Finding his ikigai through design

@March 27, 2019 6:40 AM (GMT+8)·

10 min read

Deputy Director of SIT and 2009 DesignSingapore Council Scholar Jawn Lim opens up about his inspiring story in finding his ikigai, pursuing a PhD in Harvard, and the modern challenges that design can solve.

Study models and photos of Hall Winery. Jawn has worked on the design development and Construction document phases for the Hall Winery design.


Jawn Lim is an accomplished designer and polymath, with skills in traditional architectural practices, academic studies on science fiction design, business management and teaching. He started as a young child who had a vivid imagination and a proclivity for hands-on experiences. Fascinated with scenography from a young age, Jawn would imagine his room as a sandbox of ideas, and transform his immediate landscape into a playground of architectural experiments. In school he excelled at subjects such as art, art history, and woodwork. However, his mother advised him to choose a more stable and generic profession, and he pursued more typical science subjects instead. He did not excel in school in he traditional sense, and was certainly not a straight-A student.

At the National University of Singapore (NUS), Jawn seized an opportunity and changed his course selection to Architecture at the last minute. He took his placement test amongst other peers who got straight-As in school, and Jawn had a stimulating experience building a bridge out of paper and designing a bus stop, amongst other hands-on tasks. Getting to do what he was passionate in made the work he did so much better and so much more and inspiring. He was admitted into NUS’ Architectural Undergraduate programme while his peers with paper perfect scores were not. It was a powerful experience for him, and he understood how grades-based education has its limitations in uncovering the true potential of a person. Jawn realized that only when he pursued the course he was passionate in, he got more As than he ever did before.

As a testament to his dedication and hard work spent honing his craft, Jawn was granted early admission to the Masters programme at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) with his spectacular two-year undergraduate portfolio. The years he spent in his Masters’ programme and working in California truly shaped his journey as a designer. Jawn learnt three interesting lessons at SCI-Arc that he still carries with him today: first, crazy and ugly are seen as good words, second, grades do not matter in graduate school as much as effective learning, and third, when a hang glider frame he built got stolen right in front of him, he realized that his work must be really good if someone was willing to steal it. These unconventional lessons inspired his design practice and gave new dimensions to the work that he does. During his time in California, Jawn also came into contact with concept artists and designers who were involved in the Hollywood scene – from Christian Lorenz Scheurer to Mark Goerner, Jawn was inspired by these passionate graphic and concept designers who worked on the latest science fiction films in Hollywood. At this point, he felt compelled to further study their practice, and was admitted into the Harvard Graduate School of Design to write his doctoral thesis on concept design in Hollywood. Breaking new ground by researching into a new field of academia, Jawn has pushed the boundaries of how design is a relevant form of thinking and creating that is worth studying at the highest levels.

Understanding how design can be a holistic process from the inception of an idea to its execution, and keeping the big picture in mind, will breed success in the field.


The DesignSingapore Council (Dsg) awarded Jawn a scholarship in 2009 to pursue his Doctorate, and upon returning Jawn felt compelled to give back to the organisation and the design community in Singapore. He joined Design Thinking and Innovation Academy at Dsg, aimed at companies who would benefit from learning design thinking and design services. He was also part of the judging committee for the 2018 Dsg Scholarship, granting opportunities to bright young minds to pursue their passion in design. Just last year, Jawn has also set up the Singapore branch of Speculative Futures, an initiative originally started in Silicon Valley. He runs this with the aid of fellow Dsg members via the Design Associate Network (DAN), to create a space where designers, futurists, and planners can come together to create new possibilities for the future, and understand current problems while designing solutions to them.

Jawn conducting the launch of Speculative Futures Singapore Chapter, 28 Feb 2019, at the National Design Centre.


Jawn currently serves as a professor and Deputy Director at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), where he takes on a myriad of roles within and outside of the school. Not just versed in systems thinking and design thinking, Jawn also has an Advanced Certificate for Executives, in Management, Innovation, and Technology from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Able to speak to both designers and to businesspeople, Jawn leads the Campus Development Requirements Team that oversees the entire building and planning process for SIT’s new campus in Punggol. Beyond liaising with numerous stakeholders on large projects such as these, Jawn also teaches design to undergraduates at SIT. He lauds teaching as one of his most fulfilling roles, taking pride in nurturing bright young minds to be the next generation of influential designers. For Jawn, seeing students’ steady improvements and growth, and the eureka moment in their eyes, makes the mundane parts of his job all worth it.

Although Jawn has been with SIT for six years and counting, he does not like being boxed into a single industry or job scope. Beyond his teaching, designing, and management roles in school, Jawn also serves as an Innovation Consultant for OCBC Bank, and has worked on workplace transformation projects with The Grand Hyatt Singapore and Furama RiverFront, offering a design mindset to solve contemporary problems across a multitude of industries. He is also compiling a series of Service Design case studies surrounding small businesses, ranging from a bus company, to a robotics and coffee company, to serve as teaching and learning points in the classroom. In this flurry of cross-disciplinary activity and a wide range of projects and roles, Jawn feels that he has finally found his ikigai – being in a space where he teaches, consults, manages, and designs, bringing a design mindset and innovative spirit with him wherever he goes.


SIT@Punggol architectural model, designed in collaboration with architects WOHA and RSP

In this day and age, Jawn sees design as a multi-disciplinary field than will have an impact across many fields and professions. Beyond just designing physical products, it is the intangible services and products that are also emerging as crucial aspects of design. Understanding how design can be a holistic process from the inception of an idea to its execution, and keeping the big picture in mind, will breed success in the field.

To aspiring young people who wish to pursue design, Jawn’s advice is simply to go for it. In the myriad of positions one can occupy in the design world, it is important for one to find their own ikigai, and find the correct collusion of roles and responsibilities that fulfils one’s needs. Do not be afraid to learn from any industry, and understand that as a designer, one will always be able to see how things come together – a valuable asset that follows you wherever you go.

To find out more about the DesignSingapore Scholarship, click here.