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

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