Kenneth Tay

Currently resides in Pasadena, LA, doing a Bsc in Product Design at Art Center College of Design

I'VE KNOWN KENNETH for a couple of years now and we went to the same design school, studying different courses. He left sunny Singapore for a sunnier California (I guess) and I thought it'd be interesting to hear about his busy student life. At that point in time, he was working on a project with the city council to reduce panhandling and the number of homeless people on the streets. — Alyssa

"My area of interest in product design is consumer electronics, household products, as well as using design to create a positive impact on the world.

Studying at the Art Center, I don't really have much free time, but in the rare moments that I do I like to read and play the guitar. What I really enjoy most is just sitting out in nature, surrounded by plants, trees, while the birds chirp and the wind blows a refreshing chill—it's moments like these I feel just so relaxed and recharged.

I’m currently in this multi-disciplinary class, and in this class we're working with the city of Pasadena, and a few other organizations with the aim of reducing panhandling and the number of people experiencing homelessness. This is a project that I'm in the middle of, and we're at the tail-end of the research phase. Though it's just been a few weeks since the start of the project, my perception and opinion about people experiencing homelessness has been radically changed and it has kind of let me get a good look at the big picture of things.

Before starting this project, I had many preconceived notions about homeless people and people who beg and live on the street, especially coming from Singapore, where all of this is not prominent or may seem non-existent. After hearing the stories of people who have lived on the street and lost their homes, you suddenly realise that they're not any different from you. It's easy to say to these people to get a job, but even applying for a job is difficult because you need an address, and washing clothes, etc is ten times harder without a home. And it's not like their lazy or whatever, it's usually a whole bunch of other factors.

This project is really something different compared to the previous projects which were more product focused; this one addresses a real issue that is right there in your face—when you drive up the freeway, or take a walk downtown. Honestly, I don't really know what the end result will be yet, because the studio is still in the ideation and research phase.

We don't want to just do something superficial, we really want to have a positive effect on the Pasadena community. One thing that is certain is that the city of Pasadena wants us to incorporate the parking meter inside our design solutions.

In Denver, they refurbished parking meters and placed them around the city, encouraging people to donate to the parking meter instead of the panhandler.

They believed that 5 dollars given to a homeless service provider is going to be of more help than giving to the panhandler. That particular project in Denver was really successful and many other cities have implemented a similar initiative, so Pasadena wants in on this too.

The parking meter is one of our deliverables, but as a class and studio, we all believe that the parking meter alone would have to be able to produce substantial impact. It's hard for me to be talking about the end result in this stage of the design process, but I feel this project is really something special compared to my previous projects, one of which was a fondue picnic kit for couples—I just feel that is so shallow compared to this current one I'm working on.

Los Angeles has one of the highest numbers of homeless people in the US. In the first few weeks, we've had different panels of people coming in, and there was one panel of people who were formally homeless who came in and just talked about their story. Through that panel session, they were saying how people usually treat homeless people as "another kind" of human, but you know, nobody wants to be living on the street without a home. Prior to that talk, many of us in the studio were referring to the people on the street as homeless and the fact is, those people are just like you and me. They were sharing how it was like—the same people whom you used to talk to treat you differently once you are homeless, like you're invisible. That's when one of them mentioned that we shouldn't be referring to them as homeless, but rather as people experiencing homelessness.

That was a really big epiphany for me. It’s so degrading to be sitting there and asking for money, and that's really sometimes the last resort they have. Before, I was thinking, “There are so many services and shelters out there, why can’t they just go there and get help?” But the thing is, to access these services, it takes a whole day just to get food, queuing up for the ticket…even getting a place to sleep in the shelter you have to get in line early to bid for a place to sleep in the shelter. And even if you do get into the shelter, it's still as dangerous as out in the streets, because there are people who target you, rob you, beat you up…

It’s easy to say, "Why don’t you just get a job?" But how can you look for work when it takes almost the whole day just to get food and a place to sleep? And this is just one aspect of it; there are many other factors and things that happen that make you feel like as if you're not a human anymore. It really changed the way I looked at people on the street—these are people with a heart and a story, it's easy to walk past them and even eye contact seems like too much to give.

I guess now I'm more compassionate towards them, not just for the sake of compassion, but rather because I've been educated on their situation. That's one thing we're trying to do in the class—to make the general public understand the situation and give them a new perspective.

It's not a desperate plead for donations, but rather how can we make these people without a home feel like humans again. It might sound like an insignificant change, but as a designer, that is huge in coming up with solutions for the people experiencing homelessness.

After I graduate, I would like to work in a design consultancy, hopefully in San Franscio or the bay area, where a lot of good product design firms are. I want to work in a multi-disciplinary environment where we would get to work on a variety of project and not just one specific type of product.

I very much want to design consumer products like electronics, which is really exciting. The thought of designing something that can ultimately shape people's behaviour and the way they interact with one another really inspires me a lot

In the long run though, I do want to move back to Singapore; no place like home. But who knows—I might get to do both. I'm keeping my options open because I bet a few years down the road, or even next year I might think of doing something else. One thing I’ve learnt is that you'll never stop learning, and your ambitions and plans kind of evolve the more you learn."

This interview was originally published in WOOP ZINE #2 in early 2013. Kenneth has since completed the project and is now a Product Design Intern at Continuum.