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Symbols of Singapore, 1956–2003: Afterword
A written conversation originally published in Symbols of Singapore, 1956–2003, a small book featuring selections of graphic symbols from the independently-run Singapore Graphic Archives (Justin Zhuang) that was published and produced by Temporary Press (gideon-jamie).
I understand the larger motivation behind the archives is to create a space for discussion and discourse about (graphic) design in Singapore; there needs to be a collection of materials before one can even start talking about a history, distinctive practices, or influence of graphic design from Singapore. Your efforts in both archiving and putting together such materials about them is significant, even admirable considering the small community of interest. This publication, in many ways less formal and of smaller scale compared to other projects you completed, allows for a different approach. Instead of an objective presentation, this allows a close reflection on the open-ended and at times ambiguous (which is by no means negative) nature in the processes of archiving and interpretation.
Before discussing this, maybe you can describe the processes and intentions in gathering the materials so far for the Singapore Graphic Archives. It will also be interesting to know more about its relationship (if any) with institutions like the DesignSingapore Council [designsingapore.org] (or any other) since the work of the archive probably overlaps with some of their objectives.
The Singapore Graphic Archives was started in 2011, just as I finished writing Independence: The History of Graphic Design in Singapore since the 1960s. In my research for this publication commissioned by The Design Society [designsociety.sg], I discovered a wealth of “Singapore designs” from interviewees, old newspapers and publications. Not all of these made it into the book for a variety of reasons. As I wanted to continue researching on Singapore’s design histories even after the book was published, I figured it would be good to have some kind of platform to reach out to the public and spark other projects. Around the time, I discovered the Malaysia Design Archive [malaysiadesignarchive.org], then just a website started by Ezrena Marwan. That inspired me to create what was originally named the “Singapore Visual Archive”.
Since then, the archives has always “suffered” as my side project. I’ve kept it simple because it is just me running it. After spending two years in New York City studying for my MFA in Design Criticism, I was further inspired by other design archives there. The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, which is essentially run by curator Alexander Tochilovsky, and Display, a website featuring the mid-century design collection of Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen, were two projects that showed me different ideas of what a design archive could be. Thanks to the generous help of Pettycache, Swarm and Watchtower Digital, the archive became more than just a Wordpress website. I also changed our name to focus on “Graphic” works instead of “Visuals” to emphasise that we were interested in the construction of design. Instead of a singular archive, we also wanted to be an “archive” holding different types of collections, ranging from designs to recordings of interviews with designers, etc.
When I started the archives, it was simply about uploading works from Independence and Signs of the Times, a rare 1995 compilation of logos from Singapore. As I started researching the origins of these designs and designers at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, it dawned on me that it was essentially a design archive. After all, graphic designers produce printed matter! So whenever I spend time in the library to work, I also hunt for logos. This could mean by looking up books, annual reports and ephemera published by specific organisations or browsing the stacks to see if there is anything of interest. It’s really about looking at the library’s materials through the lens of graphic design. Generally, I look out for designs produced for and from Singapore before the 2000s. The designs may be from significant organisations in the nation’s history, popular with the public or visually attractive to me. One reason we have not really archived contemporary designs is because today’s designers have built “archives” of their work online via their website and on platforms like Behance. Historically speaking, the formation of the DesignSingapore Council, Singapore’s national design agency, in 2003, also marked a change in what design meant locally.
The archives has always stayed independent because we want to be open to all kinds of design histories. We have not applied for government funding because that means other interests come into play. Plus, we are not a champion for “Singapore design” or heritage. Instead, “graphic design” and history is a lens for us to look at the world we live in today. For instance, we have the National Day Parade logos in our archives not because they are “good design”—which we do not seek to define. But these logos are expressions of how graphic designers interact with a particular group of people (the military) to construct “Singapore” and “nationalism” visually. Speaking about the military, we also have a collection of advertisements that feature weapons designed in Singapore. They are visually arresting graphics but we are also interested in displaying the lesser known fact that this country designs things that kill. Design is not a solution, but a problem too.
Perhaps this is a good reason for the Singapore Graphic Archives to remain independent. These descriptions remind me of the question: how much of history is constructed based on intent, power/ prominence, availability, or simply chance? Also, how much of this is the case for a Singapore “design history” if there is one. Or we can also ask, what are the conceptual implications of these considerations on this small publication?
History is ultimately (re)constructed. We will never know 100% why or how something happened. I am fascinated with history because we can use it to understand the present state of things. It also shows us alternatives that can spur the future. The archives draw out this subject of “Singapore design” history because we are interested in distributing design as a form of knowledge. We see ourselves as a public commons for anyone to use design as material to create, evaluate and even take apart histories. While I use “Singapore design history” to reflect on the state of this country, others may use it to evoke nostalgia or even teach design!
This is why I asked you to suggest what kind of publication the press would create out of the archives’ collection. We are excited to see how this can be of use or interest to others outside of the realm of history too. This publication also marks our first venture to go into print, a medium that offers new ways to read the archives’ collection. Unlike the online archives, the chronological layout of this book allows us to see shifts in design styles. Seeing the logos separate from the historical information also allows us to see these as visual objects first.
I guess we can be transparent and say that this compilation is largely a result of availability (those in very poor resolution were excluded) and even personal choice, when we consider that some were included only when flipping through past materials in preparing for this publication. (So, any criticism should be directed at Temporary Press.) The initial proposal was—worded the same way in our WhatsApp conversation—to collate all the logos collected so far into a simple, mainly visual booklet with only simple captions and credits, without involving much additional fact-finding. It is not so much a piece of historical or archival “research” but an open-ended visual document that extends itself from the online archive into physical space, hence also extending/creating a space for engagement/discourse through tangible objects, since printed and designed objects does that differently from online platforms. With this in mind, what are your thoughts on building “extensions” of the archive? Do you envision projects to be developed periodically around the archive, both by you and others, or for the archive to eventually amass enough material for larger exhibitions and projects, whether independently or with institutions? Also, (I am assuming here) how might the work you do as a design writer and researcher correlate or complement with the work of the archive? How might others with similar interests or work also (potentially) access and make use of these materials?
I would love to do more with the archives, including publishing books and putting up exhibitions. However, the biggest obstacle is getting permission from the copyright owners to feature the designs. Much what you see in the archives are colour photocopies of materials from the library. I’m not sure if what we are doing is legal! But I do not profit monetarily from the archives, and actually create knowledge for the public—thus I have less to lose if anyone threatens to take us down. As the source of our designs are not of the best quality, it has severely limited us to just publishing online too.
This is why I’ve recently started to acquire “Singapore design” through junk shops, used bookstores, eBay and Carousell [sg.carousell.com]. I have resisted the obvious route of asking designers to donate their collections partly because the archives has limited space (essentially my office) nor do we have the facilities to keep them well. On another level, we cherish our independence and don’t want the archives to become beholden to stakeholders on how we should present or view designs in our collection.
But that could change this year as we have just started running a pop-up “Singapore Design Archives” [designarchive.sg] at the National Design Centre [design singapore.org/national-design-centre] for a year. We have some space in a room that belongs to the DesignSingapore Associates Network. The DesignSingapore Council has also given us a small sum of money to curate a monthly display of objects related to Singapore design histories and run fortnightly open houses for visitors to see the objects up-close as well as browse other materials related to Singapore design. After existing online for so long, I see this as an experiment with ideas of what a design archive could be, such as experimenting with what we collect, how we display and different methods of disseminating knowledge.
As you have said, many of the graphic symbols here are reproduced from existing, sometimes secondary sources. Yet, these are older print artefacts or publications that are likely no longer easily available or accessible (one has to know where to look to find them). For this reason, consolidating them in this deliberately handy format allows easy and convenient reference to what might otherwise be accessible only in fragments or through unnecessarily large and glossy logo books that are still as popular as before. I see this contrast in presentation—down to the imperfections limited by the reproduction process (Risograph)—as a reflection of both the intentions of the press (a part of it is to publish what is in our view, outcomes that are urgent yet preliminary/in-progress) and of the archives, which can be described as an invitation and call-to-action towards the public. This is either to examine the presence or identify the lack of a history of graphic design (in this case through the limited form of logos and symbols) in Singapore.
The spirit of your press is very close to how I have envisioned the archives. We started out online partially because the medium allows us to publish first, think later. Even if the information about a design is incomplete, putting it out there allows people to realise it exists. They can then respond by making observations, sharing personal information about the design and even starting to draw comparisons to other things in the archives or even what they have seen elsewhere. One could say the archives points out stars in the night sky. Once you start looking up, it matters less to us if you admire the star, search for other stars or even draw out constellations. Most importantly, you will never forget that there is this thing called a “star” and it is part of a larger universe.
This leads to my point about what some might already notice—the immediate visual connection with what is frequently referred to as “modernist” logos. Anyone unfamiliar with this term can quickly search online and find or even appreciate the similarity between these graphic marks that, in the spirit of modernism, create and communicate the “identity” of the organisations represented with efficiency and clarity. In fact, some hold the view that “all good logos are modernist” and in that sense, enforce a particular style and approach across nations and cultures. In light of this visual and ideological similarity, we can ask if design in Singapore and the progress it often boasts of is more representative of design as a cultural activity or a strategy for economic growth. (I am going to avoid the easy way out to say that it is a mix of the two.) The former is significant of a deeper shared sensibility and appreciation of a good design that is subjective yet relevant to Singaporeans, the latter signifies the use of “design” as merely another tool for driving economy, though this time with more involvement from its citizens. I can’t help but reflect on the state of design when “reading” this selection of symbols and speculating if their existence and the efforts surrounding them were shaped more by external than internal factors/motivation. I am interested to find out in further detail: how much of the graphic symbols represented here are “Singaporean” in your opinion (whether that means designed by Singaporeans, containing traits we might identify with, or simply based on geographical reasons)?
I know it is not possible to provide any in-depth response in this simple written conversation. Still, with your interactions with many local designers and looking up related materials in the process of building this archives, there may be sign posts to initial answers, or even to the irrelevance of this question considering the rate of progress we are enjoying despite a lack of—with slight irony—“identity” in design.
I actually started writing about design in search of this very question: What is Singapore design? I’ve come to realise there is no singular definition. If you think MUJI is “Japanese design”, how do you account for the fact that many of its products are not designed by Japanese? How do we also explain other “Japanese designs” such as the messy and loud street style of Harajuku? We need to look at “Singapore design” as a contest of ideas rather than a coherent identity.
That said, the logos in this book and the archives represents quite a sizeable collection from and about the government. Thus, I would say that “Singapore design” in this context is about projecting the city-state as modern. In the 1960s, the government introduced “design” into Singapore as part of an industrialisation drive. When it opened its first design school, Baharuddin Vocational Institute, the staff were sent for training in developed countries such as USA, Canada and Japan. For very long, Singapore’s design industry was dominated by expatriate creative directors from Australia and the UK as well as a few locals trained in the same countries. They all preached the gospel of the “modern” to the government. And this was readily accepted because we want to be as developed as the West. By 1987, when The Straits Times [straitstimes.com] ran an article about the trend of Singapore organisations adopting new logos, it noted how they have become simpler over the years. One of the most sought after Singapore graphic designers then, William Lee, summed up a good logo to be “simple, striking”. He added, “A logo is international. It has to be understood at one look...”
These ideas related to modern design were widely published in mainstream newspapers then. Unlike today, where rebrands and new logos hardly make the news anymore, it was common to see announcements of changes in logo designs that were accompanied by write-ups on explaining the symbolism. In this way, Singaporeans were educated to equate design as modern.
Actually, the question of what “Singapore design” seem less of a concern until more recent times. Not only is there a new generation curious about their roots, Singapore’s design industry also has a new force to reckon with: tourism. If design was previously all about helping businesses and the government look “modern” so as to succeed internationally, Singapore now also needs to differentiate itself from so many other modern cities. Design is expected to fashion that image for us, especially in the tourism sector. This can be seen in the recent trend of “Singapore souvenirs”, an example of a “Singapore design” product that can be easily marketed and exported.
This is something worth looking into beyond this conversation and I am sure there are many interested in this wider discussion you kickstarted in the article “Got Singapore Design?” in The Design Society Journal (No.5, p.56–65). Despite there being different ideas on what constitutes “Singaporean design”, we cannot deny the fact that many of these (some unquestionably well-designed) graphic symbols are already partially embedded in the history of design in Singapore and whether it reflects a sobering or celebratory narrative is another question altogether. For me, there is a sense of familiarity or (I guess even a country-wide) identification with a handful of the logos but most of the others exude confident, clear, but unfamiliar ideals for us as young Singaporeans. Ironically, the former are those of everyday, inconspicuous brands instead of significant public events or prominent organisations.
To end, we’d like to ask a final question that is perhaps already expressed through the design and publication of this small booklet: how do you envision the local community of organisations or individual researchers, designers, and students to play a role in the larger aspirations of the archive, or to put it more broadly by quoting from the website, “to promote a critical appreciation of the city state’s visual culture”?
Knowledge is power. Firstly, the archive is calling out the fact that Singapore is made up of signs, symbols and images. Secondly, the archive is saying that these are constructed by people who have intentions and assumptions about the audience they are reaching out to. Thus, by making available many different collections of designs, we invite others to consider the relationships between them as well as what they have seen. Ultimately, design is a language that can be read, decoded and interpreted. It offers us a lens to see how the world that we live in is perceived and organised. The archives hopes to play a small role in raising such an awareness in Singapore.
I guess a collective effort is required, one that will benefit both the archives and the community. I find this description—to promote a critical appreciation of Singapore’s visual culture—key in identifying a general approach to thinking about graphic design in Singapore. Often, we are either too critical in expressing dissatisfaction with the state of understanding in design, wondering if there is even a space for individual and collective growth on par with more culturally exciting parts of the world, or too ignorant and comfortable with appreciating half-baked notions and narratives of “SG” designs presented either (mainly) for economical or state-driven intentions.“Critical appreciation”, a term that reminds us to be neither condemnatory nor to blindly accept/admire, is for a start, how we hope its readers will approach this little compilation—a visual document that tells a history-in-progress of Singapore through symbolic representations of both known and unknown brands, bodies, organisations, and our collective experiences with them.
— June 2018