Hank Chen is Managing Director for the Taipei branch of Pilotfish, a strategic design and innovation consultancy which forms a bridge between Asia and Europe with branches in Taipei, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Munich. Pilotfish’s work has been honored with a generous number of prestigious international design awards. Their philosophy places the user at the center of design, and seeks to distill complex and advanced electronic technological devices into meaningful and desirable user experiences. With his international training and impressive accomplishments at the forefront of cutting-edge design catering to both Eastern and Western markets, Chen offers years of accumulated insights on how huaren designers—designers working for and within the Chinese-speaking market—can get ahead in the competitive technology market.
Hank Chen graduated from Tamkang University with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He describes himself at the time as a “very typical young engineer, rational and practical, always thinking about the logical execution of each task.” However, working in a tooling company during his studies captured his imagination and he realized that, “once you start to think about how things could be designed, you begin to come up with ideas and answers to solve the problems around you. It’s an exciting thing to do.”
Inspired by the seemingly limitless potential of design, he sent his portfolio off to the Academy of Art University in San Fransisco where he learnt about industrial design. During that time he was trained rigorously in drawing technique. He still remembers one lecturer told the students “To draw a line or a circle, you have to train your hand like a machine!” and yet another said to them, “Be positive about all of your ideas, the right solution is among them. Don’t limit yourself!” These educational attitudes in America were very different to Chen’s learning experience in Taiwan, and helped him to develop a new design mindset and approach to design training.
It was something of a shock to Chen, then, when he moved to Italy to study at the Domus Academy in Milan. His fellow students, though passionate and talented designers, would draw messy sketches and talk about their inspirations more than about the technical execution of the design. However, this experience of European design, where “it’s more about emotion, more about the story, and the relationships between people,” proved a valuable lesson for Chen. After several years in industrial and product design, he went on to build his career first as a designer, then project manager, and finally his current role of Managing Director in Pilotfish. Here he bridges the gap between Western and Eastern design thinking, between designers and engineers, between clients and consumers, and between practical and emotional approaches to design, before a promotion to his current role of Managing Director.
One of the main focal points of Pilotfish’s work is the notion of “humanizing technology.” The company’s design places the user at the center and analyses every stage of product development from the consumer’s perspective. Chen cites Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs as an example of this philosophy in action, and points to Xiaomi in China as a huaren company which is now embracing and adapting this approach with great success. For Chen, the ability to create successful and innovative new products on the market comes down to conducting insightful market research to understand the needs and behavior of the target users. This is an area which he believes huaren companies have often overlooked or neglected entirely especially in this booming era of mobile technology and the Internet of Things.
Chen illustrates the approach of Pilotfish’s work with an example of a client who was initially very confused by all the questions the Pilotfish team was asking of them, which covered everything from the business model and stakeholders, to the consumer’s purchasing process, and their reason, location and method to use the product. Pilotfish carefully explained, as they do with many of their clients, that these questions are fundamental to good design process, which must always include insights of the business, the user, and technology. “With this foundation and understanding, we can start to provide a great product proposal and design which are in alignment with the client’s new business model, and provide an outstanding user experience and tangible technology. This is the key to improving our clients’ business and helping them to differentiate themselves in the market.” Since the initial meeting, Pilotfish has worked closely with that particular client for over 15 years.
Chen sketches a fascinating picture of the changing landscape of technological design in Asia. He remarks that “there are many talented designers here, who have a very good understanding about design and products, and they want to make things easier, more simple, and to understand the problem.” He is also happy to note that “clients are beginning to understand the value of research and design, and have more respect for the profession.”
This is a huge contrast to what Chen has observed in the past. He often encountered clients who would place high demands on designers, seeking to make products with multiple functions, driving down production costs, and targeting as wide a market as possible. This was driven in part by differences in cultural attitudes, Chen concedes, “whereas a Western consumer will usually buy a product which does one function really well or solves a big problem, Asian consumers would like to feel that they are getting more value for their investment. Maybe they’ll spend $50 but want to feel like they get $100 worth of value or benefit from it.”
Chen also remarks, however, that within the companies in Asia seeking to create new products on the market “there was a culture of thinking that an imported product was better than a locally made one. People were always looking outside for products, and trying to copy foreign products and markets.” This heavy focus on improving technological specifications and imitating foreign products meant that, despite the impressive speed with which huaren companies could create a product, they were often one pace behind the leading Western brands in terms of innovation.
Chen is optimistic that Asian companies are moving on from this mindset and beginning to truly innovate within thehuaren market. Chen remarks that there is actually a huge opportunity in doing so, observing that many Western companies who have sought to enter this market have not been successful, even when they adapt their products to better suit huaren culture. He sees that many companies are now more willing to spend money on research to understand the user and their needs. “Now, simply adjusting is not enough for the huaren market. It’s almost like you need to come from the starting point of the local area and conduct local research. Huaren designers are best placed to understand the needs and behavior of huaren markets,” Chen observes.
Even though the technology market may seem chaotic and competitive, Chen points the way for huaren designers to carve out a niche in this field: in the most human way possible.
About Hank Chen
Having graduated from Tamkang University in 1998 with a BA in Mechanical Engineering, Hank Chen went on to study Industrial and Product Design at the Academy of Art University, San Fransisco, and an MA in Design at the Domus Academy, Milan. He specializes in Design Strategy, Industrial Design, User Interface Design, and Mechanical Engineering. As Project Manager, and now Managing Director for Pilotfish, a strategic design and innovation consultancy, Hank Chen has handled the development of some of the most cutting-edge technology engaging with design on the market, across the lifestyle, medical, industrial, transportation, and audio fields. Their portfolio of clients includes Western brands such as Mini, Bosch, Dell, and Honeywell, as well as Eastern brands like Fujifilm, Asus, and Samsung. Many of Pilotfish’s projects have been honored with prestigious international design awards, including 9 iF Awards, 13 Red Dot Awards, 7 GOOD DESIGN Awards, and 20 Taiwan Symbols of Excellence.