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Student Story: Zheyuan Zhang, MA Innovation Design Engineering, 2018–

A black and white portrait
Zheyuan Zhang
Zheyuan Zhang joined the RCA Innovation Design Engineering programme having studied Industrial Design at Tongji University in Shanghai. Zheyuan’s interests lie in often ephemeral outcomes, including the understanding of emotions and visual perception, combining design methodology and scientific research.

What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA?

I did an Industrial Design degree at Tongji University in Shanghai. I was sure I was going to be a traditional industrial designer after graduation. But when I was doing an internship, one of my senior colleagues, who had graduated from IDE at the College, recommended the programme as a way to broaden my thinking and to help find my niche.

Why did you decide to study here?

What attracted me was how the programme highlights the importance of engineering, design and multidisciplinary collaboration. I found the idea challenging, and I wanted to be challenged. Plus, there’s the reputation of the College and the programme; it didn't take long to decide where to go for a Master’s degree.

A blue crescent-shaped object
Crescent, Zheyuan Zhang 2018

Can you describe what it’s like studying at the RCA?

We have an intense schedule in IDE. There are so many workshops and talks that, even if the subjects don’t seem to be immediately relevant to you, they find a way of being useful later on. All of the tutors, visiting staff and alumni are constantly pushing us to create more valuable innovations. There’s this great consistency with the tutors – both inside and out- of the RCA – providing motivation and support.

A silver box on the floor next to a chair
OHub, Zheyuan Zhang 2017

Have you been set any particular projects that have had a significant impact on your practice?

For one project, I created a visual therapy for people dealing with phobias. It was the first time I was able to combine design with solid scientific research, reading a lot of papers and talking with therapists and psychologists. I found that the basic emotions behind a phobia are a combination of fear and disgust, and that cuteness – which stimulates the sense of love and joy – can cancel out those negative feelings. So with images of cuteness, for example, I could target certain phobias with in combination with exposure therapy. That was a really informative experience, I was able to combine everything I was interested in and it’s helped set a path for me to follow.

A picture of the app interface for Cutia, alongside pictures of bees and wasps changed to have cartoon eyes
Cutia, Zheyuan Zhang 2018

How has your work and/or thinking changed or developed while you have been at the RCA?

It’s changed a lot. My mindset has shifted from being a passionate product designer to a passionate innovator in a broader sense. I don’t want to limit myself to be any one thing. Currently, I’m enjoying design research and science-based design. That’s been a huge change for me to combine cutting-edge technologies like deep learning and affective computing with design and it’s really broadened my view on what design can be.

What is the mixture of students like, and what are the benefits of being in an international community?

Previously, I only got the chance to work with other designers; now, I work alongside philosophers, psychologists, experts in computer science and mechanical engineering. It’s been a great opportunity to see the impact and potential of design thinking and collaboration. We have students from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds and we share knowledge. There’s a real sense of belonging within the entire group. It’s given me new ways of thinking.

An open device with labelled sections
Whisper, Aleesha Hamid, April (Ya-Ting) Hsu, Ege Savas, Zheyuan Zhang 2019

What are your plans for this year, and what do you intend to do after you graduate?

I want to continue to follow my interest in emotions and visual perception: that’s my main passion at the moment. Longer term, besides continuing to design in an aesthetic manner, I want to pursue research and development, working in a holistic sense, to have design and scientific research inform the final design product.

 Do you have any advice for students who are applying?

 Be prepared to adapt and try new things, be prepared to broaden your thinking. Be active and flexible, no matter what programme you apply to. Enjoy the openness you’ll find here.