30-30 Weiyan Chen Joyce Li In Merry Motion cover shot.png

We’ve met people who have their s&!# together, and then we’ve met people who don’t pretend they do. Weiyan and Joyce run In Merry Motion (IMM), a design studio that specializes in designing celebrations. Yes, that does mean that they’ve had to field the ‘but what exactly do you do’ question more than most of us. But as trained designers who have broken new ground, they themselves had a difficult time conceptualizing IMM.

Today IMM has not only gained the attention of couples to wed, but also has a place in the heartlands - early this year, they worked with the National Library Board to organize pop-up craft parties in the public libraries. More recently, IMM has been commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project, spearheaded by the Ministry of Communcations and Information. This is their story.

In Merry Motion with their clients, John & Sher

In Merry Motion with their clients, John & Sher

Q: What is In Merry Motion and what do you do?
Joyce (J): In Merry Motion (IMM) is a celebration and experience design studio. We design celebrations, so basically what we do is to go into the spaces of the celebration, conceptualize the space, and think about things like the mood, atmosphere, and what we’re trying to achieve.

A bulk of what we do is weddings, but we’re starting to branch into more community projects, where we bring our craft out into the public. As long as we’re given a chance to design a space, we’ll take it. For us it’s a lot about changing up spaces. Our main medium is handicrafts, so whatever we produce has that personal touch that people can experience.

Q: And how did you guys start?
Weiyan (W): It started with Joyce’s sister’s wedding. Joyce was sharing her frustration over the exorbitant prices people were charging for templates that were the same as everyone else’s. We both didn’t see why someone had to be subjected to only templates when it was their special day, and we began talking about using design thinking, something we had learnt in school, to branch into celebrations.

J: In a way we started also because we were naïve. We knew we wanted to do this because we didn’t want to go the route of traditional industrial design, but we didn’t think about the risks involved. IMM was the only option we felt very strongly for, so we dived in without a plan. All we did was to give ourselves a year.

In Merry Motion setting up Chinese New Year embellishments at OCBC flagship branches in 2014

In Merry Motion setting up Chinese New Year embellishments at OCBC flagship branches in 2014

W: We did do some research and found that there was nothing like IMM at that time, and we wanted to get started before anyone else. To be honest it was hard to put down what we wanted IMM to be because there was nobody to reference! It started with a big idea, which we only narrowed down much later. For a whole 6-8 months we didn’t really know what we wanted to do or how to describe what we’re doing until we kept doing it to get a clearer understanding of what we did. Now we can firmly say “no, we’re not planners, we’re designers!”

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Q: So you gave yourselves a year to get IMM off the ground. How did that go?
J: It was a big struggle. We both had never worked in a company before IMM, so we had no idea how to run a company. We didn’t know anything about processes, structure – nothing.

Obviously the most pressing thing for us then was finances. For the first three months we took an allowance from our parents, and we gave ourselves an allowance (not a salary) for the next three months.

We didn’t know how to find clients or how much to charge, so IMM really started with friends and family. Our first big celebration was a baby’s first birthday – my sister’s best friend’s baby. That was our starter project; we couldn’t figure out our pricing and after the event we realized our material fee and what we charged were practically the same. But we learnt from there.

Weiyan's sister's wedding in 2011

Weiyan's sister's wedding in 2011

Our next big project was Weiyan’s sister’s wedding, which gave us a taste of what IMM is and could become. We also worked out our dynamics during that project and started nutting out job delegation. But to be honest when we first started everything we did felt like a school project.

W: Yes, although I have to add that one of the reasons why we started IMM together is because we had worked on one school project together and it went incredibly well. We would be working at 4am and still be able to make each other laugh. So ever since then we’ve known that we can make it through tough times together.

Q: So when was your first big break?
fW: We struggled for many months, and in our fifth month we got an enquiry. The project wasn’t till our eighth month though.

J: The enquiry was a one-liner email from Shiao-Yin, who’s the director of The Thought Collective, asking about our fees.

W: She had heard about us through word-of-mouth; a friend’s best friend’s fiance had casually mentioned us – and Shiao-Yin and him aren’t close friends, either!

Q: Okay so tell us how this break went down.
J: We met her at Food For Thought (her turf!) and we were suuuuper nervous. She’s incredibly creative so she just started showing us her moodboard and what she had in mind, and in a lot of ways she laid the groundwork for our processes today. She used terms like “mood” and “atmosphere” and asked for what we could offer and what we had done.

W: The meeting didn’t seal the deal yet because she wanted a quotation, which freaked us out. We had no idea how to do that!

Q: And how did you settle on pricing in the end?
W: We knew the market rate and we also knew we wanted to position ourselves differently – a lot of our “competitors” include a planning fee, but we’re not planners. We tried the usual methods – how many hours it would involve, the lead time to the wedding... then we just gave a figure that we felt was fair and justifiable. Gut feeling!

In Merry Motion won Somerset 313's snow dome competition in 2011

In Merry Motion won Somerset 313's snow dome competition in 2011

J: There was one thing she said that really touched us. She talked about how she didn’t know why she wanted to trust us, but she wanted to give us her wedding as a canvas for our portfolio. As an entrepreneur herself she was familiar with all our struggles, and she just wanted to help.

Q: What did you learn from that project?
W: We really exercised our design thinking skills and pushed ourselves to the limit. We worked with an amazing team at Food For Thought, who went all out to help their boss create the perfect wedding. We also learnt a lot from the team from a design perspective – they taught us things about the textures of a wedding.

But I’m not going to say it was easy – it was super tough! We had so many ideas but no idea where to get our materials. We spent a lot of time searching for things we needed.

Q: So have you guys resolved your pricing issues?
W: It took us a while to get the hang of it. We wanted a system where it would be fair to both parties, so the way we approached pricing is that we earn from our creative and consultation fees. We factor in logistics and set-up fees, as well as material fees, but we don’t earn from these things. Pricing fairly to us also means that we think about how much experience we have at that point in time and how much we need for a project to tide us through.

Craft parties at NLB

Craft parties at NLB

Q: How did you land the crafting parties at NLB?
fW: It was quite random. We first met Selene, the person-in-charge at the only flea market we’ve participated in – the market itself was a mistake (because we were more of a service provider than a “shop”), but it led to this project. So she brought the stickers that she had bought from us to work, and our friend from university, Annusia (who works with NLB), recognized our work and clued her in on what we do. It helps to have friends who believe so strongly in you/your work. 

Handcrafted rice dumplings created by In Merry Motion for the craft parties at NLB

Handcrafted rice dumplings created by In Merry Motion for the craft parties at NLB

Selene works in the arts and culture department of NLB and was sourcing for vendors for Press Play. She asked us to pitch and quote for the project.

Q: Have you learnt anything from the project?
fJ: Yes, never belittle anything that you do. It pays to put yourself out there – we actually dreaded the flea market but this project came out of that, and who knows what will come out of all the crafters who joined us at the parties?

Q: Starting out is always the hardest part, and as you guys said, you struggled with your finances at the beginning. Did you ever take on freelance jobs?
W: Yes, when we first started. We took on freelance graphic design jobs for over a year to make ends meet. The reality of our job is that we spend a lot of time talking to clients outside, and we needed a budget for hosting those meetings. We took on freelance jobs even though they weren’t in line with IMM because it was just something we had to do. But those jobs made us realize what we didn’t like and what took a toll on us, so we phased those out.

Q: What were some of your biggest mistakes?
W: I think we’ve learnt from experience that it’s important to manage expectations because not doing that will lead to an unhappy working relationship. When we started we didn’t make it clear that we weren’t planners and coordinators, and managing that side of the project detracted us from what we were actually there to do.

J: A lot of times our clients slowly become friends, and as with friends you always want to give more. There were times when we were expected to give more than we had promised because that’s what friends do! The trouble happens when we don’t manage their expectations.

In Merry Motion at home in their new studio. Jomaine (middle) is their first full-time hire.

In Merry Motion at home in their new studio. Jomaine (middle) is their first full-time hire.

Q: You two recently moved into your awesome studio. What’s the difference between working out of your homes and here?
J: We now can separate work and rest. When we were working from home the routine would be something like you wake, you work, you have breakfast and walk around in the kitchen before going back to work. There was no spatial or mental distinction between work and rest. The biggest difference is formalizing IMM – being able to wake up at a fixed time everyday, get dressed and work here till 6pm, and take a mental break for the rest of the day.

W: It’s not that we didn’t enjoy working from home; because so much of our support team is family it made sense to work from there. But working out of a studio has helped us with mental transitions – we can go to lunch for an hour and take a midday break.

Weiyan's family

Weiyan's family

Joyce's family

Joyce's family

Q: Do you have a support team and are they supportive?
W: Yes. My family may appear like they’re not supportive because they constantly give us reality checks, but they’re the most supportive people I have. Joyce’s mom helps us out with our crafting, and she’s always coming up with intelligent shortcuts for our processes so we can eat on time or get more sleep. She volunteers to help us out during her free time because she says she has nothing else to do, and she never complains even though we know that crafting can be physically demanding.

J: My brother Benjamin always makes time to help us set up. He’ll ask for the dates way in advance and always makes a point to clears his schedule.

Q: Were there people who weren’t supportive?
W: Coming from a school where the culture is ‘you’re only a designer if you join these firms or practice pure industrial design,’ some of our juniors and peers were skeptical and told us that we weren’t ‘real designers’.

J: But with that said, our teachers have been incredibly supportive. When we first started we weren’t sure if what we were doing was really design, and they helped us find ownership and conviction in our roles. We were afraid to approach them at first but when we did they gave us advice, career opportunities, and our prof gave the same kinds of privileges that they offer to other alumni industrial/product design practicing studios.

Joyce and Weiyan graduating from NUS School of Industrial Design in 2011

Joyce and Weiyan graduating from NUS School of Industrial Design in 2011

W: Our affirmation came when they asked us to appear in their DID (Division of Industrial Design) video geared at potential incoming students. The video is meant to showcase the career possibilities of studying Industrial Design at NUS.

Q: Do you see yourselves doing the same thing over the next five years?
J: Yes and no. I think we’ll keep doing the things we feel very strongly about. We will never stop designing weddings per se, but it’ll be about balancing fewer weddings with more experimental projects.

Because of our design background, we always prioritize the design process, which some clients don’t get. As long as the project allows us to exercise our design thinking and bring something new to the space, we’ll definitely jump in.

We’re starting to move into more public-based projects, like crafting parties at public libraries. These projects really excite us because we’re showing more people the potential of craft and redefining what they already know.

W: A big part of moving to the public realm is because we didn’t want to be so exclusive about our craft. When we first started over two years ago we actually wanted to release a line of thoughtful and unexpected celebration products because we realized that the market was filled with theme-y products, but we never got around to doing it. The both of us have different dreams about how IMM can grow, actually. Joyce really wants to design the Christmas Orchard Road lights, and for me it’s more of using design as a tool to work on community-based projects. And even though they’re different dreams we’re still excited about both.

Joyce and Weiyan keeping sane during university days

Joyce and Weiyan keeping sane during university days

Joyce and Weiyan roadtripping through France as university students

Joyce and Weiyan roadtripping through France as university students

Q: How’s it like working with a friend?
J: I consider it a blessing. The best thing about working with a friend is the dynamic. We get each other; we know what we like and when each other is angry. It’s easy to react to difficult situations when you’re friends because it forces you to be sensitive to your friendship. It keeps us sane because our business isn’t just profit-driven, it’s about us growing together as friends.

W: I think that being in a working relationship where friendship takes precedence is important because good projects can only be generated from good working relationships. So having that friendship first allows us to tide through difficult situations. Like when we were first starting out, we both went through times where we weren’t sure if we could sustain IMM, but because you’re friends it was more like, I’m going to help my friend through this hard time. That still happens now.

In Merry Motion and their newly commissioned crates

In Merry Motion and their newly commissioned crates

I also believe that we both value IMM first, so a lot of our quarrels actually stem from us wanting to make IMM better. I know that Joyce will never intentionally say something to hurt me and vice versa, so we’ve learnt to put aside our pride, mend our friendship, strengthen our working relationship, and make the right decisions for IMM.

Q: Do you have any career advice to give?
W: Surround yourself with people whom you really like or would love to become. I’m not saying you should avoid naysayers because they provide reality checks, but it’s good to surround yourself with people who share the same values as you.

In Merry Motion Quote

Q: Now for the million dollar question: do you have to be trained in design to be a designer?
W: I think people are restricted by labels, and that everyone has a ‘designer’ in them that they flex in their everyday lives; it’s different from things like medicine or law which require years of training because you need a very specific set of skills. It’s debatable, but I feel like design requires more than just hard skills. So no, I don’t think you need to be trained in design to be a designer. Everyone is a designer in their own right.

In Merry Motion being photobombed in Beijing, China. Joyce and Weiyan travelled  to Beijing together for inspiration before setting up IMM.

In Merry Motion being photobombed in Beijing, China. Joyce and Weiyan travelled  to Beijing together for inspiration before setting up IMM.

J: Hard skills are important, and I feel you have to be design-trained to learn the hard skills well. But in terms of design thinking and conceptualizing – at the end of the day, everyone has the capacity to be creative in terms of what they do.

Design isn’t just about drawing or making something; it’s the way you think about stuff. Being design-trained helps with design thinking for sure, but you don’t have to be formally trained in that to be a designer.