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Design As Catalyst

Zhuowen Wang

Zhuowen Wang is a designer based in Shenzhen / London. Originally from China, she studied industrial design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She is now a graduate of the Royal College of Art with a MA degree in Design Products. As a young Chinese who lived and studied in Australia and the UK for 7 years, she constantly absorbs and filters valuable ideas from western countries based on her own culture. This has made her become an open, critical, multidisciplinary designer. During these years of study, she also worked as a brand strategist and design strategist. Her design mainly translates her personal perspectives into practice, using design thinking to observe, express and solve design problems.

Show Location: Battersea campus: Studio Building, Third floor

Open, Creative & Critical

Observing the small in our ordinary lives helps me transform insights into my design. I see objects as mediums for empowering people and caring about individuals. All of my designs express my vision of the world.


The following project UNDER is my graduation design at the Royal College of Art. It is a critique of the open-plan office, a desk that amplifies workers' rights and humanises the working environment.

The outbreak of the pandemic has accelerated mixed work patterns. Working from home makes people reconsider their inner needs and allows workers to make their own choices about the way of work. For this project, psychological comfort is the most valuable benefit of WFH, allowing open-plan offices to rethink work autonomy. While work autonomy is related to the right of decision-making in the workplace, conceptually, it is about whether employees have a choice about how their work is done. It allows workers to use their own methods to achieve production goals. Employees have more opportunities to develop self-confidence in a workplace that supports autonomy, thereby gradually increasing their sense of self-worth.

Open design, decided by managers and planners for efficiency reasons, can mean "loss of privacy, loss of control, loss of the powerless people working in the space." Design-centric space management strategies still assume that management retains prerogative control over the workspace. Disempowerment in the workplace has been found to produce a sense of alienation and discomfort (Knight and Haslam, 2010).

Individuals' needs are ignored at the workplace, and their personal spaces are easily invaded, making them feel unsecured in their working environment. And these lead to the feeling of being working machines or tools. The phrase territory in the workplace is defined as a space owned or occupied by a person or group, where occupants perceive that they control access to the space and activities. But open-plan offices are actually against this human nature behaviour, So it will lead to workers' passive-aggressive behaviours such as pretending working tactics.


Knight, C. and Haslam, S.A., 2010. The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered offices: An experimental examination of the impact of workspace management strategies on well-being and productivity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(2), p.158.

Sitting* The chair is not included in the design.
* The chair is not included in the design.
* The chair is not included in the design.

In bureaucratic, top-down open-plan office design, we are confined to desks and lose the autonomy to choose how we work. However, the epidemic outbreak has accelerated the process of the hybrid work model. When we return to the office from home, it becomes a node for us to rethink how we work.

Open-plan offices take away employees’ autonomy on multiple levels. Work autonomy allows workers to achieve production goals in their way, but we are all compelled by company rules and regulations to unify the way we work. Individuals’ true needs are ignored in the work scene.

UNDER is a high office desk designed for open-plan offices, brings a new working culture and humanises the working environment. Rebuilding the space under the desk offers workers personal enclosures and satisfies their inner needs. Every worker has their own desk; everyone has their own resilient place. This is an option that has never been offered in the offices before. Exploring the vertical space provided by office desks challenges the top-down office interior design and amplifies workers’ rights in the limited spaces. Also, the direct use of standing-height tables encourages users to switch between standing and sitting with more flexibility and healthy spontaneous alternation.

This work breaks people’s perceptions about an office desk: every single desk provides a new space. The desk itself comes with its context, which can be understood directly by the audience; it is an office desk with an under space to go in. Behind that, the design respects and protects the diversity of each individual and offers work autonomy for people to have choices about their way of work.


Valchromat MDF, Reeded Acrylic, Fabrics, Steel Pipes


Personalised Space, media item 3

Audiences decorated the desk and the space with their own belongings to make it become their own territories.

Valchromat MDF: an eco-friendly material with high density

Reeded acrylic: blurs the sight, offers privacy and transparency

The steel pipes: powder-coated in RAL color 1021

*Special thanks to the people who helped with my design process. ❤️