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Living in a parallel universe through books: Interview with Kai Yeo, Partner and Creative Director of BUREAU

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Today’s book-talk is with Kai Yeo, partner and Creative Director of the BUREAU (for the advancement of lifestyle and longevity and success), a design studio based in Singapore that provides businesses and brands with a creative hand.

At the BUREAU they stretch the boundaries of graphic design, while occasionally experimenting with other forms, such as furniture, spatial and product design.

Kai Yeo is also the Design Lead and co-founder of Hutan Tropical, a modern outdoor lifestyle brand that designs, produces, markets, and distributes tropical goods for a variety of outdoor and urban activities. Hutan embodies Southeast Asia’s spirit and endorses an experiential lifestyle.

In our interview, he talks about the books that inspired his work, why personal projects are encouraged at his agency, how biographies can help us live in parallel universes and more. Enjoy!

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Right now it has to be Yvon Chouinard’s “Let My People Go Surfing“. I like that it is as much a pleasure to read, as it is inspiring for the work that I am doing now as the Design Lead for Hutan Tropical, an outdoor equipment and clothing brand that I started with a friend. So I guess that ticks both ‘business’ and ‘non-business’ boxes for me.

Yvon’s the founder of Patagonia, legendary climber, businessman and environmentalist. The book’s original intent was to be a philosophical manual for the employees of Patagonia but it has so much relevance and inspiration for what I am doing now in building Hutan as a responsible outdoor equipment company. Yvon has set a minimum standard for what everyone who is new to the industry should aspire to.

At Bureau we run a small tight team where everyone takes on multiple roles so we’re really mindful that can be mentally draining at times. We’re not that hard about coming in on time because people do stay late. Personal projects are encouraged because they do inspire our day to day work and helps us stay sharp. It also gives you something to be passionate about. I wish we could take off in the mornings to go surfing too but there’s no surf here, which is a pity. We did recently start working out together and I’m really happy we did. I hope it becomes a regular thing.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?

While I enjoy reading, I don’t consciously seek lessons from it. I read to be entertained. I love biographies because you get to live someone else’s adventure through their words, sort of like living in a parallel universe through books.

Restaurant Man” by Joe Bastianich has a lot of street wisdom. A line in the book stuck — “it’s better to stay lukewarm for twenty years than hot for six months“. It sounded counter-intuitive but for the first restaurant he wanted to build, Bastianich decided early on he wasn’t going to have a trendy restaurant fizzle out in a few months. Being consistently good made far better business sense.

From military books you learn that small team tactics demand each soldier in the team to be cross-trained — you may be a demolition man by trade but you are also trained to be a proficient radio operator and a medic. In a similar vein, we try to get our people at Bureau involved in different aspects of the business when we can. Seeing through a project by getting hands dirty with the unsexy bits of design does a lot of good. It can be stressful and I just hope they don’t hate us for it because helps everyone understand the process better and you grow better as a designer that way.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

I have a decent collection of (mainly modern) military non-fiction. I suspect I would have made a career out of the military if not for design. I still do think about it every now and then, but the time you get to spend out in the field is rather short so it scares me a little, especially since I didn’t really fancy a desk-bound job in the military. It’s kinda ironic now that I am glued to the screen because of work. The number of hours put into crafting good design work is insane.

What five books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why?

Read all kinds of books that are not just design related. Be a sponge and a cultural junkie if you will. Because design isn’t the end game and it can be informed and inspired by so many other things.

However, if you’re really into design thinking, then the Design Observer might be a nice place to look. It started as a design blog run by some of the most respected designers in the industry like Steven Heller, Michael Bierut, Jessica Helfand, Paula Scher etc. I think it has now grown into something much bigger, so there’s a bunch of interesting and useful design content. It’s great because it’s free too!

'I love biographies because you get to live someone else’s adventure through their words, sort of like living in a parallel universe through books.' - book-talk with Kai Yeo, partner & Creative Director of BUREAU #books #entrepreneurs Click To Tweet

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How do you make time for reading? How often do you read? What format do you prefer?

Something printed that can be fitted into cargo pockets. You can take them anywhere and not worry about battery life. I’d get totally absorbed by a book and spend hours in the toilet to the horror of my wife.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I think if something has made enough impact on me it will stick no matter what. So no I don’t usually make notes. I don’t treat books like textbooks. It somehow takes the joy out of reading.

How do you choose what books to read next? Do you prioritize the books recommended by certain people?

I’d love to get my hands on Giulia Mensitieri’s ‘The Most Beautiful Job in the World’, but I think it’s yet to be translated into English. An industry outsider, Giulia’s academic study became a book that exposed the way young creatives in the fashion industry have been exploited, such as being paid expensive vouchers yet left without proper salary for rent and phone bills. Guardian did a story on it so it must be worth a read.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

Some books on woodworking because my partner at Hutan and I are designing and creating machete handles ourselves. Honestly you’re better off watching Youtube videos!

Links where you can follow Kai Yeo or learn more about his projects:

All books mentioned by Kai Yeo in our interview:

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