What do we need to carry out work today? A table, a chair, and for many of us, some kind of electronic device. Whether it is preparing documents, organising schedules or even meeting colleagues, ‘work’ is mostly done through interactions with machines – ranging from the photocopier to the computer to the smartphone.
Yet, conversations revolving around the design of work environments are largely stuck on the physical work space. Even as designers update office furniture and rearrange layouts toward new definitions of ‘ergonomic’ and ‘productivity’, the virtual office where workers spend their time tapping, clicking and typing away – often in silent frustration – is regarded as the domain of the IT department.
Two pioneer designers recall how they rode the digital wave in the eighties and nineties when Singapore took great strides to become an IT Nation
From CD-ROM to CD Bomb
Once a beaming object of tomorrow’s technological future, the CD-ROM is more likely to be found in a kopitiam today, hanging as a shiny prop to scare birds away. The rise and demise of this medium also reflects the story of Lim Ching San’s design consultancy.
In the mid-nineties, Octogram rode on the incoming Information Technology (IT) wave to become one of Singapore’s earliest multimedia publishing houses. Working with clients ranging from government agencies to the creators of the then popular local comic, Mr Kiasu, Ching San and his team integrated texts, images, videos and games into CD-ROMs to tell their stories on a computer. This was supposed to be the future of publishing, he says, pointing to a yellowed photocopy of a 1993 New York Times article titled “Books will give way to CD-ROM, say experts”. But as the story goes, CD-ROMs died in a matter of years when Singapore plugged itself into high-speed internet at the end of the millennium.
“The whole business bombed, and all my publishing business was gone!” recalls Ching San who ran Octogram for close to two decades until closing it in 2002 because of the CD-ROM flop and the dot-com bubble burst then. “When you talk about technology, you can be right at the peak, and the next moment you can fall.”
It was once touted as the world’s slimmest and lightest notebook personal computer. Weighing 2.1 kilograms and just under 3 centimetres thick, the IPC Porta-PC 386SLP3 Notebook Computer was a piece of cutting-edge technology.
Today’s “ultraportable” laptops come in half the size, but when the Porta-PC debuted in 1992, its sleek form and black anodised aluminium casing then stood out amongst its boxy plastic competitors. What many probably didn’t know too -this high-tech product was designed and manufactured entirely in Singapore.
A creation by computer firm IPC Corporation and industrial designer David Chen, the Porta-PC was part of a wave of consumer electronics Singapore made for the world in the 1990s. These rolled out from an Information Technology (IT) industry that arose out of the government’s push for Singapore to ride on the then emerging IT wave. Beginning in 1981, the National Computer Board was set up to implement computerisation in the public service. As this revolution spread to the private sector in the following decade, manufacturers of consumer electronics in Singapore, ranging from multinationals such as Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Sony, to local start-ups like IPC and Creative Technology, assembled teams of engineers and industrial designers to invent and manufacture IT products.
While David and his consultancy Studio Industrial Design also designed desktop computers, printers and keyboards, he fondly remembers the Porta-PC because it clinched the nation’s then top industry accolade, the Singapore Design Award in 1992.
“I wasn’t thinking of competing (for the world’s slimmest laptop). We were just using our brains to see how to minimise it,” says the industrial designer who returned to Singapore in the late 1970s after studying and working in the United Kingdom. “Now people use titanium… but that time, nobody in the world had done it (use aluminium).”