On 8 November 2010, one of Singapore’s design pioneers, Dr Milton Tan, passed away. While working on a project recently, I got to learn more about the man, his efforts in promoting design through the government’s DesignSingapore Council (Dsg), and most of all, his ideas about design and creativity. This is my humble efforts to share his legacy with more people out there.
I never realised I had actually spoken to Dr Milton Tan until I decided to write this tribute to him last night. I was searching for some e-mail conversations I had with a friend about him when I found an e-mail that Dr Tan wrote to me six years ago. I was then an undergraduate working on a school project evaluating the Renaissance City proposal where for some reason I wrote straight to him — the Executive Director of Dsg — to ask for facts and figures about our arts and the economy. He did reply, and referred me to the right person to write to.
The only problem: it was nine months after I had sent the e-mail.
By then I had already turned to other sources for information, and in a fit of frustration at bureaucracy, I fired back an e-mail pointing out how ridiculous it was that I had to wait so long for a reply. To my surprise, he wrote back and agreed that it was unacceptable for me to receive a reply so late.
On hindsight, I think it’s actually amazing that Dr Tan even bothered to write back after nine months. To do so after so long suggests he genuinely wanted to help in some way. He could have just ignored my e-mail, and quite safely assumed that it had all been forgotten. But he didn’t.
Six years on, our paths crossed again. This time, I read about him in an upcoming article written by his former colleague and friend for The Design Society Journal. It’s a moving tribute about a man who helped lay the foundation for the government’s strategy for design promotion in Singapore in the new millennium. Dr Tan also kept a blog of his thoughts about design and creativity, and even talked about publishing a book. I’m not sure if the book will become a reality now that he has passed.
Here is a selection of some of his writings from his blog that really piqued my mind:
- Creativity is NOT like Fresh Air or Clean Water
Everybody says they want creativity nowadays, but what kind of creativity do we want?
- Not Just a Box of Crayons
An article that helps us understand the philosophy behind the government’s policies for design.
- When Productivity is Nonsense
The title says it all!
- Creative Peloton
The importance of awards and competition to innovation in design.
- Talent is not Creativity
Talent is person-centric, creativity is community-centric.
- The Changing Brief
Why we should all learn to live with change.
- Categorical Error as Creative Insight
The right value of wrong answers.
Hopefully, one day, these and more of his writings can be put together in a book to be shared with more. The last thing I have to say is to Dr Tan:
I’m sorry that this tribute came so late, “I agree that it is not acceptable for you to wait.”