Meet the New Dean: An interview with Thomas Kvan
Adrian Cremin | 08/03/2021

The School of Design will lead change in the world’s creative capital, Shenzhen.

Chances are, the phrase “made in China” is often seen when you take something out of your pocket. If so, it is probably made in Shenzhen, a city in China that borders Hong Kong and has an estimated population of 12.59 million. For most of the last two decades, Shenzhen has been a famous manufacturing hub – “the world’s workshop.”

In 2008, an exciting new stage of the city’s development went underway: the city was designated as a UNESCO “City of Design.” It was a fine-tuning of a UNESCO- approved creative design brain to pair with its mighty production muscles. With design events increasingly frequent in the city, Shenzhen is placing itself at the forefront of China’s transformation in becoming a global innovator.

In 2019, a state council document on building Shenzhen into a pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics stated that the city should support the establishment of the Shenzhen Institute of Design and Innovation (SIDI). Following that, the municipal government decided to set up a school for the preparation of SIDI. In April 2020, the School of Design was established as a subsidiary school in the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) for the incubation of SIDI. Prof. Thomas Kvan was appointed as the founding dean.

Who is the founding dean? What makes him qualified for this role? What is design education? What would be the role that creative design and modern technologies have to play in society today? The University Newshub team had a chance to get the story from Dean Thomas Kvan.

Thomas Kvan

Thomas Kvan: A like-mindedness connection to Cantonese culture

“In short, I was born and raised in Hong Kong, so we can speak Cantonese if you want,” he said humorously. (PS. This interview was conducted by a Chinese and an English editor together.) “I have a close affinity to China and Chinese culture from my time growing up in Hong Kong. My first visit to Shenzhen was in 1976 when it was just a fishing village. How times have changed!” he said with a grin. In the following thirty years, Prof. Kvan often visited Shenzhen and has a deep connection with the city.

It would be true to say that Prof. Kvan is a man of the world and has stepped his feet on the four corners of the globe. He’s a Danish national raised in Hong Kong that went on to study in the UK and achieved a bachelor’s and a doctorate degree, then moved to Africa, where he worked for some time. From there, he moved to the United States, where he received his master’s degree, worked as a management consultant, and co-started a software company. He has held appointments as an academic leader at Hong Kong University, the University of Sydney, and the University of Melbourne.

“In my previous role as Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, I would visit China a few times a year for academic exchanges with other universities. I have seen the city transform from an agricultural and fishing village into the cosmopolitan city that it has become today. Although I don’t have an exceptional knowledge of all China, I have a good understanding of Guangdong and Cantonese culture, which attracts me here.”

In the view of Prof. Kvan, culture and design are entwined. He spoke about his passion for experiencing different cultures and spoke vividly about the Cantonese Opera and Cantonese cuisine. He talked about how the traveling Opera would annually visit different communities in Hong Kong and at each location construct the Opera house from scratch using bamboo. Then, when they had finished, dismantle it and move on to their next destination. He thought this was fascinating, and when you would see the construction starting, there was a great sense of excitement in the local community as everyone knew the Opera was coming. The community gathered to enjoy the performance and the event, the snacks, and the conversations.

Visits Shenzhen Book City and plays the game of Go with a passing-by little girl

He is also intrigued by the different cuisines in different cultures and highlighted how people eat particular foods for various seasonal occasions. Examples of this were making “Zongzi” (the process of taking rice stuffed with different fillings, wrapping it up in bamboo leaves, and steaming it) for the Dragon Boat Festival, which is usually held every year in June. Through these vivid examples, he shows a deep empathy for local Cantonese culture and the longings of the local people.

“Design is often expressed as the individual hero designer. So we often talk about designers by their individual names, but design is never an individual hero act. Design is always a contextualized and collaborative activity. So I’m interested in design as a social act.”

When we asked Prof. Kvan about whether culture influences his designs, he thought this was a fascinating question. He raised a question, “Is design the object, or is it the process?” to which we smiled and returned a hesitant answer. He explained that design “is the process,” and this is why he has been interested in the social issues of design in the collaborative processes since early on in his scholarly career. He said culture “influences” the process and the object, which was an intriguing insight into his mindset and how he articulates his views. “Design is an expression of culture, and if the culture is a collaborative culture, then your designs are different.”

Shaping the future design education: Changing the way people perceive design and influencing the world

Prof. Kvan has traveled and worked worldwide, but why did he choose to “start from scratch” in Shenzhen? He told us that it is the opportunity to help create in this city a top design school that “influences the world.”

“When I first heard there would be a new School of Design in Shenzhen, I was very excited. Previously, if I’d been asked where is the one place that I thought a world-class School of Design would prosper and grow, I would have said Shenzhen without hesitation for many reasons.”

The first reason he believes is that Shenzhen is at the center of production and manufacturing and delivers all kinds of design, whether tangible or intangible. It’s also a technologically advanced city that is dubbed “the Silicon Valley” of Asia. Many everyday items used all over the world are produced in Shenzhen. Therefore, this has attracted some of the top talents in the country to Shenzhen, which is a hotbed for innovation, and innovation is key to design.

Secondly, he emphasized how design today has to be science and technology ­based; it should not be only an art-based activity. So many advances in society are made possible by advances in these fields, and design is essential to translate them into our daily experience. It then made perfect sense that starting a School of Design in a science and technology environment such as SUSTech would yield amazing results.

Thirdly, he noted that the School of Design would shape design education to influence the future. “Design education is bound to lay impact on a variety of issues, ranging widely from technological advancements to business and the nature of humans, as these processes use design to model their patterns and create new trends. This is very important. Our graduates will significantly impact Shenzhen and what Shenzhen produces, to the benefit of the people of Shenzhen, China, and the world.”

Participates in the semester course exhibition by the Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering where he listens to the students’ introduction to their works and chats with them

“You may ask, why is that important? It’s important because one of the greatest problems we have in the world today is a consequence of what designers have been doing. They have contributed to certain contemporary problems in society that we need to address?

He spoke in length and passionately about the environment and the ecological crisis that the world is facing at present. “Designers have played a role in this. For example, it’s a big problem as we’ve built everything out of concrete. Concrete is one of the biggest polluters globally, and we’ve now got a world of building design that is generating a large amount of the world’s carbon pollution.”

He stressed the importance of changing the philosophy of design and how we think about designing things. “We do the same thing with our use of materials. The ocean is full of microplastic particles which would be consumed by marine life, further adversely affecting the marine ecosystem. Some of the fish we buy today are found to be contained with microplastics. These are also being found in the fields too, where our rice and other crops are being grown.” His deep understanding of such issues was striking and highlighted the importance of having someone of his acumen at the forefront of changing the way people perceive design.

“We need a new type of design school to change the way designers think, and this disruptive change is most suitable to happen in a city like Shenzhen. I believe that the School of Design can set a new design benchmark for the world in the future.”

For that reason, it wasn’t a surprise that Prof. Kvan accepted the invitation to become the founding Dean of the School of Design at SUSTech in April 2020. The School of Design will also facilitate in setting up the Shenzhen Institute of Design and Innovation (SIDI). He aims to make it a place where students learn to challenge themselves, discover how to contribute through design, and where the industry will turn for great ideas and research support.

A new journey starts: A new design school is taking shape

It can be said that Prof. Kvan started his journey with some anxiety. However, after coming to SUSTech and getting help from his new team, all previous worries soon disappeared. As he stepped into the role as the Dean in April 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t able to fly to Shenzhen immediately. As a consequence, this bought its own challenges.

“For the first seven months, I couldn’t come to China and had to work from Melbourne. Most of my communication was via e-mail and WeChat. I ended up working largely on preparing the new campus design because my background had been to guide the design of the campus and academic buildings so that they are closely aligned to educational philosophies and purposes. Even though I had past experience of doing this in my previous role in Melbourne, the mechanisms were already in place there, and I had a team to work with. Whereas here, everything had to be done from scratch as I was the first member of the School.”

“Since I’ve arrived, it has made the communication process a lot smoother. People can now see the face behind the e-mails,” he joked. He has visited physicists, mathematicians, engineers, anthropologists, and other professors on campus to better understand specific designs for different disciplines and their needs.

“I’ve also met people in different roles and positions in meetings, committees, etc., on and off-campus, so now I have a better perspective. It’s been wonderful to get here and explore the city finally. Everyone I have spoken to is excited and enthusiastic about the School because of its potential for SUSTech and for the city.”

Visits Professor Bi ZHANG, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering, and Additive Manufacturing Lab, and watches titanium alloy parts produced by 3D printing

An initial concern that Prof. Kvan had was the location of the School of Design. Situated in Baoan District, an outer district from downtown Shenzhen, he was worried that the site might be too remote and not ideal for innovative design students to flourish.

“Traditionally, design schools are located downtown in the middle of a city. When I heard this was on the outskirts, I must admit that I felt concerned and had some doubts as students need to participate in different programs and interact with people. Generally, design schools in most countries are located in the heart of the city.”

“But what I later discovered is that the Baoan district has a rich history of culture and production, and it would become the next city hub in the coming years. Additionally, Baoan district has become a thriving area for new development, and many organizations and institutions are relocating there.” Furthermore, the location of the School of Design is in a part of the district that has a scenic backdrop of the mountains.

As his interactions grew with different members around the campus, Prof. Kvan’s blueprint for the School of Design became more apparent and what excites him most about SUSTech is that there is a unique way of doing things there. “The biggest challenge is not that the work cannot be pushed forward, but that everyone needs to work very hard to keep pace with the front runner.”

SUSTech is full of energy. The atmosphere ignited his enthusiasm for starting a new school. “My discussions with different people here indicated that Shenzhen really needs creative design. This important task falls on SUSTech and my shoulder. I believe that the School of Design will become a very attractive and influential campus. This is something to look forward to,” said Prof. Kvan.

Now, the School of Design has launched a global campaign to recruit top scholars and has received applications from all over the world. Due to the continued COVID-19 restrictions worldwide, the off-line campaign has slowed down, but the expectation is to have twelve faculty members in place by the end of 2021.

“The ultimate goal for the fully developed SIDI is to have around 5,000 students, with fifty percent of undergraduates and the other fifty percent of postgraduates. The planned teacher-student ratio is 1:8.”

Tech + Design = Translating science into a direct experience for the users

Technology and design form a symbiotic relationship. According to Prof. Kvan, the School of Design will build connections between the powerful research underway at SUSTech and industry and society. The outcomes of scientific research are difficult to understand, but designers can work in technology transfer to translate the science into a direct experience for the consumer. Design outcomes, whether they are experiences or products, such as games or clothing, are able to be directly experienced and understood if well designed. They can incorporate the research carried out at SUSTech.

He also touched on the School’s plan of building research centers and laboratories such as the Wellness Center and the Smart Products Laboratory. “People might ask, what is a smart product? In today’s world, we are surrounded by smart devices. It’s the mobile phone you use or the smartwatch that tracks the number of steps you walk every day.”

“You can also have smart fashion. For example, if you made a pair of smart socks, they could be used in hospitals to monitor a patient’s health. They would read a patient’s blood pressure, body temperature, their movement, etc. The smart socks could be doing a lot of the monitoring. If you’re an elderly or not very mobile person and the doctor asks you to walk for ten minutes every two hours, if you had smart socks that changed colors to make the patient aware of when they need to walk, this would be a beneficial device. This is just one example of how creative design combined with modern technology could make significant contributions to society today and for the future.”

“Health is a subset of wellness. Using the older generation as an example, topics such as movement and loneliness are of great significance. A lot of work is being done on how to encourage them to move more. These are key components in everyone’s daily life. How do you use design to help people maintain mental wellness? Another example would be the wellness issue concerning computer games in modern society. The problem that society is having with certain age groups today is that they appear to be caught up in computer games. How is this going to affect their mental health in the future? Wellness is a big topic that covers many different areas, which we hope to explore more.”

The planning for such laboratories and centers provides an insight into the level of research that the School of Design is investing in. It will explore innovative new techniques that can benefit all people in society while raising awareness for health issues and challenging the status quo in reforming how people live.

“Design helps SUSTech establish a connection between cutting-edge research and social applications and contribute to its goal of entrepreneurial successes. For example, the general public may not necessarily understand some scientific research. However, we could transform the research through design into products that users could feel, touch, and experience. Our mission is to be a ‘research translator.’ Here at the School of Design, I believe that our designs could make the impossible possible.”

For young generation: Developing an environment-centered design mindset to impact society

What’s the pathway to becoming a successful designer? A question often asked of Prof. Kvan but doesn’t have one specific way of answering it.

“Designers are successful when they are inquisitive, willing to push themselves and risk their confidence. Design is not problem-solving; it is opportunity-seeking. You cannot become a good designer if you are not interested in asking questions about the world. My philosophy on design education is to push students to the edge of their comfort zone and then ask them to take two further steps. The hardest thing in design is that there is no right answer or one way to do something,” he said. The viewpoint that there is no one specific way to succeed in this field is uplifting for anyone who has aspirations to be a designer.

Tutors students who are about to participate in the international creativity competition

He points out that “the best designers” are the ones that think deeply about opportunities, society, other people, and the situation that they are in. Some of these ideas will fail, but the best learning comes from recovering from failure. “If you only ever do what is safe, you will never learn anything. If you want to be a leader or a designer, you must trust yourself to take risks and make mistakes. Designers find strengths in themselves and their ideas.”

“Designers must also recognize that they are part of the wider world in all its aspects.” The mindset of Prof. Thomas Kvan towards design education is uplifting. He strives to educate students on different skills, facts, philosophies, and how to develop them. But the most important thing in design education is teaching a person how design or designer do not stand alone. “We are all part of the larger context, of society and of the natural systems. Our responsibilities in design are to make better outcomes not just for ourselves or for people but for all, including nature.”

With that said, the vision and goals for the School of Design emerge real and clear ahead of Prof. Kvan, his team, and the people of Shenzhen. In them, the aspiration of Shenzhen to become the benchmark for innovative design has found a new torch carrier. We all look forward to the day when future-orientated leaders and designers of the world will be coming directly out of Shenzhen.