When Design Met Technology

Two pioneer designers recall how they rode the digital wave in the eighties and nineties when Singapore took great strides to become an IT Nation   

From CD-ROM to CD Bomb

Ching San (centre) with his partner, Gim Lee (left) and their staff at Octogram’s offices in the 1990s.

Once a beaming object of tomorrow’s technological future, the CD-ROM is more likely to be found in a kopitiam today, hanging as a shiny prop to scare birds away. The rise and demise of this medium also reflects the story of Lim Ching San’s design consultancy.

In the mid-nineties, Octogram rode on the incoming Information Technology (IT) wave to become one of Singapore’s earliest multimedia publishing houses. Working with clients ranging from government agencies to the creators of the then popular local comic, Mr Kiasu, Ching San and his team integrated texts, images, videos and games into CD-ROMs to tell their stories on a computer. This was supposed to be the future of publishing, he says, pointing to a yellowed photocopy of a 1993 New York Times article titled “Books will give way to CD-ROM, say experts”. But as the story goes, CD-ROMs died in a matter of years when Singapore plugged itself into high-speed internet at the end of the millennium.

“The whole business bombed, and all my publishing business was gone!” recalls Ching San who ran Octogram for close to two decades until closing it in 2002 because of the CD-ROM flop and the dot-com bubble burst then. “When you talk about technology, you can be right at the peak, and the next moment you can fall.”

The now 71-year-old says this not with regret but proud at having been at the forefront of blending design with technology. Multimedia CD-ROM publishing was just one of the many new tools Ching San enthusiastically embraced during the eighties and nineties when graphic design was undergoing massive changes in the first trickles of what became a digital tsunami. Octogram started in 1984, the same year when Apple launched the Macintosh, a computer that enabled graphic design to shift from an analogue, labour-intensive practice to something anyone can create out of their bedroom. The moment Ching San laid eyes on a Macintosh at Sime Darby, which was then the agent for Apple in Singapore, he was sold on what technology could do for his consultancy.

“I saw my staff doing a lot of handwork for their visuals and I didn’t like it because it takes up too much time and was not accurate in terms of colour. Everything was so mechanical,” he says. By loaning money from banks and with funding from the government, which was then encouraging local enterprises to computerise, Ching San bought state-of-the-art computers and printers and signed up for what became known as the desktop publishing revolution. With technology, his team of over 20 could more quickly produce precise and attractive newsletters and annual reports for clients. His business boomed, enabling him to buy an office in Henderson Road by 1993.

Mac-graphics: A designer’s visual guide to graphics for the Apple Macintosh started out as a book and later was made into a CD-ROM.

It wasn’t enough for Ching San to be an early adopter of computers. In the late 1980s, he began evangelising the virtues of going digital to the industry and clients through talks and workshops. Octogram even self-published a book to teach graphic designers how to use the Macintosh for desktop publishing. Mac-graphicsTM: A designer’s visual guide to graphics for the Apple Macintosh was a glossy 288-page tome that was written, designed and printed entirely in Singapore. Selling at $90 a copy, the first 5,000 copies quickly sold out when it was launched in 1990. Mac-graphicsTM was then picked up by American computer book publisher Peachpit Press for global distribution, and even translated to Japanese and Chinese.

“Everyone was clamouring to learn about desktop publishing,” says Ching San who spent a decade in the local publishing industry working for Federal Publications, MPH and Times Book International before starting Octogram. “I was inspired by all these how-to books from the West. I wanted to be the first in Singapore to ship back a book to the West.”

A 1990s advertisement for designNet by Octogram.

The year Mac-graphicsTM was published, Octogram also launched DesignNet to help designers automate administrative operations such as invoicing and quotations as well as to track time and costs for projects. This software was originally created for the consultancy when they worked together with local computer company, SysNet Technology as part of the then National Computer Board’s small enterprise computerisation programme. Ching San, however, felt it could transform the local design industry if more adopted it. “For some reason it didn’t kick off at all. Partly because I was ahead of time,” he says. “People were not ready yet to automate.”

With technology, Octogram grew rapidly over the decade until the CD-ROM debacle. By then, desktop publishing technology had matured along with significantly cheaper computers, resulting in lower design fees and a new generation of competitors. Ching San took it as a sign to close shop.

“Technology is a double-edge sword. It is something that can help you and can also kill your business,” he says. The retiree who continues to push the limits by participating in marathons adds: “At the end of the day, it’s not about technology. It’s about creativity, imagination, wild thinking, being crazy.”

Moving Graphic Design Forward

Before there was PowerPoint, presenting images and texts to an audience meant designing actual slides. Michael Gan still recalls how laborious this was. As a design consultant for the then Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) during the early 1980s, he spent countless hours manually laying out content and photographing them to create transparencies or 35mm photographic slides for clients to use on their projectors.

“Those were the days when the Economic Development Board and Trade Development Board were promoting industrial training and multinational companies were also coming in. There was a lot of need for communication materials,” recalls Michael. “I was interested in helping cut short the process… so I started exploring if a computer can do it.”

Computer graphics produced by Inside Design.

Having first read about the then emerging field of computer graphics in magazines and flown himself to the United States to attend SIGGRAPH, an annual computer graphics conference, Michael was convinced this was the future. In 1984, he bought Flair, a $200,000 computer graphics system that paints on 35mm slides and videotape, and started Inside Design to introduce new ways of designing to Singapore.

“I went to every single bank and nobody understood it,” recalls the UK-trained industrial designer who ended up raising funds from his previous employer in London, Eric Marshall Associates, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. But once word got out, Michael and his team was designing slides for clients such as American Express, IBM and Singapore Airlines.

“Slides production was very, very lucrative for us because we can produce slides in a day,” he explains. This not only cut short what was typically a week-long process, clients could even sit in the office and make corrections on the machine and receive edited slides in hours. “It was unheard of!”

One of Inside Design’s earliest client was the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, which introduced computer graphics to its news programmes.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The system developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) could also generate animation for audio-visual presentations and even television. A chance encounter with the then head of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) led Michael to help the national broadcaster set up a similar system for their in-house design units. Computer graphics became a part of local television, and one the earliest displays Singaporeans saw was when SBC presented the 1988 General Election results graphically in real time.

By then, Inside Design had also developed its own computer graphics systems which were sold to television stations in Southeast Asia as well as commercial clients such as Sony International. In the early nineties, facing a limited clientele in Singapore, Inside Design expanded to the Philippines to serve the emerging post-production industry there. One of its clients was the animation studio Fil-Cartoons, which produced cartoons for American series such as The Flintstones. Inside Design created an auto-painting system for them, helping their artists move away from the traditional way of drawing and colouring each frame by hand. This proved to be a very profitable venture until the millennium when improved technology meant computer graphics could now be done on the fly. It was a sign to leave, says Michael.

Michael presenting computer graphics technology to Lee Hsien Loong in the 1980s. Lee was then a minister in the Ministry of Trade and Industry and pushed for Singapore to embrace information technology.

While fellow designers questioned him in the early days for pursing technology and endangering the profession, the computer has undoubtedly become an essential design tool today. “At one time, my worry was design is about creativity and technology is not about creativity,” says Michael, who recently retired as a design lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic. “(But with the computer) you can churn out faster visuals, input data that meets the needs of your customer and you can save time.”

This has helped designers progress and they can continue to do so as long as they remember technology is just a means and not an end.

“It’s never ending. We got to pursue technology, otherwise it will overtake you.”

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