Tag: Little Thoughts Group

1980s: Sowing the seeds of SG graphic design today

These messages of a graphic design educator to his graduates suggest how Singapore design has developed since the 1980s.

Working outside of advertising agencies, producing conceptually-driven work and packaging local products to sell overseas — these are what many Singapore graphic designers do today.

They are also what one Singapore graphic design lecturer urged his students to do some three decades ago at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, one of only three design schools that existed in the city during this time.

Tan Ping Chiang (1984/85)
A photo of Tan in the 1984/85 annual.

As head of the academy’s applied arts department, Mr Tan Ping Chiang (陳彬章), penned messages in its graduation annuals that outlined the role of Singapore graphic designers in the ’80s. In the midst of Singapore’s second industrial revolution in 1980, the former NAFA fine arts graduate urged the academy’s students to look for work beyond the narrow confines of advertising as “agencies were not the only way out” (“廣告公司並非唯一的出路”). Like how he worked as an in-house designer for the government, graphic designers could apply their skills in other sectors of the economy, and mirror the nation’s shift then from labour-intensive industries to those that of high value-added and wages.

To the graduates of 1984, he further elaborated on how this economical shift was changing what employers and clients expected of designers. Summing it up as “We Pay For Your Idea”, the designer who had worked and obtained his diploma in graphic design in England for six years from 1966, stressed the importance of “ideas” and “creativity” and not just craft and skills for the contemporary designer.

Tan’s message for graduates in the 1981 annual.
In 1984, Tan outlined the importance of “creativity” and “ideas” in contemporary design.


Tan had a particular interest in food packaging, and once urged the academy’s graduates to “Dress up our local food products”. Design could help such products sell better in Singapore and overseas, although he cautioned against creating packaging that simply imitated either the west or Japan. Later in life, he wrote a thesis on the value of food packaging in Singapore for his Master of Design from the University of Western Sydney and also illustrated Singapore Delicious and Delirious, a visual tour of the city’s food culture.

This love for food and design has spread to his industrial designer son, Tan Lun Cheak. As one of the founders of design collective Little Thoughts Group, Lun Cheak has created several products that reflect Singapore’s food culture including a steamboat that is also a lamp, and a plate that aids the tossing and turning of the traditional Lunar New Year dish of Yusheng, an act which symbolises good luck and prosperity.

The elder Tan, who turns 73 this year, is now working on his art works and blogs regularly about his travels.

Singapore Design: We Are What We Eat

Where else should Singapore designers look for inspiration but in the nation’s favourite past time of eating? This is the theme of “Makan Time! Tuck into Good Design”, the latest exhibition put up by the Little Thoughts Group, a collective that explores local culture through design.

The group of 18 designers, many who work in multinational companies including Dell and Hewlett Packard, each spent their own time and money to create and exhibit a design prototype inspired by Singapore’s food culture and heritage. The resulting collection is a variety of cutlery that highlight local practices, products that appropriate the imagery of everyday food, and objects that re-interpret how and what Singaporeans eat.




One of the most thoughtful pieces was Chan Wai Lim’s set of cutlery that embody traditional Chinese eating practices (right). To get around the problem of flipping a fish to eat the other side, which is seen as symbolic of a boat being capsized or simply bad luck, Wai Lim created a stand that holds it such that one can eat it from both sides at the same time (background). Another design by the recent winner of the President’s Design Award 2012 for her work on a Dell computer, illustrates the myth that one must  finish every morsel of their food on their plate lest their future partner turns out ugly by putting a face at the bottom of a bowl.

“Makan Time” is the group’s third initiative to come up with Singapore design products since they first got together in 2009. While their first exhibition was inspired by their personal stories, they followed up in 2010 with a design collection based on their memories of Singapore. This current exhibition, after a two year hiatus, is on at the National Museum of Singapore until 27 January.

The marriage of Singapore’s rich food culture with its design scene has been one recurring trend in recent years. One of the earliest compilations was “Shiok! A Gastronomy of Singapore Design” in 2010, which put together the creations of several designers to present the country’s food culture at the inaugural Asia Design Conference organised by the centre of creative communication (CCC), in Shizuoka City, Japan. For years now, there have also been groups such as Triggerhappy, FARM and wheniwasfour that have designed various products related to Singapore’s food culture.

Like the work by the Little Thoughts Group over the years, “Makan Time” is distinct for a functional collection that probably reflects the industrial design backgrounds of its creators. This is unlike other existing food-inspired designs in Singapore that are generally more whimsical, such as re-approprating familiar food items to turn into objects of other uses.

However,  “Makan Time” does reflect the increasing use of narratives to define what is Singapore design, instead of searching for it in a unique form. As I have outlined in “Got Singapore Design?” in The Design Society Journal No. 05, many of such works in recent times look like they can be from anywhere in the world, but seen in the eyes of those familiar with Singapore culture, they take on a different meaning altogether.

Finally, if you are keen to hear from the designers themselves, do check out their forum this weekend, 19 January!