This Millennial Co-founder Believes Design Should Improve Lives, Not Just Spaces

This Millennial Co-founder Believes Design Should Improve Lives, Not Just Spaces

by Mizah Rahman

I was trained as an architect, but didn’t embark on the conventional path leading to a commercial firm. Instead, my schoolmate and I forged a different path for ourselves, exploring a field of design that had not yet been seen in Singapore.

Design with a difference

I run a non-profit design organisation called Participate in Design (P!D). Our work mainly involves the design of public spaces like playgrounds, sports areas, park connectors, community centres, kitchens for seniors and centres for youth.

We’re not your usual design studio. The key difference is that we practise participatory design. That’s just a fancy term to mean that we involve users in the design process and in making decisions that will impact their lives.

When you think of design, you may think of the concept, the materials, the looks of the final space or product. When we think of design, we think of the user first.

I wanted to be a designer who exercises empathy and does meaningful work.

We believe that such a people-centric approach is not only more respectful but also a lot more effective in creating solutions that truly reflect the users’ needs and aspirations.

And at the end it’s really satisfying to see the pride and ownership the users take in the space they have co-designed. They’re often thankful for being able to play a part and share their views.

The road less travelled

Participatory Design to Improve Lives - Mizah Rahman with her scrapbook

I knew early on that I didn’t want to work in a regular architecture studio, where projects cater more to clients who can afford good design, as opposed to focusing on communities and design for everyday folks.

Working as a researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities really changed my perspective. It revealed to me how much design can do to improve lives and impact communities.

I felt stimulated creatively and intellectually. I wanted to be a designer who exercises empathy and does meaningful work.

Architects graduate, work at a firm, then get registered. But this is precisely what my co-founder and I didn't do.

In the early days of P!D, nobody really understood what our work was about. My parents were like, Why can't you just work at a normal architecture firm?

People don’t equate community-related pursuits to a full-time job. They think it's volunteer work you do in your free time.

The path for most architects is straightforward. You graduate, you work at a firm, you get registered as an architect. But this is precisely what my co-founder and I didn't do.

The birth of a studio

P!D was an idea Jan Lim and I explored when we collaborated on our Master's thesis. Back then, there were inspiring participatory design studios in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Hong Kong and around the world, but no such organisation in Singapore.

After graduation, P!D became a platform for us to be able to do fun, creative projects on the side. One thing led to another, and interest in our work grew. This was a time when the government was also beginning to look more at community engagement.

We recognised the relevance and purpose in the work, and decided it was time to make a stand. We left our jobs and went into P!D fulltime.

Everything to gain

Participatory Design to Improve Lives - Mizah Rahman

The decision to focus on P!D fulltime wasn’t easy. Being designers and not businesspeople, we didn’t know if we could actually sustain the organisation.

We spoke to many mentors and advisors, one of whom was Tay Lai Hock, the late founder of Ground-Up Initiative. He said:

There are only two ways it can go. If you succeed, then that’s great. But if you fail, you become a lot more valuable because of what you’ve learnt, the people you meet, and the journey that got you there. So don’t worry. Whether you succeed or fail, you will gain no matter what. And you have nothing to lose.

Strength in diversity

If there’s a common thread that runs through my career so far, it’s the principle that diverse voices matter.

Participatory design is an interdisciplinary field that draws together artists, entrepreneurs, architects, urban farmers, government agencies and community organisers.

The strength of a co-designed space comes from the multitude of voices – from professionals, administrators and laypeople – that contribute to the process.

For example, when we worked with Playeum, a play space that promotes creativity, we collaborated with children, parents, and a range of artists, photographers and theatre practitioners. Each party involved brings a different and important perspective to the table.

Our collaborators come from different fields of expertise, but we share the same desire to empower the communities we design for.

I lead a diverse team at P!D with a variety of skill sets and perspectives – not just in arts and design, but also in finance, PR, sociology, sustainability. How boring if we had a team of just architects!

Even our volunteers are a diverse bunch. We have urban planners, photographers, artists, social workers, event organisers, lawyers.

I truly cherish the community of collaborators I have met through the work at P!D. They come from different walks of life, different fields of expertise, but we share common values and the same desire to empower the communities we design for.

For more millennial stories, visit the #LetsTalkMillennials page.

Participatory Design to Improve Lives - Mizah Rahman on camera

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