Making the Pie Bigger: How Technology is Changing the Work of Design

By Stephanie Chan

At the recent Innovators’ Circle event organized by AmCham’s Innovation and Technology Committee, designers, educators and entrepreneurs from different industries and backgrounds came together to discuss trends in design in Hong Kong.

Much of the discussion centered around innovative technologies that are giving designers new ways to collaborate.

Deep Collaboration

In the world of software and web design, so-called “deep collaboration” tools make it possible for teams to work together in real time on design projects. 

“Deep collaboration” refers to tools which combine productivity and collaboration functionality in one place.1

For digital designers, the most popular deep collaboration tool is Figma, which is used for UI/UX design, graphic design, and wireframing. Instead of hopping between separate apps for project management, design, and collaboration–sending files and feedback back and forth via Dropbox, email and Slack–team members can design, comment and make changes within a single browser window.

This type of collaborative prototyping is now the norm in the world of software design–part of a larger wave of productivity applications like Miro, Notion, and Lucid that emphasize frictionless teamwork; a “single source of truth” for all team members; and end-to-end project management.

Industrial Design and Architecture

Such applications are ideal for industries that trade in ideas and digital products, but architects and designers of physical products face different challenges when it comes to collaborating in the cloud.

Leon Yoong leads the Techtronic Design division of Techtronic Industries as a senior vice-president. His team’s product development process involves different continents working around the clock to design highly specified and engineered products—power tools, vacuum cleaners, outdoor tools—that meet exacting manufacturing, quality and regulatory standards.

“[We’re] doing industrial design for manufacturing,” Yoong says. “What you design goes to print, goes to tooling. Those types of outputs require a disciplined system and its backbone needs to be fully 3D capable.” 

The CAD (computer-aided design) programs used by Yoong’s team, like SolidWorks, Creo, Rhino, Fusion 360 and Unigraphics NX, have highly sophisticated engines, and each is useful for different aspects of the design and development process. Any company hoping to be “the Figma of product design” would have to overcome high barriers to entry to meet his team’s needs.

But it seems to be mostly a matter of time before product design software becomes more agile and collaborative. Massachusetts-based SaaS startup Onshape aims to disrupt the industry by combining sophisticated CAD functionality with data management, real-time collaboration tools, and business analytics. (Onshape was acquired in 2019 by PTC, which owns Creo.) Other CAD vendors like Dassault Systèmes and Autodesk are also investing heavily in bringing their products to the cloud and making them more collaborative. 

In architecture, too, the meaning of collaboration is quickly changing. VR-enabled programs like SpaceForm use immersive, real-time technology adapted from video games to let architects and clients walk through a digitally rendered building together. Although mainly oriented toward presenting designs, and not intended to replace traditional modelling software like AutoCAD, SpaceForm offers new ways for architects to share their work and exchange feedback.


In comparison, the apparel industry is still at the very beginning of its digital design journey. Many designers still sketch by hand, often on paper; concepts are translated to real life via multiple physical samples, couriered around the world at great financial and environmental expense. 

However, the industry–pushed by changing consumer behaviors, shrinking margins, and concerns about sustainability–is starting to adapt, aided by developments in cloth simulation and material scanning technology.

One reason for fashion’s slow embrace of CAD is that these technologies weren’t up to the task for a long time–a dealbreaker for highly tactile clothing designers.

“If you really are into fashion, you love the touch and feel of garments,” says Jackie Lewis, chief content curator for Motif, an online learning platform for the apparel industry. “Some designers have found it quite hard to make that transition.”

Today, databases of virtual materials include comprehensive information about each asset’s physical properties–the weight of a button, the amount of stretch in a fabric. Technical elements, like the hidden linings that give a dress its drape or a shirt collar its stiffness, can be represented with ease. 

As a result, the virtual prototypes created by programs like Clo 3D and VStitcher are so convincing they can replace multiple rounds of physical samples. They can also be used to sell to wholesalers (thereby shortening the time to market), and to engage retail customers through e-commerce and AR/VR experiences.

Growing the Design Pie

Like their counterparts in industrial design, makers of 3D CAD programs for apparel are starting to emphasize collaboration. Industry leaders CLO and Browzwear have each introduced SaaS platforms for real-time collaboration and supply chain management. All team members can review and comment on the exact same asset, instead of struggling to communicate fit and placement tweaks over email.

“Designers used to sketch something then hand it over to a tech designer, then to the factories,” Simon Kim, CEO of CLO, told industry website Business of Fashion. “It was all based on handing over parts of the design process. Now, you can string all this expertise together. The factories, vendors, manufacturing and creation of a sample — we can gather all of those creativities, meaning that we can detect flaws and improve the designs early on.”

Not only are new collaborative technologies enabling non-designers to weigh in on the design process, they’re also allowing designers to innovate and reach across disciplines. Joseph Wong, executive director of the Hong Kong Design Centre, cites the example of costume designers.

While they have limited entry points into traditional careers, Wong says, “If they start to design for games, using the same understanding [of] design, there’s actually a whole new territory.” Designers can take their real-life knowledge of clothing construction and human movement and apply it to figures and characters of fantastical proportions and textures. “[Tech] cannot replace [some degree of] manual craft. But I always see tech as opening up new territory–making the pie bigger.”

Motif will host its annual 3D Tech Festival exploring the impact of 3D and digitization on fashion and apparel from September 21-23 online.