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Podcast 01 March 2022

Finding your flow as a female design influencer

How do you create a product that's sustainable, ergonomic, and useful? LINcast guest host, Kim Moran, sits down with award-winning designer and CEO of Otelier, Yvonne Hung, to learn how the eat-work table came to be and about the company’s focus on circular design. Hung highlights how she was able to navigate roadblocks in her career, divulges some of the best advice learned from mentors along the way, and gives insights on her design process and which design principles help her ideas become a reality.

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Full Transcript

Kim Moran: Hello and welcome to LINCast. I'm Kim Moran, your Desk Client and Business Development Consultant and guest host for this episode. Today, I'm excited to be joined by product designer and renaissance woman Yvonne Hung. She is based in San Francisco, and she has an incredible design portfolio with experience in UX, wearable tech, 3D printed jewellery, furniture, product design and even urban planning. I'm very impressed by her because she even has experience in areas such as Google, HBO and CoLab, just to name a few. So, thank you so much for joining us today.

Yvonne Hung: Thanks for having me. And thanks for the very flattering introduction.

Kim Moran: Such an interesting background, and I'm really glad we could talk today. You know, when I started looking at your portfolio and then after we met a year ago, what I'm really interested to hear about today is how you've been able to kind of navigate the industry. And I'd love to hear any advice you might have for young up-And-Coming professional creatives. So actually, you started Otelier in 2020 during the pandemic, and this is really a personal project response to working from home like so many of us, but I think you really brought some sustainable practices to that. I’m so proud to have you here today. Within two years, you actually won quite a few awards. So, we'll talk a little bit about that. But first of all, can you kind of give us a rundown of how your company and product idea came about?

Yvonne Hung: Yeah. So, in 2019, I had just graduated from a grad school in London, the Royal College of Art and Imperial College for Innovation, Design, Engineering. And so, my plan then was to A: figure out my life, but B: try to start a furniture innovation company - that really explores what it means to live in small spaces like apartments, which is for me really relevant because I grew up mostly living in apartments. Having lived in places like Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, and London, I wanted to take that from the perspective of sustainability as well. And so that was the plan in 2019. So, I started working on some projects that I started during grad school, but then the epidemic hit and so I was working from home full time, and I was back in San Francisco by then. I was working in my kitchen and it's a kitchen table, not a standing desk. So, my body started hurting and I'm not that old. So, I knew something was wrong and I knew other people were feeling that way. And it's a combination of physically being in a static position the whole day, and just transitioning to being on the computer full time for 8 hours. So, the first idea for Otelier was the eat-work table, which is a dining table that's also a standing desk. And it doesn't look like a standing desk and in fact, its battery operated. And so, it looks nice. When it's in the middle of the dining room. And I partnered with one of the woodworkers that I knew in the Bay Area, because at that time things were shutting down. So, I couldn't travel to meet manufacturers. I had to just produce it locally. And that was really my only option. But luckily, I found someone who I really trusted. His name is Byron Cohen, and he's also a furniture designer. So, he was able to help me produce it and we created a business out of it.

Kim Moran: Yeah, it's really beautiful. I mean, it really looks like a piece of furniture. I noticed so many people, they were surprised once the leg started to go up and down because it just fits so well within the home.

Yvonne Hung: Yeah, and one thing that I really wanted to get across was that in the standing desk market, everything kind of looks the same. It's two T-shaped legs. On a board and a board on top of that. And I wanted to have another option where it is more attuned to the home environment. I think those desks are designed for offices, but you don't want that. You don't want an office in your home necessarily that is very corporate and sterile. Right. Like you want something that's “homey” and something that you could use also for eating or playing cards or board games. So that was the original idea, and then some of my friends started asking, well, I just want a desk. I don't need a dining table, because I already have a dining table, so it expanded into the desk version.

Kim Moran: Another thing that I thought was really interesting is you talked about your studio being a circular design studio. I was really taking a look at some of the facts around how Americans throw out over 12 million tons of furniture away each year. I thought that was an incredible amount of product that’s just going to waste. So, tell me a little bit more about circular design.

Yvonne Hung: Yeah, so we are a very consumerist society, which is fine if we knew how to make products that were more sustainable or had systems that were more circular. And what that means is using waste products. It's basically - this is a little hard to explain. I probably need to look it up for a more eloquent definition - but using byproducts from the product line and creating new products out of that. Or you can have a system where you use products that can then be resold. So, there are different ways of being circular. So, I'm interested in exploring all the different ways that you can be circular, but what it means ultimately is that products do not end up in the landfill or we really postpone that process of ending up in the landfill, but ideally they just never hit the landfill.

Kim Moran: Yeah. And as a designer, you know, it's important for you obviously to understand and go deeper, regarding solving human problems. Like you talked about, you know, having your back hurt and, you know, sitting is the new smoking, as they say. So how do you feel that your product line is really kind of solving that issue?

Yvonne Hung: Well, I think multi-functionality was really important for me. So yes, there's a standing desk component, so ergonomically that's healthier when you're both standing and sitting over the course of the day. I think standing all day isn't great for you either. It's the combination of sitting and standing for however many minutes - that combination is what makes it a little bit healthier. Also, I've actually measured the dimensions of the table, so that you can have the monitor at a certain distance, which is healthier for your eyes. So, I'm almost legally blind so, one of the things that my optometrist said is, first of all, you need to get a monitor and the monitor needs to be X distance from your face. And when you're standing, that distance changes. And it's different from when you're sitting. So, you need to make sure that that depth of your desk is actually enough for both when you're sitting and standing. And so there was a bit of research just to get the dimensions right and make sure it's good for people of all sizes - because I'm pretty average for a girl, but there are very tall people. So that's why I would use LINAK legs, which can go pretty high and also low.

Kim Moran: Yeah, it's important to have that business-standard met, you hear that a lot in the design community. So were going to step back. I kind of want to understand a little bit more about how you came about into the design world. You know, I guess what sparked your interest to go down this path, or were there any products or maybe designers that really were an inspiration for you?

Yvonne Hung: So I've always done art throughout my life, even as a kid. And I used to win a lot of art awards in drawing and painting. Not to toot my own horn, but I always knew I was passionate about it. I was always in the flow state when I was doing those things. And I'm grateful that I have that passion that I know that that's something I can always turn to when I'm stressed or lost. But I didn't pursue it in college. I studied economics and I did art on the side. You know, being a very practical Asian person, I was like, I'm going to study economics. And that's great because it eventually helped me think in a way that is essential for running a business. So I don't regret it, but it was kind of a diversion from my design dreams. So after I graduated, I went to architecture school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for Urban Planning, which was a compromise between design and economics. That's how I justified it. But for me, actually, that wasn't enough. Once I got exposed to what design was, I was like, “Oh, that's what I should be doing. I can't believe I'm in this in-between space.” So after I graduated, there were a few years where I was an urban planner, and I worked in design firms and planning firms and everything in between. But I was just never satisfied because, I got to work on the planning part, but I didn't really fully get to work on the design part. After a few years, I decided to actually leave the workforce and I started a jewellery company. It was, it was mostly for fun, and it started from a hobby. And I turned it into a very small business, but it gave me a taste of what running a craft-based business was like and would be like. And from there, I also learned how to make websites, because that's essential for having an online presence. And this was at a time also when a lot of new technology enabled small businesses to just start. You know, whether it's like accounting businesses or email services or website builders, those things allowed me and everyone in that generation to have a passion and then start a business. And it was pretty rudimentary compared to what we have now today. But at least it gave me that experience. And I also had the opportunity to become a web designer so because I had to code my website, and from there I actually started.

Kim Moran: That’s so impressive, I just want to stop you right there, because what I love is your curiosity to learn. I mean, if you don't know something, you just dive into it. And I love that you're talking about your flow state. I mean, I can totally see that you have been able to kind of connect all your passions together. So kudos to you because a lot of people don't do that.

Yvonne Hung: So, I mean, it's risky yeah. I think it's important to not think about the negative side, which is like, oh, it's hard. It's so time-consuming. I don't know if I'm good at it. You know, all those things are going to be blockers if you think about it, because, yeah, you don't know if you're going to be good at it, you don't know if you're going to be successful. But if you spend your energy doing that, then you don't have the energy to actually do the thing. So, from there I started being a UX designer, and over time I felt like I just wasn't being creative anymore because I was making all these apps that are all digital and digital experiences for me are not as personal because they're, you know, in a virtual world. After a long time in that industry, I went back to grad school just to, you know, refresh my creativity. And that's where I pivoted. I became a furniture innovation designer. Mm hmm.

Kim Moran: Yeah, that's great. So are there any hurdles that you faced being an industrial designer?

Yvonne Hung: I don’t even know if I would call myself an industrial designer because I'm more of a product designer. And the difference is I'm not formally trained as an industrial designer. I don't have that degree; I feel like design is more of a philosophy for me. And then the technicality is the stuff that I learned on the way to create whatever product I need to make, whether it's a digital product or like a space or a neighbourhood if I'm an urban planner or jewellery or a piece of furniture. So for me, I kind of apply that thinking to all of those things and then pick up the technicalities that need to happen to make it happen. I would say the biggest hurdle for me right now as a product designer is manufacturing. That is something that is quite out of my control. And I think finding new partners, especially during the pandemic, dealing with the supply chain, those have been really challenging for everyone, but probably for me, it's been even harder as a newer designer in that space without the connections and the scale that larger companies have. So still figuring that out, but I'm hopeful.

Kim Moran: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's why it was such a good fit I mean, when, you know, when you kind of came to us, I saw something in your sketches and your designs right away. I was like, this is a really, unique product. And I loved kind of how we could kind of just collaborate together. So, you know, and one thing led to the next and then you were in our showroom and you know, I was super proud of you when you won, Best of NeoCon. And so, I mean, that says a lot coming to NeoCon for the first time. Yeah, it's exciting to me.

Yvonne Hung: And I would say I think LINAK is really lucky to have you because manufacturers don't have someone in your role who can be like, “Yeah, that's great design. We need to cultivate our relationships with the designers. Because without you, I don't know if I would have won all the awards, or I wouldn't have gone to NeoCon and I wouldn't be here obviously talking to you on LINCast. But I think that support is really helpful for especially for people who are just starting out in this career.

Kim Moran: My best career advice is don't burn a bridge because you're going to cross it many times. And it's kind of basic, but I think it's how you treat people - just make really strong relationships because I can't tell you how many times in my career where I've had to call upon someone. And thanks to our social networks now and LinkedIn and things like that, you can just quickly reach out to so many other people to help me. So, I think it's good to pay it forward. So, thank you for that compliment. But what is the best career advice you've received?

Yvonne Hung: So when I was a young designer, I was an urban planner who really wanted to be an urban designer and one of my boss's mentors, was like, “Okay, you're good at it. But if you really want to make a name for yourself, switch careers, just take every opportunity to design and it could be, you know, a poster, it could be a space, it could be anything.” But just take that opportunity to be a designer wherever you can. And I have taken that to heart, and it's taken me to places that I could never have imagined.

Kim Moran: So before we wrap up today, what are your plans for the future for your company?

Yvonne Hung: I'm working on a new project with the Rainforest Alliance and FSC, and they are involved in these forest communities in Mexico and Guatemala, who sustainably manage the forests that they are a part of. So, we are coming up with a new product that would be very suitable for apartment dwellers made of wood and partnering with these organisations to create a transparent supply chain while providing or supporting the livelihoods of these communities who actually live in the forest, who are the stewards of the forest. So part of it is sourcing the wood from them, but it's also helping them further establish their furniture manufacturing capabilities. So this would be a pilot. It would help them kind of understand what it would be like to work with international companies and then further expand their capabilities and livelihoods. So, I'm pretty excited about that. I might get a chance to fly down there and see them.

Kim Moran: That'd be great. Yeah, well, I know we could go on and on and we have such great conversations when we connect. So, I just want to say thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your insights, you have such an interesting career path and really a great portfolio. So, I'm so glad you found your flow, as you say. So on behalf of LINAK, I'd love to thank you for tuning in LINCast. If you'd like to explore additional design-related topics, please check us out at LINAK-us.com on our channels with Spotify and SoundCloud. Thanks so much, everyone. Have a good day.

 
 
Yvonne Hung

About Yvonne Hung

Yvonne is a multidisciplinary designer with over 15 years of design experience ranging from product design, UX/UI, and urban planning. Her goal is to create a positive social and environmental impact through design and innovation. Throughout her career, she’s worked for large tech companies, startups, and non-profits.

 

She began Otelier in early 2020 as Hung's personal project to question the furniture industry's unsustainable practices and the consumer behaviours driving them.

Yvonne practices two types of design. One approach identifies problems with an analytical eye and solves them through design strategy. She describes the second approach as experimental, delving into imaginative play, material explorations, and hands-on creation.

You can check out her full design portfolio at yvonnehung.com or learn more about Otelier here.

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