"No matter where you are in the world, everyone’s living as complex and as intricate of a life as anyone else. At the end of the day, people are just people, and we’re all trying to get through each day in the best way we can"
Koheun Lee is a free-lance design thinking consultant who travels the globe consulting on design practice for microfinance and other organizations. Previously based out of Nairobi, Kenya, she is now hopping around the world living out of her travel bags and sense of open-eyed opportunity and adventure. She took some time out of her month long stint in New Zealand to answer some questions for us about good design, travel photos and home.
CoatRak: So you're in New Zealand currently, correct? What brought you there? How long will you be there?
Koheun Lee: Justin and I are coming off a three month contract with my former company. They had to fly us back somewhere, so we figured why not New Zealand?Justin has some childhood friends here. We visited them last November and loved it here so we decided to come back for Christmas and New Year's this year. We're here for another 10 days. We'll have been here for a month by the time we leave.
CR: Contract doing what? Do you two often work on projects together?
KL: This was the first project we’ve worked on together professionally. The larger project was a learning event to to teach upper management at microfinance institutions how to innovate within their organizations. Justin and I got to travel together to create a video to show as a teaser at the event.
CR: From what I see on social media and from Justin is that you bounce around quite a bit around the world, just a couple of months ago I think you were in Colombia, and then I think back in Kenya, and the pages you wrote were written in Myanmar, correct? What were you doing there? It's very hard to keep up with your globetrotting self. Have you always done this much traveling?
KL: I first boarded a plane before age two and have been "on the go" since. As for my travels this past year, they've been a combination of play and work. I quit my latest job a year ago now and have been contracting since. It's opened up more opportunities and made it easier to travel. I made a trip out to the states over the summer to visit Justin and meet his family, watch my sister graduate from college, and to attend a good friend's wedding in Colombia while I was on that side of the world. I was back in Kenya for a hot second before flying out to the Philippines, then back in Kenya before a 7-country work trip from October through December of the past year. I was on a couple projects, but the bigger one was for an event my company hosted in Singapore in December to bring innovation and design thinking to different microfinance organizations across Asia.
CR: Innovation and design thinking in microfinance organizations...now that is a world I am completely unfamiliar with. What does working with these organizations mean in your line of work?
KL: A lot of times, organizations like these don’t have access to the same resources as companies in the private sector because they serve the poor. I guess at the end of the day, to me, it means providing those working to improve the lives of the poor with methods and skills to support their work.
CR: You list your city of origin as Nairobi, Kenya. Have you lived there your whole life?
KL: I grew up in Kenya for most of my childhood through when i graduated from high school, minus three years in Ethiopia and a year here and there in the states.
CR: What's your favorite thing about Nairobi?
KL; Nairobi's a really neat city. Kenyans are total hustlers and there are so many cool things that are up and coming in the creative scene. I love the mix of people in the city.
CR: What are some “up and coming” creative things you’ve seen there you’re excited about?
KL: There’s a lot going on terms of promoting local designers and fashion. One of my best friends from childhood was part of creating the first urban african lifestyle retail store called The Urban Lifestyle Company, so that’s exciting for me.
CR: What was your least favorite thing living there?
KL: This is a total cop out answer, but I'd say "traffic."
CR: I think that’s a pretty universal sentiment. Haha. But I hear it’s exceptionally crazy there. Any pictures you can paint for us about what the traffic is like?
KL: Well on the one hand, there’s the whole “no rules” thing with driving, but mostly it’s just parts of the city turning into a parking lot during rush hour.
CR: Dipping in and out of languages and different customs gives you a pretty unique outlook on humanity. This may be a broad and difficult question to distill, but what seems to be a theme that keeps coming back to you (if there is one)?
KL: I think the easy answer is that no matter where you are in the world, everyone's living as complex and as intricate of a life as anyone else. At the end of the day, people are just people, and we're all trying to get through each day in the best way we can.
CR: Agreed. That’s basically why I have this project going - to show the essential sameness of trying to get through the day and live a good (but often hectic) life. So...I've noticed your "Koh on the Go" where you take a picture of yourself and photoshop it into another scene - almost like a paper cut-out doll of yourself. I love it! How did that start?
KL: #kohonthego started soon after I joined Instagram. I took a photography class during college and one of the topics for discussion was travel photography and why people feel the need to go to well-known places and sites and take their own photograph, when it's likely that a million (better) photos of the same place exist somewhere on the internet. Koh is my equivalent of a ceramic gnome. The idea came to me on a bus ride a couple years ago and since then, I've been creating a #kohonthego post (close to) every time I change locations.
CR: You’re so right - I’m a fan of anything that spins the quintissential “travel photo” trope. I think you do such a great and fun job of it. You label yourself as a "Design Thinking Consultant". What does this mean to you? How did you get into that field?
KL: Design thinking is essentially solution-focused thinking. It allows you to be creative in exploring solutions to problems. I was introduced to it at my former company - a social innovation company based out of Cambodia. They use design thinking, among other methods and techniques to help improve international development projects around the world. It's brought me to 10 or so countries in the past three years - working in the field with low-literacy rural populations to facilitating regional workshops with upper management of different organizations.
CR: Wow, what a wide range of demographics. And such a great opportunity to see the world in a unique way. Being a design-thinker, what do you think is inherently valuable about good design?
KL: I think what's valuable about good design is that it improves experiences. For example, a well designed service is intuitive - it doesn't take much effort on the user's end to figure it out. It's the difference between being greeted by someone from the airline and being ushered to the next gate when your flight's been delayed and arriving at an airport you've never been to, walking around looking for some signs, having the trek to the other side of the airport, running to your gate, all while the thought that you might miss your flight is on the back of your mind.
CR: True. Making a product or website or interface user-friendly cuts out more than half of the problems that people have in communicating or connecting their customers or constituents. Who are some design thinkers or artists (or just thinkers) that you admire currently or who have influenced you in general?
KL: I don't know if there are individuals I could call out by name, but I definitely admire people who have and are willing to approach life with open minds. I'm into people who innovate to make the world a better place. fastcompany.com is a great place to come across a bunch of folks like this.
CR: I don’t think I’ve ever spent any time on fastcompany.com. I’ll have to check it out. Where is a place you haven't gone that's on the top of your list right now?
KL: There's a countless number of places that I still want to go to. Tajikistan would be at the top of the list though because it's a big part of who Justin is that I have no reference for besides some stories here and there.
CR: That makes sense. It always seems to help to contextual people when you see where they grew up. When you’re globe-trotting, what are your go-to travel companions?
KL: My backpack. I did a ton of research before switching backpacks a few months ago. On the topic of good design - this backpack is spot on in terms of product design (for me). It comes with all the compartments I need, easy to access compartments, and fits under the seat in front of me. If i'm on a flight, I always travel with earphones, a neck pillow, and a scarf (because all airplanes are freezing).
CR: Sounds well thought out. And what backpack is that?
KL: The AER Fit Pack. It’s actually a city/gym bag, but I think it works great for travel.
CR: Do you ever have a hard time feeling grounded moving around a lot?
KL: There's no real place I call home and the places I do are different every time I return. I can't seem to stay put in one place for more than a few years at a time and I have to admit, I spend a lot of time wishing all the people and places I love were here, not there. I'm okay with not being grounded or based anywhere. I guess it feels like the world is getting smaller every day and I know that if I were ever to feel like I really need to be somewhere else to feel like I belong, it's just a plane ride away. I think it's also helpful to have friends planted all over the world and being able to access them online.
CR: That’s very true - going to see people far away is not as impossible as before. It’s interesting when you note that the places you return to are different every time you go back to them. I think about that often - about the dynamics of place and what composes the fabric of a place. It seems to be an elusive thing, contingent upon what people you know who are still there, or what their life status is, or if a landmark was renovated or torn down, or if that gypsy band plays in that bar still or not. All the little things that make up our memories and architecture of a place. Ok, finally, what does a "good" day look like to you? At the end of the day, what would be required to transpire for it to qualify as a good and deeply satisfying day?
KL: I think any day I'm tired and excited to go to bed is a good day. there's a lot of days that go wasted and I still feel stress-y or have a hard time falling asleep. I find it hard to go to bed when there is unfinished work or unresolved feelings. Take those out of the equation and I'm a happy camper.
CR: Completion equates peace of mind. Well, Koheun, thank you so much for taking the time out of your New Zealand adventures to talk with me. I hope we get to meet in person soon!