Since British advertising agencies brought modern graphic design into Singapore after the Second World War, a thriving community of independent studios has emerged in this former colony in Southeast Asia. Today, Singapore is a modern metropolis set to celebrate fifty years of independence in 2015, but the nation-state is still struggling to create a distinct local identity while earning global recognition— just like its contemporary graphic design scene.
Two separate exhibitions held by Singapore’s top graphic designers in the 1990s and 2000s show how the profession had changed within a decade in the city-state. In 1994, Su Yeang paid her own way to hold “Breaking Barriers” in The Design Centre, an exhibition of Su Yeang Design’s work to educate the public and businesses on the importance of good design. It reflected a time when graphic design was seen as a problem-solving tool for businesses. Fast forward to 2005, :phunk Studio held “A Decade of Decadence”, a retrospective exhibition of their “Greatest Hits”. Besides the influence of music, this exhibition held in the Singapore History Museum was supported by entertainment establishments Zouk and MTV, as well as Tiger Beer. As William Chan of :phunk then said: “When we started, people thought all graphic designers could do were design ‘Big Sale’ flyers and lay out text on posters. But these days, we are viewed as trend-setters.”
He barely completed primary school, but that did not stop Sannie Abdul from rising to become the government’s chief promoter of Singapore design.
For over two decades, Sannie spearheaded the state’s efforts to introduce design to businesses in Singapore, first as the head of the Industrial Design Centre in the Singapore Institute of Standards and Research (SISIR), and later, as the director of the Design Centre.
Too poor to afford education after primary school, a young Sannie began working as a clerk in a private company in 1950. According to a 1977 profile in Berita Harian, he left after a year to dabble in photography with the Singapore Photo Company before ending up as a technician for a civil engineer. During this period, he also began studying part-time in Singapore Polytechnic to be an architecture technician, and eventually joined the studio of Architects Team 3.
Sannie first got involved in the development of design in Singapore when he joined the industrial design department of the state’s Economic Development Board (EDB) in the 1960s. As part of Singapore’s industrialisation efforts, Sannie and his team helped local manufacturers design better Made-in-Singapore products and also promote good design to the public via the Product & Design Centre in the John Little Building. By the 1970s, Sannie rose to become head of the department, which by then came under SISIR, the state’s science and research arm.
There was much work to be done, recalled Sannie during a 2010 interview.
“In the early days, when people look at design, they always say ‘modern design’. Modern is something new. They will say, ‘Oh, this is very modern.’ But I think people still far from understood what is good design,” he said.
While working to raise the state of design in Singapore, Sannie also continued upgrading his skills in design. He obtained a grant from the Asia Foundation to study industrial design and architecture in Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, and in 1973, he worked for six months in Italian design group, Olivetti, with the help of a United Nations scholarship.
When he returned to SISIR, Sannie worked with a pioneering team of Singapore designers, many who went on to start their own design studios, to provide consultancy services to government agencies and local companies. Some of the group’s work included exhibition design for the Singapore Fairs, interior design of the Central Provident Fund building, and the logo of the Singapore General Hospital, which was credited to Sannie.
But what Sannie is most remembered for was his work in running Singapore’s short-lived Design Centre from 1992 to 1995. It was the culmination of the state’s renewed efforts to promote design after it privatized SISIR in 1981. Sannie had left briefly for private practice, but was called back in 1984 by the newly established Singapore Trade Development Board (now IE Singapore) to continue work on promoting design to local businesses. Working with the recently founded Designers Association Singapore (now the Design Business Chamber Singapore), many of its founders whom Sannie knew personally, he helped the government kickstart several initiatives that brought attention to Singapore design. In 1989, TDB launched the biannual International Design Forum which brought leading design nations such as Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as top designers including New York’s Vignelli Associates and Japan’s GK Industrial Design to showcase their work in Singapore. Three years later, the government opened a Design Centre along North Bridge Road with Sannie directing the creation of exhibitions and a design library, which was a rare source of books for local designers in the pre-Internet age. For his efforts, Sannie was elected to the executive board of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) in 1993 for a term of two years.
After a decade of promoting Singapore design, Sannie left the Design Centre and soon joined local branding agency, Su Yeang Design to help it expand overseas. The Design Centre closed six months after he left, reportedly because of a shortage of funds. When asked about it a few years ago, Sannie said, “To me, it’s a pity, they built up a certain level, and it was recognised internationally, and it just went poof. It had become like a hub for young people to meet. You have activities, seminars, workshops…”
Even after leaving the government, Sannie’s desire to improve design in Singapore never died. After trying to retire in Melbourne, Australia in 2006, he found his way back to Singapore and started a second career as a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Design at the age of 70. He taught full-time for several years before passing away last Wednesday on August 20.
Here are my five trends of the Singapore design scene last year, which I think could possibly impact what we see in 2013.
1. The continuing rise of craft and Singapore designs From coffee to bags, homeware to letterpress and even haircuts, these are just some examples of what young Singaporeans are getting their hands into nowadays. The interest in craft and the Do-It-Yourself culture started before 2012, but last year we saw many of such initiatives blossom and even more new ones join in the fray. This has since hti critical mass in the form of “Handmade Movement“, a fair for independent craftsmen and women that will be held in Singapore in January this year.
2. Singapore design is entering mainstream My confidence that Singapore might one day see a ‘national’ design label is fueled by the growing awareness of the business of design here. Supporting our local designers is an emerging network of shops, online stores, flea markets, and even neighbourhoods such as Tiong Bahru, that sell Singapore design products as part of an assortment of lifestyle goods ‘curated’ from all around the world.
One interesting Singapore retail project is Outeredit, which not only sells designed T-shirts, but the creation process too. For each collection, customers are introduced to the designers, get to see them cross-collaborate, and finally vote for the designs to be printed.
Such avenues are exposing and defining local design to the Singaporean consumer, and if they grow and take off, that can only mean the same for Singapore design too.
3. ‘Designer’ cafés and restaurants Who hasn’t visited or at least heard of one of these ‘designer’ cafes and restaurants that have sprouted up across the island? This has to be one project type that will define portfolios of the 2000s of Singapore design studios when we look back one day. While they all serve all-day breakfast, artisan coffee and indie magazines (ranging from just one to all three), one is amazed at how many different ways designers have come up with to brand and package their interiors! They have certainly introduced the dimension of design to the dining experience for Singaporeans, but as William Chan of TMRRW and PHUNK fame tweeted last year: “Nice to know that cafes here are paying proper designers for interior & branding. now they just need to hire proper chefs to do the cooking.”
Remember bubble tea and ice-cream parlours? I think this trend will go bust this year and we’ll be left with only those have the best design taste.
4. More Documentation of Singapore Design With publishers turning their sights to Asia for new revenue streams, Singapore’s design scene has started receiving attention too. The architecture scene here, in particular, has seen the most activity. Pesaro Publishing this year published a guide to 21st Century Singapore Architecture, and is working on books for WOHA (its third), K2LD and Cicada Designs. Some design firms have even went into self-publishing, such as DP Architects, and Ong & Ong’s Three Sixty Review.
Graphic designers here also got into the act too. The Design Society published a book detailing the historical evolution of the scene (which I authored), and the studio Hjgher published Creative Cultures, a directory of 100 individuals and groups from Singapore’s creative scene. There’s also a growing buzz between the nexus of graphic design and publishing with Epigram and Studio Kaledio coming up with books that have given the Singapore literary scene a much more exciting face. Finally, if the rumour mills are to be trusted, we are looking forward to books in 2013 about d.lab, and the Singapore Institute of Architects, who celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2013.
Publications are important materials that represent a design scene. They provide potential clients a glimpse into the work of studios; researchers a documentation of the work of designers here, and fellow designers a reflection of the scene they are in.
5. International recognition of Singapore Design From the Design & Advertising Direction (D&AD) to the SaloneSatellite, and the World Architecture Festival, Singapore designers received many accolades and awards this year. While we did not show at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Singapore design still travelled overseas with Thesus Chan holding an exhibition for the latest issue of his two-decades old WERK magazine in Japan’s Ginza Graphic Gallery, and Hjgher’s Creative Cultures featuring as part of DesignTide Tokyo. This year, I hear there will be a Singapore pavilion at the SaloneSatellite for the first time — we have indeed grown.