Before becoming the Executive Director of DesignSingapore, Mark Wee has had a fruitful career as the founder of ANNEXA / Architects, ONG&ONG's Experience Design Studio as well as an educator moulding young minds in multiple private and public organisations. As an award-winning architect, he was selected to be part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) '20 Under 45' list, and his most recent projects have won the URA Heritage Award and the Singapore Institute of Architects Design Award.
Mark is also an artist who creates whimsical artworks built on his imagination of hope and childlike wonder. His artworks explore open narratives of life in an alternative world, and these imaginations have materialised into commissions for The Singapore Dance Theatre, the Housing Development Board, New Majestic Hotel, and more. Professionally, Mark believes in shaping places that foster cultural identity and community, and the potential that design and innovation have on business and cultural transformation.
Tell us more about your architectural and design journey with Annex A / Architects and the Ong&Ong Experience Design Studio. How did you end up at your role with the DesignSingapore Council and what does that entail?
As an architect with a deep interest in design thinking, and experience design, I started two practices in 2006. ANNEX A/ Architects, an interior and architectural design firm, and Kennel, for design research and experience design. We were the early pioneer in design thinking and its application in organisations and its strategic value in shaping products, services, and experiences, for the market. In 2011, my partner and I were invited by Ong&Ong to bring our practice into the group as its Experience Design Studio, which we ran till 2016. After that season, I taught service design and innovation to organisations as an adjunct at the NUS Institute of System Science and was an advisor on DesignSingapore’s Innovation by Design program that paired design experts to help Singapore companies reframe their service innovation challenges for the market.
It was during this time that the then head of DesignSingapore, approached me one afternoon for lunch, only to offer me the role, as she was relocating to France with her family. The choice for me was largely also due to my diverse experience in practice and education, across both the classical design fields, as well as the new ones such as service and experience design that gave me an understanding of the breadth of design’s value to our economy and society, that I guess few had.
My role at DesignSingapore largely entails five themes, which are the different thrusts as outlined in our 2025 masterplan. They are to Infuse Design into our National Skillset, Expand the role of design in business & government, Strengthen the competitiveness of design firms, Bring design into the community, and finally, to Develop the Singapore Design Brand.
House at Neil Road, Image courtesy of Mark Wee
With 8 years of experience as an educator, what has been the most significant takeaway from this part of your career?
I have always been teaching adjunct over the years, never full time, but alongside practice. Interior design at Singapore Polytechnic, Architecture at NUS & SUTD, and Service Design & Innovation at NUS ISS. There is always a natural synergistic relationship between education and practice, in the opportunity for you to shape a perspective on design with a younger generation, whilst being able to be enjoy a vibrant studio environment. Maybe it's because my mum and grandmother were both teachers, or the fact that my grandmother gave me her savings to go to Cornell, which really changed my life, which has shaped my appreciation for how impactful a good education can be for someone.
What advice would give to young designers embarking on the path of architecture or design?
Everyone has a personal journey to finding your own conviction and voice of design. Allow yourself to find it, as it will be the source of authenticity and truth in your work, that people can recognise. For architecture, it's about a view of how your work will contribute to the urban life of the city. It took me 15 years, to finally come to a personal understanding that I wanted to design buildings that integrated art and told a story, whilst carrying within them a sense of time and age. This is definitely from my disinterest in stylistic trends, being an artist myself, as well as my personal interest in how architecture can tell a story of a period and moment in time. Areas of this are evident in the small collection of build work, and I hope to return to practice one day and continue exploring this. That is the admittedly wonderful thing about being an architect, that you can practice into your old age.
As an experience or service designer, my advice would be to be curious about everything, and learn how design can contribute meaningfully in the world of business. It takes a humble and listening person to be a good design researcher, and an understanding of business and organisational considerations whilst keeping in mind the desired customer experience outcome to bring an organisation together to deliver. It’s complicated work, and like a master architect, it is also a craft that is refined over time and experience.
What is your take on the art and design community and industry in Singapore and what do you envisage for its future?
I personally believe that this is a powerful moment in time for art and design in Singapore, because of its relationship to creativity which I believe will be a critical capability for a vibrant Singapore economy in this digital age. The role of design is now understood as both a vertical industry, but like technology, now also as a horizontal enabler that provides significant strategic business advantage. Mckinsey’s 2018 Value of Design report has evidentially outlined that. I believe that art and design will play an increasingly larger role in Singapore, due to its role in our Creative economy, and its direct and indirect role in shaping desirability in the experiential offerings for people by organisations in the future.
What would you hope to see in 5 - 10 years from now, locally and beyond?
I hope to see Singapore as a vibrant Creative city, where good design and technology shape a lovable city, and an innovation driven economy. I hope to see a global recognition of an ethos of design from Singapore that is part of a larger modern Asian discourse, as well as responsible and impact based, alongside being beautiful. Locally, I hope for design and design thinking to be understood better, and a design career as a respected and meaningful one.
'Provision Shop' by Mark Wee, Image courtesy of Mark Wee
Do you think that there are enough cross-industry collaborations between designers and others? How do you think this can be nurtured further?
There can certainly be more. For example, the design community can integrate more with the start up and technology community. There is huge value to that, as designers have the skills to translate technology into products and services that are desirable to people. Innovation is the combination of both science and technology, and design. Design innovation happens at the intersection of human desirability, technological feasibility, and business viability. We can nurture this further through providing more opportunities for these communities to interact through project opportunities, as well as socially, where relationships can form.
Who are some of the interesting local design studios that you have your eye on?
For experience design studios, it would be Agency, Parable, and Afternaut.
For architecture/interior design studios, it would be Linghao Architects, Goy Architects, and Brewin Design Office.
'The Unreasonably Beautiful Fan of Faith, Hope, & Love' by Mark Wee, Image courtesy of Mark Wee
What is your dream exhibition? Who would you bring together; how and why?
If it were a personal one, I would hold an exhibition of my artwork, and speculative design projects showing how art, architecture, and story, come together.
If it were a thematic one, I would do an exhibition of current design in Modern Asia, which would be the best designers across SEA along the four categories of image, place, object, and experience making. This would showcase our local talent alongside a larger regional discourse, which few globally have an insightful overall view into. In this new decade, as SEA develops into the 4th largest economic block, this exhibition will show the talents shaping the cultural offerings of this diverse and exciting region.
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