Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Qin Li, is currently the Director of Industrial Design at fuseproject, an integrated design studio founded by Yves Behar in 1999. Originally from China, Li studied fine art from childhood, receiving her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. After, Li moved to San Francisco. She earned her Master of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University (AAU) and worked at LUNAR throughout her studies. Since 2004 at fuseproject, Li has worked on a variety of designs for wearable tech, furniture, artificial intelligence, robotics, retail spaces, healthcare, amongst others. She led development of the Movado EDGE; Herman Miller PUBLIC OFFICE LANDSCAPE + SAYL Chair; Jawbone; Happiest Baby SNOO; and projects with Samsung, MIT Media Lab and Intel.
Responsible for the entire design process from ideation through production, Li works across disciplines to create integrated design experiences through product, brand and digital platforms. Her work has been honored with numerous awards, including IDSA’s Design of the Decade, for Mini JAMBOX.
Li has served as a juror in global design competitions, as an appointed study advisor for the MFA program at Academy of Art University (AAU), and as an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts (CCA). As a designer, Li believes in a hands-on approach from conception through shipping—working simultaneously through an artistic and technical lens. She believes great designs means utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to deliver a human center holistic design experience. As design brings a voice to people of all backgrounds and abilities, Li believes in creating designs that are accessible for all.
"To me, design is a not just work – it is a way of life. Every day is an incredible opportunity, every day we can find ways to make life better; to create something that’s outside the realm of normal thinking, to build deeper emotional connections between objects and humans, and to craft better and more beautiful experiences for us now, and for our children in the future."
What does your current job role entail?
I lead a team of twenty incredibly talented industrial designers at fuseproject. I oversee the industrial design projects in our studio, responsible for the entire design process from ideation through production and bringing products to market. I lead the team by creating an overall vision and direction, guiding design refinements, and supporting the team on various design activities and client collaborations. As fuseproject has several different disciplines beyond industrial design, including brand, digital, business innovation and design strategy, I work across disciplines to create integrated design experiences. My leadership role means working together with all of these disciplines to ensure what we deliver creates a cohesive design narrative for our clients.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
After receiving my Master’s degree in Industrial Design from Academy of Art University, I began working at fuseproject with Yves Béhar. And I was lucky to be a mom at the same time! Quickly I realized it was very hard to balance my work as a designer and my role as a mother. I really enjoyed the creative design process and delivering great design to the market…but that often takes a lot of effort and time. As a mom, I am not just raising my kids, but also raising the future of the world. To balance work and life, I chose to work hard on both, which means it’s nonstop except when I was sleeping. Often, when I was too busy, I would even continue my work after the kids goes to bed, and into the night. But I enjoy being a mom as much as being a designer that can bring ideas to life, and I find that the work is worth the reward.
Fuseproject is a company made up of many nationalities, over 19 different cultures and backgrounds; however, being a foreigner was another challenge. Language and culture are things that you really can’t learn from books - the best way to learn is through real life experience. As a Chinese designer working in the United States, my first few years I really had to focus on my communication skills. Being a maker is key, but being a good communicator is just as important. This ultimately is what gave me the opportunity to teach at two design schools, and jury multiple international design awards, IDEA, Clio, Spark and One Show.
Has your arts degree helped in your product design process for wearable tech products?
The skills I learned from school were really the foundation for me to be able to work in the design world, but it’s not a guarantee that you will be a good designer after you graduate. Having an arts background absolutely informs my work, and fuels my creativity. But it was this in combination with years of effort and application that trained me to perfect my own design process.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
I was an industrial designer when I was in China, and dreamed of working on innovative designs that make life better. This was a tough dream in China back then. The emphasis seemed more on imitation than innovation. Imitations of foreign designs were everywhere—the idea being that imitation makes the process of design and profit easier, and faster, for people. This was not an environment to cultivate creative minds or to learn the process of innovation. So I decided to come to the US—to San Francisco, Silicon Valley—to follow my dream. Working at fuseproject was the first time I realized how much fun the creative process can be, and how important creativity is in driving innovation. I became the Director of Industrial Design in 2012. I continue to strive for my dream to make life better, to create designs that build connections between objects and humans, and to craft better and more beautiful experiences for us now, and for our children in the future.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company (fashion tech, wearable tech, IoT, etc.)?
I am currently working on a variety of design projects including personal accessories, wearable technology, furniture, artificial intelligence, robotics, retail spaces, fashion and beauty.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and woman in wearable tech industry?
The #WomenInTech movement brings attention to diversity, not just for women, but for all races and communities. I never really considered myself a ‘woman designer.’ I am an industrial designer. I wasn’t raised with the idea that women did some things and men did other things. My parents wanted me, their only child, to be able to do anything and everything. That’s how I grew up: without any gender boundaries in my mind. I chose to do industrial design, even though I knew it’s a male-dominated world.
Working in the city of San Francisco, I am so thankful to be in an environment that celebrates diversity and equal opportunity. I see good design as inclusive, accommodating of different gender identities, ages and races. The UP bands for Jawbone, for example, feel entirely personal, but are gender neutral. With the right colors and finishes, both men and women can find designs that feel made for them.
This can be a major advantage, as your design can end up in any retailer in any country of the world – making products that feel inherently inclusive can improve their success in the market.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Seeing so many designs I’ve worked on actually come to market: the Sayl Chair and Public Office Landscape for Herman Miller make the workplace more pleasant, comfortable and collaborative; Jawbone UP bands not only help create a lifestyle, but also connects us with friends and family; SNOO baby bassinet provides a good night’s sleep to baby and parents…Movado EDGE, Jambox, cellphones and headsets and so many more. Knowing that these designs are living out there in the world, and hopefully making people’s lives better, is why I design.
And, of course, being a mom with two kids - they are my best production.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the consumer products and IoT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
We are in the era of AI. We will see more and more embedded AI, making technology invisible with human-centered design. Our goal as designers is to make these experiences human and natural: we want the technology to improve our daily lives without changing the way we live.
IoT is bringing science and technology to daily life through design. With technology, design can reach an area it couldn’t before in making our lives better: like SNOO for Happiest Baby, a smart and safe bassinet that can put your baby to sleep; ElliQ, a home robotic companion for the aging; and Aura Powered Suit, clothing that helps older adults to move. With sensors, motors, and artificial intelligence, design can focus in bringing natural and seamless experiences to bigger audiences - and if we do it right, we will hide the technology in the process.
Additionally, in the next 5 years, we will see more attention to the health sector for all genders and ages. Consumers will have a better understanding of their health, be able to monitor and assist themselves and their families, in order to live healthier. With advancements in healthcare, we can hopefully become a society that is able to properly care for our children and parents alike.
The way we work is also changing. We will see more designs emerge from a multidisciplinary approach: hardware, soft goods, textiles, user experience and interfaces. Industrial designers are no longer just focusing on physical designs - we are focusing on experiences and letting the experience drive the physical outcome. The boundary of each design will become blurred in aiming to design an integrated experience for each product.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in wearable tech out there?
Be confident and follow your dream. Be mindful that you and your work are inclusive for all genders and communities.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech, fashion tech or IoT?
Maaike at MikeandMaaike, a great woman designer who has designed in the tech industry for twenty years; she did the first Google phone design among other Google products.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.