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Singapore’s designers need to reevaluate their positions, or succumb to the waves of nostalgia sweeping us into a sea of sameness.


This article was first published on doyenne.sg.
Words by Yong

I started skateboarding in 1998. Wholly absorbed into skateboard graphics, magazines and t-shirt designs, I enrolled into design school in 2001.

18 months into the programme, I questioned our local design output during an internship. Why is it so boring? My seniors explained that the market was uninterested. To bring something unconventional was redundant. I wondered if I was doomed to enter a career peddling bad design.

“It is a cruel realisation that, for design to go mainstream, it has to be diluted into a weak espresso for mass consumption.”

A New Visual World Thankfully, I soon got exposed to other local designers’ work.
They displayed a raw energy, a punk spirited effort to tear away from uninspired design. Creating a new visual world, there was optimism.
A determination to bring our design scene up to speed with London, Tokyo, and New York.

This wave gained momentum into the late 2000s. Local designers set their sights on proving that Singaporean graphic design could share the international stage by producing progressive, high quality, intelligent work that had little to do with their country of origin.

With exciting designs surfacing more frequently, some designers tried to capture a Singaporean language. Although the interpretations were largely updates of local heritage rendered in trendy international styles, there was visible effort to project beyond nostalgia.

In the years leading up to Singapore’s Golden Jubilee in 2015, a wave of nostalgia swept across the island. As if awoken from slumber, people began actively commenting about losing our heritage to rapid modernisation. Campaigns to preserve our local hawker fares were launched. Social media posts reminiscing childhood snacks and old toys were everywhere.

Designers involved in national campaigns took us on journeys into our recent history as Singaporeans grappled with trying to define our national identity.

To be “Singaporean-inspired”, what is Singapore Graphic Design? Instead of looking ahead, most designers approached the question by looking back.

While earlier designers sought to assimilate with the international community, the current generation mostly regurgitated what was readily around - repurposing found graphics, printing Singlish phrases and illustrations of nostalgic foods onto cushions, tote bags and various other knick knacks.

Design is a hot buzzword today. Everyone seems to have an opinion. A penchant for nostalgia might just be us being human. Globally, a resurgence of artisanal, wood-type, updated-heritage graphics became the face of many “hipster” brands.

As the trend du-jour, this revival has also brought about the now popular industrial chic, the go to look for hip organic grocers and independent cafes. What bothers me is that everything looks pretty similar these days. It is a cruel realisation that, for design to go mainstream, it has to be diluted into a weak espresso for mass consumption.

Though clients are becoming savvier, we also see many of them armed with their own Pinterest boards, which are often superficial and lacking in context. It brings a project into an ocean of saturated sameness. It feels as if our autonomy to push for creative risks is being chipped away.

My point is, we do not need a Singapore design language. Whatever we do is already Singaporean. This is not about how our work looks, but what we can do. It is a shame that we are not putting up a tougher fight against sameness.
©sethlui.com, ©thesmartlocal.com 
When graphic designers were specialists, there was a price tag that comes with hiring an expert. With design being widely traded like a commodity these days, we have also lost the credentials to command a fair price.

But if the value of work produced is not plain evidence, then why should clients pay more?

More than ever, now is time for change. With so much disruption going on, designers should prepare for an existential crisis.

Gone are the days where a designer needs to practice in the field they were trained for. There will be new roles for designers in healthcare, education and finance, to name a few. These roles will shape our collective future.

In such turbulent times, it is certainly more comforting to be nostalgic and more tempting to succumb to the sea of sameness. Our community needs to look beyond the surface. We need to redefine the actual role of a designer. To quote Daryl Lim,  a PhD Researcher at University of Reading, “it is about what the discipline of design can be that will come to define what Singaporean Design truly is.”

Yong is Design Director at Somewhere Else. He leads the design studio in a constant shift away from the ordinary, the persistent journey to create work that goes beyond the basal need to communicate.

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