Are we design literate?

Jan 18, 2010 | English

Not yet, say industry pros, as they come together with initiatives to strengthen Singapore’s design culture and community. By LIM SIO HUI

(Published 8 January 2010 in The Business Times)

Unless you’re too young to remember, designers never used to enjoy the superstar status Philippe Starck and Milton Glaser are bestowed today.

‘When Phunk Studio first started 15 years ago, Singapore perceived design as a support for the manufacturing industry,’ remembers Jackson Tan, co-founder of the internationally successful art and design collective. ‘What we did was not considered design. People were not really sure what we were doing – design, art or whatever.’

Mr Tan, who is also the creative director of Black Design and who curated Singapore design showcases presented around the world in recent years (such as ’20/20′ and ‘New Wave – Singapore’s Contemporary Design Culture’), says that he has seen a change in the past decade. ‘There has been a paradigm shift; we’re seeing a new generation of designers and talents who are moving the design industry forward, gaining recognition on international platforms and starting to put an identity to Singapore design.’

Today, the industry has come of age with the introduction of a new industry association, The Design Society. It officially launches later this month a conference with two key events: a forum on design literacy which features in-depth talks by esteemed local design practitioners and educators on Jan 23; and an exhibition titled 100 Icons – a collection of Singapore’s logos, symbols, trademarks and icons, which runs from Jan 23 to 29 at The Plaza in the National Library Building.

Non-profit organisation

Founded by many respected names in the local industry, The Design Society is a non-profit organisation run by an executive committee that includes creative directors such as Mr Tan, Chris Lee of Asylum, Benjy Choo of Kilo Studio, Roy Poh of A Beautiful Design, and Hanson Ho of H55. The organisation focuses on the specialisation of graphic design, in particular, says president Chris Lee, and aims ‘to start a conversation within the community – we want designers to use this platform to exchange ideas, learn, and be inspired by each other’.

The Design Society is currently running workshops with schools, to facilitate this goal. Another area that the association will be working on is to archive design work in Singapore that will be a foundation of historic value, shares Mr Lee. Apart from the exhibition of Singapore icons, the association will be initiating publications aimed at the archival and documentation of graphic design in Singapore, starting with a biannual magazine that will be launched on Jan 23.

A book on the history of independent graphic design in Singapore is slated for the second quarter of the year. Mr Lee says: ‘Our dream is to have a permanent museum where we can showcase excellent works created in Singapore.’

So far, it has seen a tremendous response, with 1,200 members signing up within three months after the idea was mooted last June. ‘What’s encouraging is that all these members signed up so quickly, without knowing what our concrete plans were,’ says Mr Lee, ‘so we felt that what we were going to do resonated with the community.’

An industry united

Private sector associations might not be new, but they reflect a certain coming of age of the industry in concern. In Singapore’s creative sector, associations such as Designers Association Singapore, established in 1985, have led to the first handbook of accepted guidelines on the use and hiring of design consultancies. Singapore Institute of Architects, established in 1961, has strengthened the discipline’s public outreach through initiatives such as Archifest, while the Singapore Furniture Industries Council launched Singapore Mosaic, an umbrella brand that takes local manufacturers to prestigious trade fairs like Milan, which would only have been accepted on the strength of the group’s portfolio.

While companies and individuals who come together to promote and address industry needs might be an obvious solution, there are many challenges in smaller and more divided industries such as the creative sector, shares Lawrence Chong, president of Designers Association Singapore and chief executive officer at Consulus, a regional strategic brand consultancy.

‘One of the big challenges is finding a sustainable model to run an association,’ says Mr Chong. ‘For Singapore’s photography industry, for example, it might be hard to gather enough members to justify setting one up, especially in Singapore.’

In this way, a broad, multi-discipline organisation such as Designers Association Singapore can prove useful. ‘We have professional photographers who join us – it helps them to network with related disciplines, and might even lead to jobs, and we share certain common concerns, such as protection of intellectual property rights. When we negotiate fees, we can discuss as an industry on the whole: how much you charge for photography, a website – they are all interlinked.’

Designers Association Singapore has 400 members, including foreign members and members from varied disciplines such as photography and architecture.

It helps to work together as much as possible, because the industry is too small, says Mr Chong. ‘The battle is not amongst us, but the value of Singapore design in the region. We are not competing with another Singaporean designer, but those from Hong Kong, Korea or even China, who are heavily funded by their governments, and have much stronger design communities.’

He adds: ‘The trend, going forward, is collaboration and working together across different niches, rather than individual specialisation. Today, everyone is talking about multimedia and collaborations across different disciplines and even across countries – the Internet just provides a million different ways of working together.’

In case you didn’t recognise the names mentioned at the beginning of this article, Philippe Starck is the product designer behind the Neo-Baroque, transparent Louis Ghost chair for Kartell, a de rigueur fixture in all trendy interiors at the peak of its fashion two years ago; and Milton Glaser is the man who came up with the iconic ‘I (HEART) New York’ logo. You’ve probably recognised it, admired it, and even worn it on your chest, but not many people give its design a second thought.

A lack of understanding of design is one of the biggest challenges for the discipline today, agree industry insiders, and this is an issue that industry associations consider their foremost task: to take on the responsibility of creating platforms to engage with the public.


‘We see education as a key role of the Designers Association Singapore,’ says Mr Chong. ‘It is quite unfair to expect the customer to understand where we are coming from if we are not the ones who are propagating it and explaining to them how design can be applied to give a unique business advantage and the role of designers.’

While funding initiatives and support can come from governmental bodies such as Design Singapore Council and Spring Singapore, industry associations see the need to step up with issues such as public awareness and education. Says Mr Lee: ‘Most of the other design promoting bodies are trade related whereas The Design Society comes from an educational and archival approach. You could also say that we’re taking the ‘bottom up’ approach, reaching out to designers and design enthusiasts because they are the ones who will eventually change society.’

To this end, The Design Society’s conference will address the issue of design literacy in a forum. It features speakers from the industry’s best-known names such as Theseus Chan, the creative director of the prestigious D&AD award-winning WORK, WERK magazine and Phunk Studio, and will focus on topics as wide-ranging as publication design to multimedia and technology, with the aim of illustrating how design in Singapore came to be, and where it is heading in the future.

Says conference speaker Lim Chong Jin, deputy director for project and capability development from Temasek Polytechnic School of Design: ‘The notion that visual literacy is limited to the clandestine world of design academia or rests on the responsibilities of the design practitioner or semiotician is an incorrect and lopsided one. All of us are design literate: we recognise road signs, we are aroused by sleek simplicity, we are seduced by the opulence of designed objects – even feelings are evoked by static images.’

‘We think of the overall picture,’ adds Mr Tan of Phunk Studio. ‘By elevating the design literacy of Singapore, it means that more people will be using design, and they will be using it wisely. It will benefit the industry in the long run. Not everybody will be a designer, but it might result in people who are design-savvy who will commission one in the future.’

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