1980s: Sowing the seeds of SG graphic design today

These messages of a graphic design educator to his graduates suggest how Singapore design has developed since the 1980s.

Working outside of advertising agencies, producing conceptually-driven work and packaging local products to sell overseas — these are what many Singapore graphic designers do today.

They are also what one Singapore graphic design lecturer urged his students to do some three decades ago at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, one of only three design schools that existed in the city during this time.

Tan Ping Chiang (1984/85)
A photo of Tan in the 1984/85 annual.

As head of the academy’s applied arts department, Mr Tan Ping Chiang (陳彬章), penned messages in its graduation annuals that outlined the role of Singapore graphic designers in the ’80s. In the midst of Singapore’s second industrial revolution in 1980, the former NAFA fine arts graduate urged the academy’s students to look for work beyond the narrow confines of advertising as “agencies were not the only way out” (“廣告公司並非唯一的出路”). Like how he worked as an in-house designer for the government, graphic designers could apply their skills in other sectors of the economy, and mirror the nation’s shift then from labour-intensive industries to those that of high value-added and wages.

To the graduates of 1984, he further elaborated on how this economical shift was changing what employers and clients expected of designers. Summing it up as “We Pay For Your Idea”, the designer who had worked and obtained his diploma in graphic design in England for six years from 1966, stressed the importance of “ideas” and “creativity” and not just craft and skills for the contemporary designer.

Tan’s message for graduates in the 1981 annual.
In 1984, Tan outlined the importance of “creativity” and “ideas” in contemporary design.


Tan had a particular interest in food packaging, and once urged the academy’s graduates to “Dress up our local food products”. Design could help such products sell better in Singapore and overseas, although he cautioned against creating packaging that simply imitated either the west or Japan. Later in life, he wrote a thesis on the value of food packaging in Singapore for his Master of Design from the University of Western Sydney and also illustrated Singapore Delicious and Delirious, a visual tour of the city’s food culture.

This love for food and design has spread to his industrial designer son, Tan Lun Cheak. As one of the founders of design collective Little Thoughts Group, Lun Cheak has created several products that reflect Singapore’s food culture including a steamboat that is also a lamp, and a plate that aids the tossing and turning of the traditional Lunar New Year dish of Yusheng, an act which symbolises good luck and prosperity.

The elder Tan, who turns 73 this year, is now working on his art works and blogs regularly about his travels.

Out At Sea

Stepping into Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ Gallery 1 to see this year’s design graduation show is quite a sight. The entire gallery is filled with white cubes that are tables to hold the students’ projects. As one begins to move from cube to cube, exploring the Be A Good Creative exhibition feels like a voyage to see the countless islands that make up this year’s Design and Media graduates.

This fluidity, and even slightly chaotic, navigation opens up many journeys to a diverse range of works ranging from illustrations, art, graphic design, photobooks and everything else-in-between. The only order is that each project stands on equal ground, given a platform that favours no one. This is after all a graduation show, which is more about recognising everyone’s efforts to reach the end rather than a rigorous examination of each path taken.

Still, one wonders if more effort could have been done in preparing the works for public presentation. How good is a creative who has a catalogue riddled with spelling errors beginning with its introduction? Moreover, feeble write-ups and simply putting out entire theses makes one question if this graduating class has learnt to communicate — a “core element of design” that it says it wants to keep “close to our heart”. The few projects that left an impression on me include Do You See What I See, Universal Colourblind System and Project M.

As I ended my voyage, I realised very few of the works connected with the world I lived in. None of them could make me stay long on the islands. I very much preferred to be out at sea.

NAFA Graduation Show — Be A Good Creative


Every year, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts stages a Design and Media Degree Show to showcase creative and energetic works created by graduates from the BA (Hons) Graphic Communication and Multimedia courses.

The theme for this year is Be a Good Creative – We may not be perfect, but we will absolutely not let you down. We believe it is what you give to the people, and the world; and we are just trying to be as good as we can be. Derived from Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good, by Paul Rand quoting Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, our graduating batch of design and media creatives aim to serve our society with humility and honesty.

It’s the first time I’ve been approached to plug someone’s show. I agreed to because I think it’s great that students are putting themselves out there and it sounds like a great theme. I’ve been told that the show will be opened on the 26th by :phunk studio’s Jackson Tan. And on the evening of 28th May, Friday, Joseph Foo from 3nity Design will be speaking on the theme itself.