa Yiu makes it her mission to disrupt hierarchies in the workplace. Design Trust Futures Studio joins young designers, just ten years out of university, with experienced designer-mentors to create prototypes and engage in the process of design, thinking and collaborating.

Yiu works not only in education, teaching at universities in the UK, USA, and Hong Kong, but also practicing as an architect. From her experiences, she draws a comparison between the creative energies of students from Chinese and Western cultures. She found that, while her British and American students were instilled with individualism, her Asian students’ creativity flourished in group work.

“ From my experience teaching in Hong Kong, I always thought the students were unlike those I taught in the UK and USA,” Yiu says. “Overseas institutions and educational aspiration created an environment where individuals compete to perform the best among their peers, whereas in Hong Kong students actually perform a lot better in groups. I think Asian culture possesses an inherent energy for community collaboration.”

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Design Trust established four groups of expert design mentors and young design mentees to take part in the Futures Studio program; the idea is to challenge the idea that mastery is essential for good design. The program nurtures an alternative form of collaboration where a community of curious minds, non-experts and advisors directly effects the design process. It is a move away from subjectivity and expertise, towards a creative, collaborative process.

For the past ten months, each team has been working on a brief (Small is Meaningful) to design micro-parks, situated in Hong Kong. A public ideas review was held in July where the teams discussed their concepts, and the final exhibition opened on October 15, with public workshops held during the following fortnight. The final exhibition at Yat Fu Lane, supported by District15, opens until October 31.

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Gary Chang, Managing Director of Edge Design Institute, graduated from University of Hong Kong in 1987, and has over twenty years of professional experience in spatial design. He is mentor to Zoey Chan who specializes in architecture and is fascinated with building codes, DickWai Lai who specializes in graphic design and advertising, and Jose Fu who specializes in how virtual reality and technology impact on the elderly. Adding variety to the program, each team member comes from a different creative background.

“Respecting the elders is important to Hong Kong’s culture, and obviously there is a Confucian side to that,” Yiu says. “Challenging the traditional hierarchies. That is what the program is about, to the point where mentees can become mentors, and challenge learning with new ways and new tools.”

Confucianism, the tradition of master and apprentice, adds another level of importance to the hierarchy in Chinese workplaces. Archaic cultural traditions may be challenged, but they exist at the core of Chinese identity. International mentors, Sam Jacob (Sam Jacob Studio) and Mimi Hoang (nArchitects), indicate Futures Studio’s emphasis on introducing the local design community to more internationalism and exposure to other ways of working.

While challenging our notions of subjectivity, expertise, and cultural tradition, the program also integrates contemporary design trends within its curriculum. Today’s trend in design is leading away from the focus on aestheticism that informed past generations of designer. Futures Studio recognizes that new designers want to make changes in the world, environmentally and socially.

“Design Trust Future Studios recognizes that rising designers want to make changes in the world, environmentally and socially, so we integrated contemporary design trends within its curriculum,” says Yiu. “Today’s trend is not just about producing the most aesthetically elegant design, and only for the elite. It is about how a product or public space could be transformed to make social impact.”

The cause of Futures Studio is reflected in its brief to the designers, Small is Meaningful. In Hong Kong, the size of living space is getting smaller while the cost rises exponentially.

“Designer-mentor Gary Chang, who has been living in the same apartment for about forty years and has witnessed the change, joked that a thirty-two square meter apartment could be cut into two, and you could rent half of it,” Yiu recalls. “The reality now is that apartments are getting smaller, so could public space become our common living room?”

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This phenomenon is no laughing matter in Hong Kong, which has a population density of more than seven-thousand people per square kilometer. At the beginning of 2017, the average price per square meter for residential living space on Hong Kong Island was nearly nineteen-thousand US dollars. Compare that to London, where the average price per square meter is around fifteen-thousand US dollars, and Manhattan where it is about fourteen-thousand US dollars.

Yiu believes the answer is to mobilize change from the grassroots, and Futures Studio is just one example where Design Trust empowers young designers to make change. She leads several other programs that create opportunities for the Hong Kong community, such as a new fellowship with the Royal College of Art, which aims to improve curatorial resources in the region. A fellow was selected to study curation with researchers and scholars in London for 12 months, returning to curate research and exhibitions in Hong Kong, China, and the Asia-Pacific region.

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About Marisa Yiu

Marisa Yiu is Co-founder and Executive Director at Design Trust, an initiative of the NGO Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design based in Hong Kong. She is also an architect and Founding Partner of ESKYIU in Hong Kong, a multi- disciplinary architecture studio actively integrating culture, community, art and technology. She has taught at London’s Architectural Association, Parsons, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, School of Architecture at CUHK among others. Yiu is an AIA member, HKIA associate, formerly served on the Board of Advisors for RTHK and was the Chief Curator of the 2009 Hong Kong Shenzhen Bi-City biennale of Urbanism\Architecture.

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