Tag: singapore magazines

SG Design: Consumption or Culture Cultivation?

When I first began writing about design, an editor of an Asian design magazine categorised my essays as only interesting to designers. Instead, I needed to re-tune my writing for “design consumers” if I was to write for their magazine.

The remark gave me much clarity in what I sought to write about. I’ve never wanted to sell or promote the coolest or latest designs , but I’ve always seen design as a part of our everyday life, as well as a product of our culture and times . But such a view is rare amongst how many in Singapore view design. One of the most telling indicators for me is how design is often represented in the local mainstream media. When design gets coverage in newspapers like The Straits Times and Business Times, design is usually portrayed as a consumer product: designer furniture, stylish interiors, and dream homes. The same goes for many magazines about design that I find in Singapore.

Such a dominant view of design’s role in society probably explains why there was hardly a reaction from designers and architects over the fact that Singapore sat out of the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. As compared to local artists currently going brouhaha over the government’s decision to pull out of the contemporary art version of the Venice Biennale next year, the response has been rather muted except for some comments elicited for an article on The Straits Times over the weekend (Singapore skips architecture biennale. 1 September, 2012). After participating in every edition since 2004, building national pavilions around themes such as Second Nature (2004), Singapore Built and Unbuilt (2006), Singapore Supergarden (2008), and 1000 Singapores (2010), Singapore designers and architects will not be able to showcase their ideas, culture and work on an international platform this year.

While DesignSingapore Council has chosen to remain “tight-lipped about this year’s non-participation”, its executive director Jeffery Ho told the newspaper that the council was focusing on other events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. As Colin Seah from Ministry of Design pointed out in the report, this indicates the council’s direction to concentrate on “more commercial and trade events” — which supports my view that the council has become more interested simply promoting design for economic consumption. From what I understand, the Venice Architecture Biennale has always been an exhibition about ideas in design and its role in arts and culture as opposed to the business of selling design.

This latest pullout follows in the wake of the postponement of what was supposed to be the fourth Singapore Design Festival last year. There is still no news if the council will hold the festival this year, traditionally happening between October and November. What we can say for sure is that policymakers are reviewing their strategy of promoting and supporting design, perhaps aptly so since next year will be a decade since the council was set up.

A cue for the future of how the Singapore government will support and promote design can be found in the council’s plans for the upcoming National Design Centre due in 2013. It seems that government policies are shifting back to the view that design is for commerce and trade alone. This marks a shift in the original agenda set by the council’s late founding director, Dr. Milton Tan.

As one of his staff recalled in a eulogy for him that was published in The Design Society Journal No. 02, “Milton’s eventual vision for Singapore design was formed with the Ministry’s support… His research in design creativity also informed him that a healthy design strategy had to be integrated with culture, craft, and inspiration. This is why Dsg is in the ministry leading the creative industries, and not trade and industry. Though frequently challenged by MICA to deliver the economic numbers when formulating the design strategy for the next five years, Milton continued to push the cultural agenda.”

Could the time be up for the council and it finally needs to justify continued support for design with indicators of how it has benefitted Singapore economically? How will national design policies that ignore culture and affect the industry and community in Singapore?

This is a similar concern raised almost 15 years ago in a 1998 news report in the Business Times reviewing what was then the decade-old International Design Forum held in Singapore, another government initiative for design. The question was asked if the now defunct forum had become “too commercially oriented at the expense of highlighting design in its pure form”.

An optimistic view would be to say the council has laid a foundation and the growing community of designers and architects can continue cultivating the seeds of cultural evolution. But has the scene arrived at this point? It’ll be sad to see the council’s decade-long work of pushing design beyond the realm of business go to waste, but what is even more painful is to realise this is something that has happened before. And likely to happen all over again.

Self-Publishing: Graphic Design’s New Muse in Singapore?

Singapore graphic design studios like fFurious, PHUNK, Asylum, and Kinetic may have different styles and approaches, but there’s one thing that binds their practices: music.  The founders of these studios grew up listening to bands like New Order and Joy Division that had record and CD covers designed by the likes of Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver. They also watched  animation graphics on television channel MTV and browsed magazines such as The Face and Ray Gun, which were designed by Neville Brody and David Carson respectively.

These studios, established in the late ’90s and early 2000s,  have acknowledged the influence of music on their designs, whether it was introducing them to the profession or inspiring them to work on music-related projects — PHUNK originally started as a music band and still refer to themselves as a ‘visual rock band’; one of Asylum’s goals was to design record covers such as 4AD, and they  started a music label; the founders of Kinetic were also in the band Concave Scream and work with local band The Observatory; while fFurious designed album covers for Singapore music bands and also worked on legendary local music magazine BigO.

But with the slow death of albums, the design scene today, however, seems to have found a new muse. In the last few years, many younger designers have gotten involved in self-publishing. Just this weekend, Galavant, an annual magazine focusing on collaborative and curated content from around the world, was founded by photographer Dilys Ng and designer Nathalia Kasman. The inaugural issue uses a mix of poems, short stories and images to explore the theme of “Absence”.

It is a familiar format found in UNDERSCORE MagazineCasual Days, Ceriph, kult, Bracketand Terroir Magazine — independent publications started in Singapore by designers or design-conscious founders over the last three years. By and large, these publications focus on literature as well as arts and culture from Singapore and around the world. And as I’ve written elsewhere, these magazines share a similar outlook and ethos.

Could self-published projects become the definitive element in the portfolio of Singapore’s future graphic designers? It fits into the global trend of designers becoming authors, and magazines have proven to be one of the best mediums for projecting a distinctive “voice” with images and text.

Two Singapore studios are already taking self-publishing further than just magazines. Epigram has been working on annual reports and occasionally published books since it founded in 1991, but last year in July, it started a separate entity Epigram Books to publish its own books, including literature, photography and children’s books.

A much younger entity is Studio Kaleido, which is behind Ceriph. The magazine preceded the studio’s founding last year, but since then, the founders Amanda Lee and Winnie Goh have gone on to initiate several publishing projects including GRAPHME, a zine lab, while busying themselves with design work too.

Of course, the one major difference with publishing a magazine as compared to designing a record is it is continuous. You got to regularly come up with the next issue. So it’s not very surprising that many of these magazines are annuals, and the most prolific is quarterly. Will these publishing efforts sustain in the following years? Read on.

Upcoming/Latest Design Publications

INDEPDENDENCE: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s will be officially launched on April 7 at The Design Society Conference 2012. I’m glad to finally share the stories and work of a community I’ve been very fortunate to hear about and uncover over the last two years. Thank you to The Design Society and all whom have supported this project!

Though I dare not say it is complete, there has never been such a comprehensive documentation of Singapore’s graphic design history and I hope this will be the first of many books to come out from the community. At the conference itself, pioneer designers as well as today’s leading studios will share how they established their independence as well as that of the profession in Singapore.

And before we get to the book launch, do check out the latest issue of The Design Society Journal No. 04: Design in a Visual World now out in Singapore’s bookstores.

We explore how an increasingly visual world is affecting design. There are interviews with product designers studio juju, fashion designer kwodrent, comic artist Troy Chin and photojournalist Sam Kang Li about how their practices are being affected. We reflect on the role of design events in mediating a deeper understanding of image-making, and investigate how design visualises death and traditional cultures, as well as bring Japanese anime characters alive.