Singaporean designers Lin Wei and Tang Junhao of Beijing-based United Design Practice discuss the value of incorporating business- and emotion-driven solutions into cross-disciplinary design. Olha Romaniuk writes.
Positioning their practice as a versatile design agency, Lin Wei and Tang Junhao, co-founders of Beijing-based United Design Practice (UDP), possess a distinct viewpoint towards design that analyses each project as much from a poetic as from a practical and business-minded point of view. Spanning the disciplines of architecture, interior architecture, branding, planning, landscape, marketing communication, event and exhibition design, United Design Practice stands true to its name, creating seamless design solutions that blur boundaries between various disciplines and focus on crafting final experiences grounded in a business-framed, yet emotionally-driven, mindset.
“We knew from the outset that our offering would be difficult to understand, so we wanted to take the bull by the horns. United Design refers to what we do and our approach; Practice – because we don’t just preach,” explains co-founder Lin Wei on the philosophy that underpins the name of the firm that he and Tang Junhao started in 2012.
Born and raised in Singapore, Lin and Tang met at the National University of Singapore as architecture classmates, but took diverging career paths after graduation, with Lin working in branding, events and advertising at Saatchi and TBWA and Tang pursuing a career in architecture with DP Architects and Ministry of Design. Following their different work experiences, the duo decided to come together to establish their own practice to fill the gaps of what they felt they could not achieve in their respective fields.
“I wanted to do works of a more permanent nature – tangible and real, while Tang wanted to go beyond addressing functional needs in spatial design,” explains Lin. “It began as a commercial experiment that started to gain traction in a market willing to accept new ideas.”
As Lin concedes, the holistic approach to design evident in UDP’s projects can be attributed to his and Tang’s diverse professional backgrounds. For Lin, his architectural background, combined with experiences in events, advertising and branding, allows him to easily place himself in the shoes of designers and clients alike, bringing design thinking into the realm of business and technology application.
Viewing each design brief as a business challenge, Lin and Tang recognise that design is more than just aesthetics. “People are attracted to pretty things, but the tone and manner inform about industry-specificity,” elaborates Lin. “In branding, this is called semiotics. Design is used to solve business problems. At the inception, we are often engaged in one aspect of design, but as we talk more with the business owner and understand the deeper issues, we come up with more design solutions to the challenges. Thus, a signage project for a retail space becomes a rebranding project that, in turn, can utilise graphic motifs to create an outdoor landscape installation.”
An embodiment of this versatile approach and the first major project of the type for UDP was a masterplanning project in Taiyuan, where Lin and Tang incorporated advertising methodology into an architectural design scope. Much like in advertising, conveying the narrative was essential to connect to the various stakeholders of the project – clients, government, end users and other designers.
“In the ideation process, we dug into culture, history, governmental policies, to come up with ‘consumer insights’, to address the needs of all our target groups,” describes Lin. “Recurring is the usage of design to convey a narrative, be it a folktale, brand story or Man’s loftier ambitions – all components of emotional design (for lack of a better word) in attempting to connect with end users.”
This emotion-driven design philosophy reveals itself again and again in UDP’s roster of projects. From the Chengdu Women’s Hospital (“In the midst of functional problem solving, we also aimed to address the emotional needs of the user,” says Lin) to En Vain (“a Baijiu bar in Beijing that captures the attitude of not taking oneself too serious”), UDP utilises strategies used in branding and advertising where connections at an emotional level lead to brand loyalty and overall image building of the client.
Even in taking traditional Chinese elements and updating them for a wider appeal to contemporary audiences – another recurring theme in UDP’s projects – Lin and Tang aspire to capture the spirit and the essence of what the elements represent. “We respect Chinese culture greatly,” attests Lin. “We respect the spirit, but not the superficial expression of it. The former is the essence, the latter is wallpaper. Chinese gardens and landscaping are not only about pavilions and corridors with pitched roofs. They are about borrowed scenery, nested spaces, the psychological journey of the often convoluted circulation.” Utilising this philosophy in projects like the Taiyuan masterplan, Lin and Tang employ local folktales and evocative references for an approach that feels context and culture specific. “The expression is modern, but the spirit is grounded,” says Lin.
UDP’s distinct design philosophy seems to be paying off, striking all the right cords with the growing list of clients. With another hospital, a series of cafes and a rebranding project for a client specialising in Chinese redwood furniture in the works, Lin and Tang look forward to expanding their design reach even further. “We’ve been getting more and more requests to buy our furniture, or paintings,” reveals Lin. “Selling design products has always been in our pipeline. Maybe it will happen sooner than later now.”