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Design as a Living Thing

Excerpt from AIGA’s Eye on Design article, “New York-based Synoptic Office on Design as a Living Thing

From the beginning, learning has always been an crucial part of that model. “In grad school, we were asking ourselves, ‘where is our industry moving? What kind of work do we want to make one day? What does it mean to have a research-driven practice and to carve out space for experimental works?’” says Park.

In design, the phrase “research-driven practice,” as frequently as it is used, is often murky in meaning. Doesn’t research drive most design work? Is the term meant to be somewhat synonymous with “cultural work,” (as opposed to “commercial work”) and if so, how cleanly can that line really be drawn?

For Synoptic, “research-driven” is meant relatively literally: it alludes to one of the most interesting and defining aspects of Lam and Park’s studio, which is that they consider teaching to be a part of it, not something they do on the side. “To us, it seemed that there were two options: you can do research in a vacuum, on your own [as with most client-based project], or you can do it in a community,” Lam says. “Because of the way our society is structured, if you research in a community, it’s usually an academic community. So that’s where teaching comes in.

“I think many people think of [teaching] as imparting knowledge onto another person. But we think of teaching as more of a dialogue, because students will have something to teach you or offer you in return—specifically, their perspectives and their viewpoints. For us that type of dialogue is integral to figuring out what our culture is and what design is.”


“We recognize that our industry is shifting,” adds Park. “It used to be that design was experienced in a moment, and by that I mean as a package design or a poster or a logo or a billboard. Increasingly what we see is that design is experienced over time; it becomes a living thing.”

Remaining in an academic environment while still running their studio has allowed Lam and Park to explore ideas and understand the factors affecting design. In turn, they’ve been able to examine the changing nature of design more holistically, and more deeply. Academia balances out the more insular aspects of their practice—like designing interactive experiences, or writing about particular projects—by broadening the scope, and shifts their approach to time from the short-term to the long-term.

“In design, it’s easy to get lost in each individual project, and to some extent that’s really healthy,” says Park. “But the interesting thing about teaching is that it allows you the space to ask yourself bigger questions. Not where you’re going to be tomorrow, but where you will be, and where the industry will be in five years or ten years.”


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