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Interview with 2024 Indigo Design award Gold Winner Xiaodong Ma

Updated: Jun 9

Xiaodong Ma is a Chicago-based Hybrid Industrial Designer and Visual Artist. He has been focusing on healthcare design and bicycle design since 2012 and used to work for Philips, iFIT, and Seismic. He currently is a Senior Industrial Designer at SRAM, driving the design development of bicycle products and improving the cycling experience. Xiaodong Ma has over five years of mentoring Junior Designers and Design Interns and has made significant contributions to both industrial design and visual art. He believes designers have the responsibility of bringing compelling design concepts into reality via collaborating with multiple stakeholders. Xiaodong's industrial design projects have won numerous international awards, including the MUSE Design Award Platinum, IF Product Design Award, A’ Design Award, IDA Design Award, and Red Dot Design Award. Additionally, after receiving his MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2019, Xiaodong has been exploring the intersection between art and design for years with an unwavering obsession with the simplicity and intricacy of nature and man-made. His visual artworks have been widely exhibited and recognized internationally, with exhibitions in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, China, South Korea, France, and Germany.


Xiaodong Ma
Xiaodong Ma

Xiaodong, your work uniquely bridges the worlds of visual art and industrial design. Can you elaborate on how your experiences in these two fields complement each other, and how they collectively influence your approach to new projects?


My background is in industrial design. Industrial design, as a part of the commercial market, has always focused on 'problem-solving,' lacking opportunities for the creator's 'self-expression.' So, in 2016, in my third year of work, I resigned from my position at a design studio and began a three-year MFA program at CCA. I used to perceive design and art as two distinct (even opposing) fields—design being objective and rational (problem-solving), and art being subjective and emotional (self-expression). During my three years in the CCA MFA program (2016-2019), I was fully immersed in an interdisciplinary environment, surrounded by project teammates from various professional backgrounds (art, chemical engineering, programming, finance, etc.). For the first time, I encountered the overlapping realms of design and art, which made me realize that both fundamentally involve creation, and the results of creation to some extent reflect the creator's 'self' (whether intentional or unintentional). It is this 'self'—with its identity, experiences, and values—that repeatedly creates options and makes decisions during the creative process.


Since graduating from CCA, I have continued to work in traditional industrial design while also creating in the fields of visual art and speculative design. Through my creations, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the 'self.' I once doubted whether I could manage both, but after adapting to this creative rhythm, I discovered that industrial design and visual art inspire and enhance each other in my work. Pursuing both paths has given me greater creative confidence. For example, my visual art piece 'Reformation: Shadow Evolution' was completed incidentally during the paper modeling process of a commercial design project. While making paper mockups for industrial design, I was captivated by the positive and negative spaces created by the paper models under light. This led to the creation of a shadow-related visual piece, blurring the boundaries between spaces and using three-dimensional objects to create black-and-white two-dimensional effects.


BabyPoops
BabyPoops

Congratulations on your recent successes at the 2024 Indigo Design Award. Could you walk us through the conceptual and developmental processes of the 2e- project and BABYPOOPS? What were the main challenges and innovations involved in these projects?


Thank you! I am honored to have won two Gold Awards at the 2024 Indigo Design Awards. "2e-" and "BabyPoops" are two distinct and independent projects. "2e-" addresses societal issues (recycling industrial waste), while "BabyPoops" was inspired by my personal experience of becoming a father for the first time.



2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process
2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process


2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process


Global copper demand and production are continually increasing; however, traditional methods of refining and recycling copper waste have become significant sources of pollution. "2e-" offers a sustainable alternative to traditional recycling processes by transforming scrap copper into elegant crystal jewelry using electrolysis. The "2e-" collection was created to explore the aesthetic potential of industrial waste and encourage innovation in material-recycling processes. Inspired by electroplating, an electrolysis process commonly used in surface cleaning of metals. I wondered, what if the electrolysis technique was used in metal forming instead of plating? After four months of experimentation with electrolysis, I explored the diverse crystal forms of scrap copper by controlling the electrolysis process and manipulating the anode, cathode, voltage, current, and density of the sulfate solution. "2e-" is the first design project using electrolysis to form geometric shapes, so I faced many challenges during research, testing, and design. This included understanding the principles of electrolysis, setting up experimental processes and facilities, exploring the different forms of electrolysis copper crystals, identifying the variables affected by the electrolysis process, and redesigning electrolysis copper crystals into wearable fashion jewelry.



BabyPoops
BabyPoops


BabyPoops: A Memory Game for First-time Parents to Decipher Health Codes of Newborns


"BabyPoops" is an educational tool designed to assist first-time parents in understanding and interpreting the health implications of their newborn's poop colors and textures. This game offers a fun and interactive way to enhance parental confidence and knowledge in early childcare. The memory game includes 15 tokens and 15 info cards, each representing different colors and textures of various types of newborn poop. Players take turns drawing tokens and matching them with the corresponding info cards. Correct matches earn points, and players can discuss and learn about the health implications of each type. Through interactive gameplay, parents gain confidence in understanding their baby's digestive health. The main challenge of this project was calibrating the color chips and confirming the related health information with pediatricians. I spent two months interviewing experienced pediatricians and first-time parents to gather their pain points and concerns about newborn health conditions.


2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process
2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process


Since 2012, you have focused significantly on healthcare and bicycle design, including your current role at SRAM. How do you incorporate user experience and functionality into your designs, and what role does sustainability play in your creative process, especially in projects like the Copper-Recycling Process?


Certainly! Sustainability is always a key consideration when evaluating design work and processes, particularly in the realm of medical and healthcare products. Many medical supplies require regular replacement, such as the headgear and cushions of household respiratory devices. These disposable medical components cannot be reused, so managing the waste generated by these products is an essential part of the product development cycle. Similarly, bicycle products have their own lifecycle, with various components needing replacement due to wear and tear or damage during use.


Today, some companies even have dedicated sustainable design research teams to explore new recyclable processes and composite materials before product development begins. Beyond my professional work, sustainability is also a significant theme in my personal projects. For example, in the project that recently won a gold award, "2e-," I explored various designs for recycling copper waste. I considered creating a furniture series by casting copper waste into molds, repurposing copper waste into copper shavings as reinforcement materials for recyclable products, and using waste copper wires, threads, and pipes to craft a series of lamps using traditional bamboo weaving techniques.


The common perception of recycled products often involves sacrificing some performance and aesthetics for sustainability. To challenge this traditional notion, I chose to explore the potential beauty of industrial copper waste through electrolysis in the initial stages of the project. I selected jewelry as the medium for this recycling design because the stark contrast between industrial copper waste generated by mass production and the elegance of jewelry can more effectively prompt viewers to reconsider the immense potential for recycling industrial waste and encourage innovation in material-recycling processes.


2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process
2e-: Innovation of Copper-Recycling Process

With over five years of experience mentoring junior designers and interns, what key pieces of advice do you find yourself repeatedly giving to up-and-coming designers? How do you approach leadership in design projects to foster innovation and creativity?


In the ever-evolving landscape of design and artistry, continuous learning is paramount. Stay curious, attend workshops, enroll in online courses, and keep abreast of industry trends to remain at the forefront of innovation. Remember, design is an iterative process; it's about embracing failure as a learning opportunity, prototyping often, and seeking feedback early and frequently. Always prioritize the end user, understanding their needs, behaviors, and pain points to create successful products. Effective communication is essential; convey your vision clearly through various mediums tailored to your audience. Collaboration is key; respect diverse perspectives and leverage the strengths of your team members for optimal results. Attention to detail is critical; ensure every aspect of your design is meticulously executed. As a leader, foster a safe environment for creativity, encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration, provide clear vision and goals, facilitate open dialogue and feedback, led by example, and offer resources and support to nurture innovation and creativity.



Your journey involves a profound cross-cultural understanding and has led to international recognition. How have your global experiences shaped your artistic and design philosophies? Additionally, how do you see your role as a bridge between different artistic and cultural expressions in the global design community?


Absolutely! My design ethos is deeply intertwined with my cultural roots, stemming from my upbringing in China. I firmly believe that cultural expression in design goes beyond mere symbolism; it's a nuanced reflection of values and perspectives. China's vibrant design community and forward-thinking enterprises constantly embrace innovation and technology. The accessibility of materials and production resources facilitates the rapid translation of emerging trends into practical, everyday products. In recent years, we've witnessed the emergence of iconic brands like DJI, Xiaomi, and NIO, whose innovative offerings have earned global acclaim, showcasing China's prowess in the international design arena.


Interviewer: Zin



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