Tag: The Design Society

Architecture & Design Publishing from Singapore: Some Hard Truths

I was invited to speak on the topic of local publishing at Allscript x Comman Man Coffee Roaster’s “50 Titles” event last weekend. Yanda of Do Not Design selected for this event 50 examples of contemporary local books and magazines. Below is my response, a presentation on some of the titles and what we can learn about designers expanding their role in Singapore’s publishing scene.

I recently moved back to Singapore from New York. One of the things my girlfriend noticed was how difficult it was to pack my collection of architecture and design books into shipping boxes. Anyone who buys them knows how this genre of books come in all shapes and sizes, and seldom fit neatly into a box. In a sense, design books tend to emphasise a quality of difference, and I hope to explore this element in my presentation on contemporary architecture and design publishing from Singapore.

A few years ago, I fully immersed into the subject of Singapore design when I was commissioned to retrace the history of graphic design in this country. This resulted in my book, Independence: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s, which chronicles the evolution of the profession over the last five decades.

As a journalism graduate, one thread that attracted me while researching for this book was the rise of independent publishing in Singapore. From the mid to late 2000s, designers were putting out a trickle of local books and magazines, including Underscore, Brckt, The Design Society Journal, and kult. The periodical Singapore Architect had also just undergone a revamp under Kelley Cheng of The Press Room. Incidentally, this issue (#287) is her last as there is a new team coming on.

Designers who traditionally came at the end to give form to a publication are now creating the content, either by themselves or commissioning writers. It isn’t entire new nor unique to Singapore, but there is certainly a new generation of local designers who are putting together niche books and magazines all by themselves instead of trying to convince big name publishers to do them. With designers expanding their roles, what differences have they brought to publishing in Singapore?

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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.


Has media become nothing more than marketing?

“Media and publishing is now just another form of marketing for those who can afford it.

“And those who create good content? Get close to nothing — or nothing.”

So says my friend, Zakaria Zainal, an independent photojournalist.

It’s hard to disagree, going by what I’ve been seeing in the media market both in Singapore and the world. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how new publishers of media here today are not purely media companies anymore, but graphic design studios or companies that essentially do not earn from media at all.

Underscore, published by design studio Hjgher, is a classic case. At The Design Society’s Sessions last night on the phenomenon of self-publishing, I got to ask publisher Justin Long how the magazine earned its revenue. His answer? It barely breaks even. But Underscore is not about making money, he said. Instead, it earns its “value” through the network of friends it has gained, and how it has helped to market the studio to the world. According to Long, only a 1000 copies are sold in Singapore, and the rest, some 4000, are distributed overseas. The other two speakers that evening also had similar models. Basheer distributes and sells books, when it does publish books, it makes sure the market is big enough. Yanda, the man behind THEARTISTANDHISMODEL keeps his blog going purely out of passion, and also makes a living from elsewhere.

What surprised me the most was that none of the contributors to Underscore magazine get paid, according to Long. For someone who earns his keep from producing media, it only proves that I cannot earn from creating media I like. Instead, I have to “sponsor” work that I like by taking on jobs that actually pay — essentially Underscore‘s business model. Although I still continue contributing to magazines and websites that pay very little, because I believe in the magazine and the content that it puts out, you always question how sustainable is this. Will the contributor/magazine who doesn’t get paid or gets paid miserly eventually die out? Highly likely.

A conversation that happened after Sessions also proved Zakaria’s point. A designer told me about a client who wanted to create media online to attract eyeballs to his brand. It shows that people do demand good content, but at the same time, they are not willing to pay for it directly. So, businesses have benefitted the most from the boom in self-publishing. They can easily fund and create media that will eventually attract attention their brands. On the other hand, media not meant for marketing or commercial gains find it easy to start, but hard to sustain.

But this problem is nothing new, traditional media’s approach has been to sleep with advertisers. But now that readers are immune to the advertisement and content distinction, media owners are forced to blur the lines, producing advertorials to keep this age-old funding model alive. Look at Monocle and how it partners with governments and corporations to produce content, events and even products. While a Monocle x Porter bag shows how strong the media brand is, you also question, what difference does Monocle make to the Porter bag? It’s a fine line between meaningful collaborations and selling out.

So where does all this leave media producers like me? Are we cheapening ourselves by sleeping so readily with companies and organisations just for a platform to say our piece? Can we demand media owners pay bigger share, especially if they are profiting from it? Should consumers pay us more and directly?

I haven’t figured it out. But as Zakaria says: “Exciting times nonetheless.”