Q&A on the Singapore Design Archives

This window display on “Constructing Singapore Design” featured various catalogues and publications from attempts to defined what “Singapore design” is.

Justin Zhuang has a little obsession with the past – our design past, specifically. The founder of the nascent Singapore Design Archives began collecting design objects and ephemera some years ago when he was commissioned to write a book on the history of graphic design in Singapore. He now continues to amass “treasures” found in second-hand book shops and junk stores, in his personal bid to tell a richer story of Singapore design history.

The Archives, a ground-up effort to document, research and present Singapore’s design history, are currently housed at the fifth floor of the National Design Centre. Justin shares why he is doing this, what he’s gained from it and how you could also contribute to the Archives.

 Dsg: What is the Singapore Design Archives?

Justin Zhuang (JZ): The Archives is a platform to document, research and present Singapore design histories. We put up a monthly window display of local design objects and ephemera at the DesignSingapore Associates Network* office located at the National Design Centre (#05-04). This can be viewed any time, but the public is also welcome to come in and take a closer look at the objects during our open houses. This happens every two Saturdays in a month (our website and Instagram have the latest schedule). In addition, visitors can also browse our growing collection of books and artefacts related to Singapore design. If you are researching about Singapore design, we are also happy to see if we have resources that are of use!

*The Archives is supported by the DesignSingapore Associates Network (DAN), a network of current and former DesignSingapore scholars, and the DesignSingapore Council (Dsg). Justin Zhuang is one of 54 members of the DAN.

➜ Read the full Q&A on the DesignSingapore Council website

What You See Isn’t What You Get

Look up ‘contemporary Vietnamese architecture’ online and be awed by the breathless streams of ‘green’ buildings that seemingly define this Southeast Asian country. Houses with trees growing out of them, dwellings wrapped up with greenery and even architecture made entirely out of bamboo — these were the images I took with me on my maiden visit to Ho Chi Minh City this year.

Imagine my surprise upon encountering a concrete jungle instead. I found a hyperdense environment overgrown with rows of narrow ‘tube houses’, and increasingly, boxy glass-and-steel complexes brought into being by the rapid economic growth of Vietnam’s largest city. The streets were swamped with motorbikes, many offering the only ‘greenery’ with their Grab-branded vests and helmets.

This chasm between Ho Chi Minh City IRL (in real life) and its representation in the architecture and design media a is a telling sign of how the proliferation of images has made us myopic.

➜ Read the full column in CUBES #92 (Jul/Aug/Sep 2018)

What does Truth Look like Today?

Just hours after news broke about a cyberattack on the healthcare group SingHealth, a fake SMS was apparently sent out to people to trick them that personal data and medical records had been compromised. Can you tell the difference?

TODAY

At a glance, I thought the message on the right was fake — turns out I was wrong! I’m sure I am not the only one. The image on the left is actually designed with consideration as the main points of the message are broken down into bullet points. With exclamation point icons, no less! Such a professional touch is what we typically “authenticity” and “corporations”.

But are such assumptions relevant in an age where information often needs to be quickly distributed, often on a variety of screen types and platforms? In the case of this SingHealth example, one can imagine how the problem is regarded as an engineering problem instead of a communication issue — a kind of thinking that dominates public service culture. Thus, sending the message took precedence, most likely without consulting any kind of designer or media personnel (i.e. “Just type a message and send lah!). Perhaps, technological considerations trumped whatever design considerations too.

We can go on and on about how graphic design is important in communicating such public messages, but what intrigues me more is the assumptions we hold about how “truth” looks like today. I’m reminded of a Radiolab episode, “The Ceremony“, which documents the launch of a new cryptocurrency, Zcash. As you’ll see in the explainer video, to create “trust” in this new currency, a group of scientists participate in ceremony that was broadcast live to initiate its birth.

Clearly, Zcash has put in a lot of effort to “visualise” trust. But is this enough in a post-truth era where we so easily brandish “fake news” on everything we choose not to believe?

Trust and truth are concepts that need to be “created” — just as “facts” need to be proved and discovered. I’m curious what are the ways of “designing” truth and trust today. What is the role of design in making us believe?