Tag: William Lee (李秀镌)

Becoming Modern by Design: Modernist graphic design’s nation-building role in Singapore, 1960s–1980s

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.

Going International to Become National: William Lee and the Modernisation of Singapore Design

The 1970 edition of “The ‘Whos’ in Business” is an over 400-page tome listing the who’s who of corporate Singapore and Malaysia. It is like any directory: lined with columns of bland corporate histories, occasionally accompanied by a mugshot or two of executives in ties. But page 467 jumps out. A dashing man gazes out of the top half of the full-page advertisement. Underneath the half-lit portrait are three lines that boldly declare:

he is new
he is very good
he is ours

It is a dramatic introduction to William Lee, the creative director and founder of Central Design. Just as “he” was styled in this advertisement like a hero in an action movie, Lee became a heroic figure in Singapore’s graphic design scene during the 1970s and 1980s. He gave many of the city-state’s corporations and public organisations a modern makeover by helping them adopt the “International Style”. The modernist visual language—as seen in this ad, with its san serif headlines set in single case and contents arranged rationally with ample white space—was advocated and adapted by William in multiracial Singapore to help it become internationally recognised as a modern nation-state.

➜ Read more in Further Reading Print No. 3

Stamping History

There was precious little to celebrate when the Singapore Stamp Club commemorated 100 years of postage stamps in 1967. The accompanying exhibition booklet was very blunt in describing the dismal state of Singapore’s philatelic scene:

“Against the increasing tendency of practically every other country in the world to issue more and more commemorative stamps each year, the conservative policy of Singapore must be almost without an equal.”

Between self-government in 1959 and merger with Malaysia in 1963, and independence in 1965, Singapore issued only eight commemorative stamp series to mark these historic occasions. Unlike definitive stamps that are meant for everyday use, commemorative stamps are issued to record national milestones and showcase Singapore’s culture, customs and identity to the world. This was a lost opportunity according to the booklet: “What other country can claim to have issued a total of only 21 commemorative stamps in the past 8 years!”

The paucity of such stamps was not the only issue plaguing the Singapore stamp scene at the time. Almost a year after the exhibition at the National Library at Stamford Road, then Minister for Communications Yong Nyuk Lin noted that local stamps were generally “dull” and suffered from “disappointingly low” sales.

To fix the situation, the government set up the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC) in 1968. “This situation certainly calls for immediate remedial action and in line with present Government policy of increasing productivity and to raise additional revenue, wherever possible,” said Minister Yong at the inaugural meeting of the SAC, adding, “… there is no reason why we cannot use more imagination and drive in the creation of attractive designs for our postage stamps…”

➜ Read the rest of the essay in BiblioAsia (Vol 13, Issue 4) Jan-Mar 2018