Explore Singapore, Hub of Creativity

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in HOW Magazine’s Summer Creativity issue. Get a copy to discover amazing optical illusions, exciting design exercises and more.

by Ellen Shapiro

Explore Singapore, the Southeast Asian city-state home to an explosive tech world and a rich multicultural creative scene.

We create our own identity, our own DNA. We’re not following European or Japanese or American design styles,” says Kevin He, founder of Kong, one of the studios transforming Singapore into an industry powerhouse.

This island nation of 5.6 million people off the southern tip of Malaysia is only 277 square miles, a quarter the size of Rhode Island, but it’s Southeast Asia’s hub of commerce. And it’s a hub of creativity, which is expressed in the architecture, museums, gardens, and technological and design innovation.

The international ad agencies with offices here serve local clients, but also tailor campaigns for global brands to the tastes of a population that’s approximately 70% of Chinese descent, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian, and that officially speaks standard English. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are official languages too, but many people communicate in Singlish, a rapid, colloquial patois of words adopted from a dozen languages overlayed with Australian and American slang.

This multicultural mix makes for a challenging but delicious stew, not only for dining options—eating out is a favorite activity—but for creative output.

A case in point is the colorful, animated multinational typeface created to brand and promote the team at Grey Group Singapore, where creatives hail from Australia, Brazil, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa and the U.S., as well as locally. Designer and typographer Luis Princep Fabra (himself from Spain, and now executive creative director at digital agency Tribal DDB Worldwide) combined elements from the flags of the agency’s 106 client countries in a dynamic set of letterforms for use on office signage, T-shirts, mugs and invitations to the welcome party.

explore singaporeMultinational Typeface by Luis Princep Fabra for Grey Group Singapore

“The projects we do here need to speak to an international audience,” concurs Edwin Tan, creative director at Bravo, a branding studio that’s attracting clients beyond Singapore’s borders. “The internet has made the world one entity, borders are blurring,” he says. “The projects we publish online are viewed by people all over the world, and we get inquiries from all over the world as well.”

explore Sinagpore; meet the Bravo teamThe Bravo team in their artifact-filled office: (from left) Kaelyn Quek, Hsu Li, Shermaine Wee, Michelle Yong, Carisia Chew and founder Edwin Tan.

High-Tech Tropical Paradise

First-time visitors can get their bearings by taking a river cruise that begins in the quays of the historic district, glides past British Colonial buildings like the old Supreme Court and City Hall, which are now the National Gallery Singapore, and takes them into the central business district, or CBD. There, glass towers house offices of Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as rising startups like ReFUEL4, which uses a global network of designers to create and update “smarter” Facebook ads for customers including Spotify and PayPal. So many buildings have roof gardens and tropical plants dripping from balconies and terraces that Singapore’s tagline is being changed from “Garden City” to “City in the Garden.”

Singapore’s climate of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round makes it an ideal growing zone, so astute planners have gifted both locals and visitors with the highlight of the tour, Gardens by the Bay. This 250-acre park features glass conservatories filled with dramatic vertical plantings of ferns, orchids and flowering vines. A grove of “Supertrees,” 150-foot treelike sculptures, collect rainwater, harness solar energy and cool the conservatories. The park’s nightly music and light shows are set against an astonishing background of contemporary architecture including Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay complex with its many-petaled ArtScience Museum and its three hotel towers joined by a surfboard-like roof garden.

explore singaporeSupertrees,” vertical gardens that harvest solar energy and come alive with nightly light shows, at the Gardens by the Bay. In the background, a roof garden connects the three towers of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands.

Good Design is Celebrated and Rewarded

Singapore proudly calls itself a “City of Design: Designated UNESCO Creative City.” It has partnered with 19 other cities, including Bilbao and Seoul, locales that have pledged to “place creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans.”

One example of that is the government-supported National Design Centre, a five-story hive of prototyping labs, event spaces and offices, including that of the DesignSingapore Council, which hosts an annual Design Week with citywide festivals and a conference that attracts top international speakers. The current exhibition, “Fifty Years of Singapore Design,” which will be on view through 2017, presents the best in product and industrial design, fashion, environmental design and visual communications from independence in 1965 on.

explore singaporeThe National Design Centre, where the exhibition “Fifty Years of Singapore Design” takes visitors decade-by-decade through history.

The President’s Design Awards, which confers awards in every design discipline, is a major annual civic event. At its 2006 ceremony, Theseus Chan, “the godfather of Singapore graphic design,” whose firm WORK was founded in 1997, became the first communication designer to be named Designer of the Year. His WERK magazine, in which he experiments with materials, textures and binding techniques in collaboration with European and Japanese fashion designers and artists, first brought attention to the Singapore scene and garnered D&AD Yellow Pencils, New York Art Directors Club medals, and Tokyo TDC awards.

An issue of WERK by Theseus Chan

Singapore Art Museum student project by Lionel Tay.

Home-Grown Talent

“Singapore designers are evolving from doers to thinkers,” adds Kevin He, proudly. “One of the things that led to this evolution is our education infrastructure.”

Unlike other Asian countries, notably Korea, that fill 50% of the slots at The School of Visual Arts and some other U.S. design schools, most Singaporean designers attend local schools. Although a few go on to pursue MFAs at RISD, Parsons, Yale or London’s University of the Arts, an American or European education conveys no special status here. The top local firms were founded by graduates of Singapore Polytechnic, Lasalle College of the Arts, Temasek Polytechnic, and Raffles Design Institute (which, like other Raffles institutions, was named for the British statesman who founded the city-state in 1819 as a trading post of the East India Company). And those graduates partnered with and hired their classmates and peers.

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Chan offers this observation: “In the mid-’90s, graduates that grew up in the digital age started forming collectives and boutique studios offering fresh alternative solutions. This, coupled with quick-changing media and social landscape, created a dynamic scene away from traditional advertising agencies’ mindset. Design thus became the new voice in communication and marketing.”

Kevin He and his senior designer Charles Cheok, for example, are fellow graduates of Lasalle College. With deep knowledge of the local culture, their team of seven is turning out exquisite work that unites Chinese and Western iconography. Kong Studio’s own identity is an intellectually pure exercise in bilingual typography. “The logo mark is based on the Chinese character (),” explains He. “Pronounced ‘Kong,’ the word can be translated as ‘emptiness.’ It references the negative space that is as important to graphic design as strokes and fills. The character 空 pervades the identity in various forms, and when rotated forms my initials, K.H.”

Designers Sinn Low and Stacey Zuo at Kong Studio. The logo, by firm principal Kevin He, is based on the Chinese character ‘Kong,’ which refers to all-important negative space in design and, turned sidewise, is his initials.

Other notable Kong projects are identities for educational and government institutions and retail clients, among them a bold brush-and-ink logo for Bilingual Book Store and a system based on modular cubes for B/W, a maker of modular shelving systems.

Branding and phone app for Bilingual Book Store by Kong Studio; Bilingual Book Store signage by Kong.

Live Well, Eat Well

It’s not inexpensive to live in Singapore, but for the price of a studio apartment in New York or San Francisco you can rent a three-bedroom, two-bath in a high-rise complex with central air conditioning, a bedroom for your housekeeper or nanny, also considered essential, and perhaps a pool and tennis court. Designers report they live in neighborhoods with names like Bukit Timah, characterized as “very green and chill”; Tiong Bahru, the epicenter of cool coffee-and-cupcake spots and independent bookstores; and Lavender, an area with a colonial past where Hindu temples stand side-by-side with fashion and home décor shops, bars and cafés. Singapore’s neighborhoods, including Little India and Chinatown, aren’t Disney-like re-creations, but real places where people live, work, shop and dine.

“Food is a main attraction,” says Carisia Chew, account manager at Bravo. “We have a diverse mixture of cuisines, and you can try them all in one country. Closest to our heart (and stomach) is Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, our go-to lunch spot since we opened a few blocks away seven years ago. Forget air-conditioned restaurants. Go street!” By that she means the hawker markets where dozens of food stalls sell unique specialties.

Interactive website for Tiong Bahru Market, designed pro bono by Bravo.

It might not be an exaggeration to claim that every restaurateur in Singapore realizes that clever, well-designed branding is a must-have to distinguish his or her restaurant from the competition. Bravo creates some of the best, including the Tiong Bahru website, a self-initiated, nonprofit project that features an interactive directory that maps the dishes sold at every stall—from ang ku kueh (a red, tortoise-shaped pastry with sweet bean filling) to you taio, deep-fried dough sticks. “The fun bits,” adds designer Michele Yong, “are our personal recommendations—like min nan noodles with pork ribs and prawns—and the meal generator for those who can’t decide amongst the huge range of choices.” Other notable Bravo projects include casino-inspired branding for Full of Luck Club and a nostalgic variety-store vibe for Five & Dime café.

Graphics for Full of Luck Club by Bravo.

Designers cannot live by food alone, and Bravo’s clients include The Chain Reaction Project, a nonprofit that combines adventure trips with fund-raising to change the lives of people in undeveloped nations. The basis of the identity is the Chinese character ‘ren’ () or “people.” The three simplified lines in the logo mark are combined and repeated to symbolize a chain reaction and to represent the causes the trips support.

Urban Renewal

In a renovated historic Chinatown building, a company called The Working Capitol hosts what its founders call “a community of knowledge workers who operate at the intersection of creativity, technology and business.” The esoteric brand language was developed by Yah-Leng Yu and her team at Foreign Policy Design. “We were inspired by Euclidean’s geometric construction,” Yu explains. “The idea is that something beautiful can be created with a basic axiomatic system. Euclidean theory allows for infinite outcomes and is guided by five postulates, thus the logo permutations radiate into an intricate sphere of influence and reflect Working Capitol’s mission.”

explore singaporeThe Foreign Policy Design Group on the terrace of Singapore’s National Gallery, for which they’ve designed the interiors and packaging for the cafeteria and the museum shop, Gallery & Co. At right front, in grey, is firm principal Yah-Leng Yu.

Foreign Policy is also keeping busy with the branding, packaging and interior graphics for Gallery & Co., the museum store and cafeteria in the newly restored National Gallery. “The brand concept harks back to Singapore’s early role as a trading port and is derived from basic circles, squares and triangles, as well as primary colors—the palette we’re introduced to when we start drawing and painting as kids,” Yu says. A graduate of Nanyang Technological University, this articulate, pioneering design firm principal earned her B.A. at the Art Institute of Boston and worked in New York City for several years before returning home. “I am a voice for Singapore,” she asserts. “Representing Singapore. Representing Design. Spreading the love to all including non-designers and appreciators of designs.”

Packaging and interior graphics for Gallery & Co. by Foreign Policy.

Too Much to Do?

Singaporians seem to never run out of things to do, from spending time at the city’s gardens and museums to cycling through its parks. “If you enjoy a long walk, you can walk along Bayfront to Esplanade to Clarke Quay,” suggests Lionel Tay, a native of the People’s Republic of China and recent Raffles graduate who’s now working at Goodfellas, an ad and marketing agency founded by two Y&R guys who wanted to do things differently—and won the Agency of the Year award in 2016. “There are many places to visit along the way, such as Fort Canning Park, my personal favorite,” he says. This historic site hosts concerts, festivals and productions like Shakespeare in the Park, Ballet Under the Stars, and Films at the Fort. These days, Tay is spending most of his time honing skills developed at school, where his senior project, a logo for “SAM,” a contemporary art museum housed in a 19th-Century mission school, has attracted nearly 550 appreciations on Behance.

And then there’s shopping. Singapore has everything from upscale malls with all the Prada and Chanel you’d ever want to ogle, to sidewalk stands selling electronic goodies like refills for your SIM card and $5 reproductions of jewelry seen in paintings of Hindu goddesses, to unique venues like Mustafa, a full-block long, multistory emporium in Little India. “You can get anything and everything at this 24/7, one-stop destination, from groceries, textiles, clothing, cosmetics, electronics, sports equipment to pharmaceutical products and even travel bookings,” Chew points out.

A Base for Expats, and for Adventurers

Although the boutique studios were founded by locals who tend to hire their peers and classmates, the larger agencies spread a wider net. “Singapore’s ability to attract top professional talent from around the world is cornerstone to its continual success,” says Chan. “There are opportunities for designers and entrepreneurs of all disciplines to carve a successful career here.” Indeed, the staff at ReFUEL4 includes folks from Australia, India, the U.K. and the U.S., all putting in the hours and striving for success together.

“I moved here mainly because I’ve been always interested in Asian cultures,” explains Princep Fabra, who studied in Barcelona and Vienna and worked in Rio de Janeiro and Madrid before settling in Singapore at age 30. “I wanted to experience Asia closer than visiting as a tourist. Singapore is an active, dynamic place to work. People move in and out pretty fast, but the fact that English is one of the official national languages makes it easy for foreign talent to feel comfortable,” he notes. “But experience working in or for Asian markets is always a plus.”

He echoes nearly every other Singaporean when he concludes, “One of the things I really enjoy about living here is the location. Magical places like Ubud, Bali, are less than a three-hour flight away. From here, it’s easy to experience the rich and lively cultures of many other Asian countries—and to return inspired to do even better work.”

Ellen Shapiro is a New York–based graphic designer and writer who’s been documenting design trends, events and personalities as a contributing editor of Print since 1991.


This year’s HOW International Design Awards deadline is Monday, Sept. 11!

See all categories here and enter your work by 11:59pm EDT on Monday.

Best of luck to you!