Tag: Design

It’s Time for Design To Get Smart

From smart phones to smart televisions—and now, smart cities—it is amazing how “intelligent” the world has become in recent years. “Smart” is the trendiest pre-fix in the world today, replacing “i” from the turn of the millennium when technology firm Apple revolutionised the market with its iMac and iPhones.

While “i” for Apple meant “internet”, at the heart of today’s technological revolution is all about “intelligence”. This convergence of networked technologies in architecture and industrial design has resulted in “smart buildings” and the “internet of things” (IoT) respectively, two buzzwords that sum up genuine opportunities for the industry in the coming years. But there is also the fear that architects and designers go out of control. Everything can be digitally connected one day, but they don’t all need to be so.

➜ Read the full column in CUBES #87 (August/September 2017)

What’s in a Name?

When a Singapore designer applied for grants from the government’s art council some years ago, he was referred to the national design agency instead because of his profession. But when he did just so, the same proposals were regarded as too artistic to be considered design.

This encounter, and the fact that art and design are governed by separate departments in Singapore (and in most parts of the world), confirm an existing difference between the two. What is art and what is design is something we seem to intuitively know until we try to explain the distinction between them.

Design has its roots in art, having been referred to in the past as the applied arts. Particularly telling was how graphic design — a term coined only in the 1920s — used to be called “advertising art” or “commercial art” and was a means by which many fine artists in Singapore made a living. This backdrop of the fraught relationship between the two explains the tinged perception that design is the ‘selling out’ of art to serve the needs of commerce. While professional designers have since rationalised what they do as problem-solving by offering a function to businesses and society which artists and their personal introspections do not, art has retained a halo of higher calling by seemingly remaining ‘pure’ and freed of any external influence.

This might have been true in the age of industrialisation, when design rose as a profession with the boom in mass production and consumption, but the once seemingly precise divide between art and design has blurred in recent times. Not content with just serving solutions to clients, designers are striking out on their own with speculative designs (or art?) that pose questions, or self-initiated projects (such as this film festival) that demonstrate alternative possibilities of practising design. The centralising of design production in the computer has also democratised its practice and enabled the injection of “personality” into a profession that once strove for objective answers. Designers nowadays have become celebrities whose work, ranging from posters to furniture and even buildings, are increasingly being collected (and produced in limited editions) just like art pieces too.

Conversely, art has been brought down from its pedestal. Movements like Dadaism that celebrate anti-art, and Pop Art’s appropriation of popular culture have attacked the traditional understanding of art by re-introducing everyday imagery and objects that we often encounter as products of design first. Today, it’s also not unheard of for famous artists to collaborate with corporate brands to mass produce design products (or art?) or to have their works sold at auctions for millions of dollars — who’s making commercial art now?

As the boundaries between the two get muddled up, the task of classifying something as art or design becomes increasingly difficult. Why we call something art or design is becoming less contingent on definitive attributes, such as what form it takes or how it is practiced, but instead what we value in each. I find myself asking why isn’t beautiful art a function for our well-being? And why can’t a design that solves an everyday problem be a work of art too?

Art and design are first and foremost acts of human expression. They contain the intentions of their creators, the material of cultures, the spirit of the times, and still leave space for our personal interpretations. Call them works of art or brilliant by design — there is probably some truth in both. Through art and design we try to make sense of the world we live in, and hopefully, use them to create a better one too.

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Written for A Design Film Festival Singapore 2014 festival guide.

Singapore Design: Asian or Western?

It was a gathering of editors from design magazines around Asia — Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore — but while the other editors spoke about their country’s respective design scene in Chinese, I was only comfortable to do mine in English and had to depend on a translator.

This odd situation at the Kaohsiung Design Festival’s Editor — Chief Editor’s Forum left me wondering if Singapore Design is “Asian” or “Western”?

Historically, design came to Singapore from the West. The earliest design studios were started by expatriates from UK, Australia and New Zealand and later, Singaporeans schooled in Western design schools. The choice of English as the country’s working language has also made Western design more relevant to us as opposed to that from Asia, which comes in a variety of languages.

Moreover, the concept of Asian in Singapore has also been associated with ‘tradition’. One reason we are taught an Asian mother tongue is so that we do not lose our cultural bearings. But other than that, the development of this country has always been oriented towards the West, which is seen as both economically powerful and culturally influential. In these conditions, “Asian” in Singapore is seen as historical and backward, which creates a further distance between young Singaporean designers and Asia.

However, the rise in China in recent years and the near future may change this. The editors from Taiwan and Hong Kong lamented how many of their best designers have flocked there to practice their design because that’s where the business is. It’ll be interesting to see how Singapore designers react to this, especially since the Singapore government has been very supportive of businesses here to chase the Chinese market.

When asked at the forum about what I thought of design in Asia, my view (in English) was that Singapore designers did not look towards Asia, with the exception of Japan and maybe, Hong Kong. But then again, it’s because these two territories, especially Japan, have received a kind of ‘international’ recognition. I cited language as a major barrier to our understanding of Asian design. Though Singaporeans are bilingual, our primary language is English. More importantly, I didn’t think Singapore designers bothered about this question of their design being “Asian”, “Western” or even “Singaporean” — nationalism or regionalism was irrelevant in a Singapore that wants to be a “global city”. What mattered to design studios today is that they had their own voice in their work.

Surprisingly, the speaker from Taiwan’s Shopping Design, Chan Wei-Hsiung, echoed similar sentiments. Here was a veteran creative director, double most our ages, exhorting Taiwanese designers to globalise so as to bring their conversations outside of Taiwan. He also felt that the future of design was all about individual choices and styles.

The trip up to Taiwan has opened my mind and eyes to designers in Asia and I’m curious if they do have something to offer to the global stage. For one, I realised Taiwan is a good place to learn about Japanese design because while I don’t understand Japanese, I can get access to their writings and works translated to Chinese. For now, I’ve cobbled together a few links related to Asian design below. Let me know if you have more!

  • Where You Going? A duo trying to find design in Southeast Asia
  • art4D A design magazine based in Thailand
  • Cutout Magazine A Malaysian design magazine
  • Malaysian Design Archive A repository of old Malaysian design
  • PPaper A Taiwan design magazine created to introduce design to the masses. Sold in 7-11s!
  • Shopping Design Another Taiwanese magazine that looks at design in everyday life
  • Aaron Nieh Contemporary Taiwanese designer
  • 號外 (Hao Wai) A Hong Kong cultural and lifestyle magazine that has been around since 1976
  • Kohei Sugiura A veteran Japanese designer who has been thinking about Asian design
  • Sulki & Min A contemporary Korean design duo