Designer profile

Fulfilling her mission to create a better future for the society

19 Aug 2020  •  5 min read

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Ms Serene Yap Shu Mei is a DesignSingapore Scholar 2020, and soon she will be pursuing a Master of Arts in Service Design at the Royal College of Art. She aspires to be a service designer as she wants to spread the importance of designing for a better future for all through human centred-service design.

1.  Please tell us more about yourself.

Hello! I’m Serene, and my mornings are most complete with two soft-boiled eggs and a kopi peng siew dai.

I graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a diploma in Mass Communication, and thereafter received my degree in Design Communication at LASALLE College of the Arts, where I experimented methods to introduce solitary moments into one’s life in a hyper-social society. I spent a year working with a fun and dedicated bunch in a brand design agency, before an opportunity arose for me to join the newly-formed User Experience and Design team in DBS Bank, which, within the next 5 years, grew resiliently by tenfold. The whole journey has been one of learning, growth and gratitude.

Guided by the principle that all life is interconnected, my fundamental belief is that all of us have, inherently, the potential to change our lives and the lives around us. I also believe that dialogue is the first step to the creation of value, and this is probably the reason why I value the approach of collective problem solving.

I also enjoy conversations on topics such as emotional agility, culture and group dynamics, and when I’m not being so serious, I’m likely to be writing silly ukulele songs.

2. How did you land on design as your specialisation?

Victor Papanek once said, “The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.”

I had originally dreamt of becoming a social documentary photographer, and upon graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, applied for both sociology and design degree courses because of their relevance to that job. The study of society and human behaviour fascinated me, while communication design felt like an extension of what I studied in polytechnic, focusing on speaking to an audience via, mostly, visual mediums, and I was always amazed how design can be used for social change.

Long story short, I didn’t make the cut for the sociology course, and neither did I end up specialising in photography at design school. I got my degree in Design Communication, fell in love with research and design, and the rest is history. Seven years on, I’m still in love with how design exists in everything we do, everywhere, and the fact that we can improve and impact lives directly in our line of work is something so honest and precious—something we should never, ever take for granted. As for my childhood ambition of being a documentary photographer… I’m fortunate that there’s such a thing as ethnographic research, and the human narratives are what I can still capture as a designer.

I think I'm most motivated by the fact that we, as designers, have the power to make the world a better place.

3. Why did you apply for the DesignSingapore Scholarship?

Truth be told, when I made my determination to further my studies in service design in the Royal College of Arts, I had set myself a strict condition that I’d only enter school if I could earn myself a scholarship! While it was my long cherished dream to study in one of the world’s most renowned design schools, it was, to me, simply impractical to do so if I would end up incurring debt during these extraordinary times of a global crisis. 

It was, in fact, a senior designer who encouraged me to apply for the DesignSingapore Scholarship. He had watched me grow over the course of my time in the company, and knew that given my passion to serve the community, the Dsg Scholarship could offer me opportunities to develop myself even further. To me, to be a part of the DesignSingapore Associates Network is a great privilege, and a means for me to contribute back to this resilient little red dot that has shaped me.

4. What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?

I think I'm most motivated by the fact that we, as designers, have the power to make the world a better place. It sounds wildly ambitious but it’s true. In fact, everyone and anyone can change the world. But as designers, we are equipped with the skillsets and tools to do so. In this day and age, most of whatever goes out into the world (or doesn’t go out into the world), passes through us first. And so it’s important we carry out our craft with tact and responsibility. 

I’m also extremely motivated by the people around me, all of whom are deeply inspiring, brilliant and hardworking! It makes me want to work even harder, and drink more kopi peng siew dai!

5. What would most people not know about you?

I guess a little known fact about me is that I used to be one of the kids in lower-primary underachiever programmes made to come early to school every day to silent read. It was a bit traumatising for a 7-8 year old kid, because while my peers were outside playing “catching” and hopscotch, I'd be indoors burying my face in books way before the first slither of the sun peeked over the horizon. Thankfully I still enjoy reading — but I’ll never forget Little Serene sitting in that cold container classroom wondering, “Where did I go wrong?"

Also, as outspoken as I may seem, I actually have a fear of public speaking. It’s just something extremely nerve-racking for me. Sometimes... I’d Google “leaders who had stage fright” just to remind myself that I too can overcome this.

6. What are your goals for the future? How do you hope to contribute back to the design sector?

I am quite keen in public service innovation in urban mobility, public health and education, and hope to be able to work on projects related to the community. I also hope to collaborate more with design educators and young aspiring designers like I did with my ex-lecturer at my alma mater, where we worked on a live industry brief together. I would never have come this far without the support and encouragement of my lecturers and peers back then, and I’d like to see how I can continue to pay it forward. 

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Serene Yap Shu Mei

DesignSingapore Scholar

Serene is currently a product designer with DBS, where she started as the only female designer in a team of eight in 2015. She's a strong advocate for gender quality and cultural diversity and triggered a movement to hire more women, as well as creating an environment for cultural exchange and understanding. With the Dsg scholarship, Serene will pursue the Master of Arts in Service Design at the Royal College of Art.


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