Product Design Guru
- By POLLY PENG
- Publication Date: October 1, 2015
- Source: Taiwan Review
Acclaimed industrial designer Hsieh Jung-ya wants to change the way people live.
Hsieh Jung-ya (謝榮雅) understands what it takes to turn a clever innovation into a popular product better than virtually any other person in Taiwan today. Over the past decade or so, he has won many awards at the world’s most prestigious industrial design competitions, and helped numerous local small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) transform their fortunes in international markets. Now, the industrial designer is embarking on a fresh chapter in his illustrious career. Through a newly established joint venture with one of Taiwan’s foremost industrialists, Hsieh is developing innovative household products for the coming age of the Internet of Things, an era when many everyday items will be connected to digital networks.
The industrialist in question is Terry Gou (郭台銘), founder and chairman of technology manufacturing giant Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., which trades as Foxconn Technology Group. In recent years, Gou has been working to diversify his operations and expand his product lines. This led the corporate leader to Gixia Group, the industrial design services company that Hsieh founded in 2010 in northern Taiwan’s Hsinchu County.
Early this year, Gixia and Hon Hai teamed up to create SquareX Inc., a joint venture that matches Hsieh’s product design skills with Gou’s capital and industrial might. “When we met, we were each figuring out our next step,” explains Hsieh. “The timing, the environment and the maturity of my design team were all just right.”
Renowned for his wide-ranging knowledge and imaginative design concepts, Hsieh has won more international prizes than any other Taiwanese industrial designer. There are generally recognized to be four major awards in the field—the iF Product Design Award and Red Dot Design Award, both of which are based in Germany, as well as the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) in the United States and Japan’s Good Design Award, or G Mark. Since 2003, Hsieh and his team have won nine gold medals at these competitions in addition to roughly 100 other international awards.
Hsieh claimed his first iF prize in 2003 for a baby scale that has a non-slip surface and cradles infants in a manner mimicking a mother’s arms. His ingenuity is further illustrated by his design for eco-friendly modular construction site fencing, which earned him an IDEA prize in 2006. The fencing consists of durable, translucent ABS plastic modules that are easy to assemble and can withstand winds of up to 200 kilometers per hour. The designer emphasizes that his goal when creating products is not to earn awards for himself, but “to help industries in Taiwan expand their share in international markets.”
Born in 1967, Hsieh enjoyed drawing and mathematics as a child. He was also fond of disassembling gadgets so he could study their inner workings. From those early days, he notes, his dream was to “change the way people live.”
Despite his passion for design, he opted to study information processing at National Chiayi Senior Commercial Vocational School, located in southern Taiwan’s Chiayi City, as he believed the field would offer better employment prospects. He continued to develop his artistic and design skills in his free time, however, and became art director for the school’s student association. By the time he graduated, he had put together a substantial portfolio.
Around a year after completing his compulsory military service, Hsieh landed a job at computer giant Acer Inc. He initially worked in the company’s graphic design department before later being promoted to an industrial design position.
Hsieh is constantly searching for new challenges. After three years at Acer, where he largely worked on notebook computers, he was eager to create other products. In 1994, he set up an industrial design services firm in Taichung City, central Taiwan. He reasoned that since the nation’s central region is home to countless manufacturers in a wide variety of industries, he would have the opportunity to work on a diverse range of products if he based his business in the city. He also returned to school, and in 1996 received a master’s degree from the Graduate Institute of Design at Da-Yeh University in central Taiwan’s Changhua County.
The designer endured some tough times while building his reputation in Taichung. “There was one occasion I was so poor that I had to rely on NT$400 [US$12.90] I’d won in the receipt lottery just to get through the day,” he recalls, referring to the government’s bimonthly prize draw using numbers printed on receipts for everyday purchases. Slowly, though, word of his abilities spread among local manufacturers, and he was subsequently hired to create everything from leather luggage and hand tools to medical devices. In 2010, he left Taichung to establish Gixia in the northern county of Hsinchu.
Noted for his drawing skills, Hsieh can crank out a design sketch in five minutes. Before a project reaches that stage, however, he spends considerable time meeting with clients. “To ensure my designs meet their expectations, I need to see my clients’ production facilities, understand their finances and trade secrets, and even delve into their internal problems,” he says. “Only then can I develop concepts appropriate to their corporate culture.”
Throughout his career, Hsieh has always been of the opinion that “you can overcome any obstacle through hard work.” He does not have an exceptional educational background, and as the son of a Presbyterian minister did not have any financial backing when he started his career. The way he sees it, the challenges he faced early on are akin to those encountered by Taiwanese SMEs in the global marketplace. “I’ve always wanted to be the bridge between our manufacturers and the international market, to bring Taiwan’s production capabilities to the attention of the world through design,” he says.
He tells the story of the time many years ago when he created a bicycle light for a company in Changhua. When he visited the client’s factory, he discovered it to be little more than a corrugated steel structure behind a small house. Inside, there were a dozen or so middle-aged women assembling bicycles. At that time, he recalls, the first thought that came into his head was, “What is this? Are they even going to be able to pay me?”
Hsieh had designed an innovative battery-powered bike light that could be detached from the bicycle frame and used as a flashlight. However, the production costs of his lamp were double those of a traditional bike light, and the client was unsure of whether to put the item into mass production. Hsieh ultimately convinced the client to develop the product by explaining that it could help the company grab a piece of the high-end market. Later, in 2006, this light won Hsieh his first iF gold medal. In fact, this was the first iF gold ever won by a Taiwanese designer.
The story of the bike light also reveals much about the mentality of many Taiwanese SMEs and why they struggle to build their brands overseas. Hsieh says that shortly before the lamp won the iF award, his client took the product to the annual Taipei International Cycle Show, one of the most prominent bicycle industry trade fairs in the world. A representative of British firm Raleigh Bicycle Co. saw the lamp and expressed interest in becoming the company’s sales agent in the United Kingdom. The Taiwanese manufacturer did not really understand what was happening, and replied, “Okay, how many do you need? We’ll just stick your logo on there and we’re good to go.”
Standing off to one side watching the whole exchange, Hsieh could not help but sigh. The client had been an original equipment manufacturer for so long that he simply could not imagine his firm as an original brand manufacturer. Fortunately, the story had a happy ending as Raleigh told the client that such a great product should be developed under the Taiwanese firm’s brand name.
In explaining his approach to design, Hsieh says, “You can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to come.” Instead, he believes that designers must constantly improve their knowledge and skill sets. “Why am I able to produce a drawing in just a few minutes?” he asks. “People presume it’s an innate ability, but it’s actually the result of a tremendous amount of accumulated knowledge. I know a lot about production processes, the arts and possible market reactions.”
Though Hon Hai is certainly not a small enterprise, Hsieh hopes to bring the same daring approach that he used in his previous work with SMEs to his new joint venture. Gou and Hsieh intend to position SquareX as an entirely new type of firm that will “redefine the home environment experience.”
The company is expected to release its first series of products later this year. The underlying thinking behind the series is to use new technologies and innovative design to transform the way people utilize vertical space in their homes. “Thanks to working with Terry Gou, I have new goals and new motivations,” Hsieh says. “I hope people will be wowed by our startling designs.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Taiwan Panorama.