What is design? This is a question that frequently popped up when putting together this publication. Many of our interviewees expressed (pleasant) surprise to be featured in a “design” publication, while some designers were sceptical about including less than professional work. Underlying these reactions is an assumption that “design” is extra(ordinary) and can only be created by those trained in it. This has led to the popular view that there are chairs, and then there are “designer” chairs—a binary view we seek to reframe with ByDesign: SINGAPORE.
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.”