With its rectangular and pocket-friendly form, a matchbox reminds one of a popular contemporary object: the smartphone. Apart from physical similarities, the two also have much in common in the world of advertising. Even before the proliferation of smartphones led to the popularity of “mobile advertising,” matchboxes plastered with advertisements once offered an affordable and portable means of marketing too.
Known as “advertising matches,” these petite boxes — which included matchbooks that flipped open from the top instead of sliding apart like a drawer in a matchbox — first and foremost provided a functional need. In a time when lighters and gas appliances had yet to become commonplace, they supplied an everyday necessity to light up a fire. Such was the case in Singapore prior to the 1980s, when households commonly used matches to light up oil lamps or charcoal stoves. The matchboxes that contained this essential good thus promised to reach a wide audience, and businesses eagerly advertised on boxes that were given away to potential customers.
➜ Read the full story on AIGA’s Eye on Design
This book was born out of an observation. While reading a recent newspaper review of Antigen Rapid Test (ART) kits, this sentence jumped out at me:
“Aesthetics aside, all the kits were found to be very similar, with only slight differences in procedure.”
Aesthetics aside? In just two words, the reviewer dissected the kits’ design into form and function and so casually dismissed the former. At first, I was irritated by the assumption that form in design was mere styling, or even worse, a distraction. That quickly grew into an existential crisis: If aesthetics could be so conveniently cast aside, then why have I spent all of my adult life researching and writing about design?
So I decided to compile a decade’s worth of writings into a book. The 30 essays in Aesthetics Aside: Observations on Design in the Everyday come from various points in my career, including my very first story decoding a city’s identity by examining the typefaces on its streets to a recent reflection on the role of imitation in design and life. Each offers a journey beyond the stylish “designer” world, on to the designed graphics, environments and objects that we encounter daily.
Design never looked so ordinary, and extraordinary.
➜ Get your copy at our online store
Singapore’s graphic design has often been described as “international”, “trendy” and “western”. The seeming lack of a distinct visual style is attributed to its small population of 5 million, an economy geared for export and that the former British colony only became independent over 50 years ago.
This lecture challenges such snap judgements that suggest Singapore is a mere follower of trends. By examining more closely the rise of modernist graphic design in Singapore beginning from the 1960s to the 1980s, it outlines how the movement was adopted and adapted as part of a larger nation-building agenda.
The presentation was first conceived in 2019 as a guest lecture for Greg D’Onofrio’s design history class at the School of Visual Arts, New York City. It was further developed over several return lectures and also for design classes taught by Sandra Nuut (Estonian Academy of Arts) and Vikas Kailankaje (LASALLE College of the Arts). This is the December 2021 version.