Singapore’s young designers, already liminal

As mentioned in my previous post, I met three young Singaporean product designers – initially for a cup of coffee in the afternoon but ended with dinner at a fantastic Japanese restaurant. We’re pictured here at the Esplanade, also known as "The Durian", for the new arts center in Singapore has spiky look reminiscent of this region’s particularly aromatic fruit.

Looming up behind us is Hilmir. He went straight to Singapore’s compulsory selective service on graduation two and half years ago, and will complete his stint in the armed forces in March 2006. With training in crisis management and emergency rescue, he tells me how he’s learnt not only to keep a cool head when others are ‘running around like chickens with there heads cut off’ but also observing users struggle to use products in an emergency triggering ideas for design improvements in his spare time.

Noreen, in the maroon sweater, on the left, worked as a designer for a while but felt unfulfilled by her job and frustrated with office politics. Now, she works for the Education Ministry, working with gifted children, developing their creativity.

Lynnette’s in the middle, and she insists that the word "single" on her t-shirt refers to the tennis term rather than any attempt on her part to advertise her social status 🙂

The hours flew by as they shared with me their thoughts and dreams as designers. They felt isolated they said, Singapore has no global voice in design. It’s nowhere on the map. China is a big giant, and all the action is up in Shanghai. All we’re taught is styling, they said, the technology has already been worked out, we can’t do anything but make it look good on the outside. That’s all we are, just stylists. And we read Core77 – there’s so much going on out there, it seems so remote from us.

But I don’t agree at all, I told them. Sure, nobody’s heard of Singapore as a design city YET but your government has a solid design policy in place that they are implementing very systematically. In 2005 alone, Singapore invested 9.6 million Singapore dollars in promoting design and arts related events culminating with the month long DesignSingapore festival. They nodded and added that soon there would be funding available for them to pursue higher education abroad, to learn new skills and return to raise their country’s design profile.

And, I added, sure China is looming up close by and tiny little Singapore feels a bit threatened, but unlike the majority of the designers in Shanghai, you’ve got valuable skills, when Lynnette, who is ethnically Chinese, added that she couldn’t read or write Mandarin, having studied in English all her life. Singapore is a multcultural multiracial society as our group photograph shows. And these youngsters grow up in a wired, tech savvy nation that is geographically the crossroads for trade, shipping and travel in the South China Sea. Just an hour’s flight from Hong Kong and a favourite destination for Australians, I for one watching Singapore’s progress from a "low cost" location for the semi conductor and consumer electronics industry to a ‘knowledge based creative economy’, just as her leaders intend.

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4 Responses to Singapore’s young designers, already liminal

  1. Singapore as a new hub of innovation and design

    For more on Singapore’s efforts to become a global hub for innovation and design (see the earlier post on “Creative London”), check out Niti Bhan’s live dispatches from Singapore, where she spent part of the winter holidays hanging out with cutting-edg…

  2. Lee says:

    In Singapore, we have all the technology we want. In fact, compare to the neigbour country, we are better equipped in most way. With these technology, we are constantly exposed to outside information and we know we are not alone in this small island.
    However, most of our mentality is still set back to a ‘safe’ society model. A model that prevent us to innovate and think different. This is been cultivated since we were young , or maybe because of the asian culture we have.
    We are trying to move towards a renaissance city. I feel that we are still far away from the goal. In fact, I feel that we are still in the industrial age, where we would just duplicate a successful model, and mass produce it. That would be safe process in most business process.Example, Creative Tech.

  3. Hilmir says:

    I think the level of innovation may not be head-spinningly high, but it is here. A design for a medicine bottle with a built-in measuring cup, for easier & more hygienic consumption has been picked up and mass produced. That was designed by a polytechnic student for the Tan Kah Kee Awards, if I remember correctly.
    And the USB Thumbdrive, which is an essential gadget/device all over the world, was created right here in Singapore, by a company called Trek. And we all know how useful that little thing is 🙂
    Those are two that I can recall from the top of my head. So, it is here and like a Renaissance City, it will take time to nurture, but with the right exposure and credit given to these innovators, more people will be willing to change mindsets that
    opportunities for innovations are aplenty. Just need to sit down and think about how we go about tackling it. 🙂

  4. Niti Bhan says:

    Lee, Hilmir,
    I must add a couple of things – yes your education and your government tends toward the mindset of the “safe” society but they are also realising the need for lateral thinking, your generation is in the middle, I have heard that they have already added design as an O Level course and started a different style of teaching at the primary level – the real effects of course will show in 10 years. But as Hilmir points outs, innovation is there, it needs a jump start and inspiration – perhaps instead of being isolated in silos, all you young designers need to get together and talk about these very things – debate, invite professional practitioners to share their experience, mix across your school associations and network. Single minds working alone will always feel a little isolated.
    As for Creative Tech, I must agree – I noted their job description for a product planner in the Straits Times on Sat the 8th of Jan, it requires an engineering or marketing engineer background – how rigid! – I know that similar positions at Motorola in Chicago hire designers and design planners to bring a different perspective to their innovation efforts. Until the mindset that set job functions can only be done by set qualifications changes there will be a continuation of the “safe process” you mention, Lee.
    I’m talking to Core77 about organizing an Offsite in Singapore this year, soon – what do you say, Hilmir to helping me by organising such a thing locally?

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