Coming after Singapore’s golden jubilee celebrations in 2015 is this Fifty Years of Singapore Design book that I got to work on for the DesignSingapore Council. For four months, beginning late last year, the team—including Dawn Lim and Sheere Ng—worked on turning the 2015 exhibition of the same name curated by WY-TO into this 333-page book.
Working with the existing selection of designs that were “iconic, popular and pivotal” to Singapore’s national history, we researched and wrote about the growth of the local design industry from independence in 1965 to 2015. Each decade has its own historical overview and selection of objects that are organised behind certain thematic developments that emerged during the period.
Of particular interest to those keen on Singapore’s design history is a timeline that actually traces back to 1932, when a seed of industrial design was sown with the formation of the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association (today known as the Singapore Manufacturing Federation). While the original timeline simply listed milestones in the development of architecture and design in Singapore—focusing on government design policies, design education and the founding of various design associations—we sought to elaborate on each to provide a bit more context. The timeline is a skeleton waiting to be fleshed out, and hopefully, more Singapore design histories will emerge from this.
From my understanding, this book is not for sale but will eventually be made available in Singapore design schools and the public libraries. More information can be found in this press release put out by the DesignSingapore Council.
This book follows a 2012 publication I wrote on the history of graphic design in Singapore. While Fifty Years of Singapore Design was commissioned by a government agency, Independence: The History of Graphic Design in Singapore Since the 1960swas a ground-up initiative by The Design Society. Both books are designed by H55 Studio. For me, the books nicely bookend a period when Singaporeans’ initial curiosity for identity turned into a nationalistic hunger for nostalgia, as witnessed by the many projects put out for the SG50 campaign to commemorate Singapore’s 50th anniversary.
As a designer who came up to me at the launch said, “Thank you for remembering me.”
“The presentation of specimens is invariably poor and the standard of work is no better than you would expect in a country where no formal training exists in the branches of Graphic Design related to Advertising,” wrote Brian Hoyle in the 1963 Annual Advertising Award. This was what led the creative director of Young Advertising and Marketing Ltd to establish this awards—one of Singapore’s earliest prize for creative work in advertising—together with a committee of expatriates from the city’s various advertising agencies. Known as the Creative Circle Singapore, this group of the Singapore Publicity Club, was founded in 1962 to “stimulate an awareness of and a keener appreciation of visual creative standards in advertising”, largely through the awards.
The inaugural award received over 100 advertisements of “local creative origin” used during 1962 to see which were the best colour advertisement, black and white advertisement, photograph, publicity, radio commercial, and cinema advertising. There was also an overall winner. This “favourable response” led to an expansion of categories the following year, adding on best packaging, calendars, posters, brochures (including direct mail) and leaflets. All the entries for this second edition of the awards were judged in Australia by the Federal Committee of the Australian Commercial and Industrial Arts Association (ACCIAA). Of the 12 categories available in 1963, the Singapore and Malaysia branches of UK-based S.H. Benson International (which later became part of Ogilvy & Mather) swept up most of the awards with Hoyle’s Young Advertising & Marketing Ltd (renamed in 1966 as London Press Exchange (LPE) Singapore) coming in runner-up.
All the entries for the 1963 award were captured in the black and white annual printed by Cheong Press. Inside are also valuable profiles on members of the creative industry then and also essays on the standards of creative advertising and copywriting in Singapore and Malaysia. Contrary to the popular notion in these regions that “white men” came here to unfairly dominate the advertising industry, there were written pleas in the annual for locals to eventually captain their own industry. As Hoyle noted in his foreword. “The need is for top creative people to originate and lead in this field—in their own country.” (Bold emphasis are his). This was of course not entirely selfless. In another essay, Allan J. Barry from another agency Papineau Advertising, noted that “advertisements prepared for other markets are being used in Malaysia” but the country was a unique market that needed its own approach to selling.
“If you are prepared to accept this proposition you must also be prepared to accept the corollary that the people best suited to created the most effective approach for this market are the creative staff of local advertising agencies.”
In the course of my research for my book, Independence: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s, Brian Hoyle was kind enough to send over a copy of this historic annual advertising award. Thanks to designer Bernard Tan, a scanned copy of the annual is now freely available for download for research purposes. Do note that it is missing some blank pages and also one on the full list of winners.
When I first started working on INDEPENDENCE: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s some five years ago, it opened my eyes to the breadth of visual culture that we produce and consume in this city-state. As I wrote this book on Singapore’s graphic design history, I also started keeping a collection of graphic materials found in Singapore. I picked up flyers, bought books, and even started making colour photocopies at our library—paying a dollar a piece. It struck me that instead of just amassing cabinets of these materials, I should share them so as to raise awareness of Singapore’s visual culture. That led to the founding of the Singapore Visual Archive in 2011, a digital repository of things that can be seen here.
Five years on, I have relaunched the website as the Singapore Graphic Archives. The name change reflects the focus on graphic design and visual communication from Singapore, but the aim is still the same: to collect and document graphic design from the Southeast Asian city-state to encourage research on the industry, and to promote a critical appreciation of its visual culture. I’ve also had the privilege of working with local digital agencies Pettycache and Watchtower to come up with a cleaner and more functional (responsive!) website. In preparation for revamping the archive, I “studied’ many other design archives around the world through writing for AIGA’s Eye on Design blog. Two in particular inspired how I’ve gone about running this operation entirely on my own: Kind Company’s Display and the Seymour Chwast Archive.
Now that the archive is live, I can return to the laborious process of discovering, researching, scanning and uploading graphic materials on to the website. The dream is that I can get paid to do this, or at least find funding to enable the website with more features and create better archiving processes. But the pleasure for now—and hopefully always—is discovering designs from Singapore that widen my eyes and I go, “Wah lao! I need to share this!”