Where Design Meets Art
Interviewed by Justin Zhuang • Illustration by Denise Nicole Yap
The growth of Singapore’s arts and cultural industries has given designers more opportunities to work on creative-based projects and blurred the traditional divide of art and design. We speak to graphics designers who have worked for art clients, and even create their own art — Roy Wang (ADM 2012) of Factory 1611, Bryan Angelo Lim (ADM 2011) of qu’est-ce que c’est design, and Joanne Pang (ADM 2009) — to explore what binds and divides these two worlds.
How have your jobs with art clients typically come about?
Roy: As with most Singapore governmental or statutory board run art organisations, we’d have to go through a tender process to be selected for the projects. When we work with privately run art organisations however, we collaborate directly with the curators or gallery directors whom we’ve build up a rapport and understanding over many projects.
Bryan: We approached most of these clients directly because of our interest in the work they do and our desire to work with them. At times, they come through recommendations from our other clients.
Joanne: Through conversations and chemistry with one another. Often, they know me first as an artist, but they also learn that I am a graphic designer. For instance, I did an artist residency at Finland’s Mustarinda, and the next year they got me to do a poster.
What type of work do you design for such clients?
Roy: We work on exhibition branding, spatial, wayfinding, experience design and exhibition build. Recent examples for the National Gallery Singapore include Reframing Modernism, its first international collaboration with Centre Pompidou and Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat, the first major survey of sculptor Iskandar’s career. One particularly rewarding project was our full campaign branding of the ADM Graduation Show 2015 for the NTU School of Art, Design and Media.
Bryan: For our theatre clients, we usually develop the visual identities for their productions as well as the subsequent ‘below-the-line’ marketing materials. For The Necessary Stage, these include Ghost Writer (2016), Best Of (His Story) (2016) and Those Who Can't, Teach (2017). We have also been privileged to work on marketing materials for festivals, such as the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival (2016 and 2017), Singapore Writers Festival (2016), and more recently, M1 Chinese Theatre Festival (2017).
Joanne: Mainly publication design and the output is typically typography-driven because it is what I am comfortable with. I worked on Old News #12 (2013), a publication curated by Jacob Fabricius with works by Banu Cennetoğlus. For the 2012 Singapore Night Festival, I worked with artist Michael Lee to create a typography light installation on the facade of the Peranakan Museum.
As graphic designers, do you differentiate yourself from artists? What are the boundaries between art and design?
Roy: I was trained in and practicing fine arts for almost two decades before switching to graphic design. It took me a really long time to grasp the ideals of what made design, design, and what made art, art. I also started to question what made good art and design, good. I’ve come to realise there are always good artistic qualities in good design, and good design principles engaged in good art, but fundamentally, design is almost always meant to be functional; to communicate a message or to solve a person or an audience’s problems.
Bryan: While the thought and development process between the two may not differ much, I would usually correct someone if I was referred to as an "artist", or the work I do as "artistic". There is a line that separates the fields of design and art. Art is interesting because of its subjectivity—the ability to present multiple points-of-view and the possibility of reading it differently. Design, being the more practical counterpart, has to be more succinct and attenuated in bringing its message(s) across.
Joanne: When I design, the outcome is a solution for a situation usually identified by others. In art, the outcome is not a solution to a problem, but in doing so, it raises more questions and uncertainties.
How is your view of art and design reflected in your work?
Roy: Good art depicts and expresses an experience, it makes you feel something. Good design on the other hand successfully conveys a function or a message. In my works, I try to let people experience a function or a message instead of just showing. By combining sound business strategies with good art and design principles, I can create effective and unconventional communication projects across all mediums. One recent example would be a series of cool paper miniature sets we designed and crafted for a stop-motion animation What if?. This is a brand film for the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore.
Bryan: We look into the many perspectives that the project entails by researching further into the subject matter, as well as survey periphery ideas. We then develop different creative directions. With some clients whom we have a very good rapport with, the final outcome is often a successful amalgamation of both our perspectives.
An example was our work for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016. We researched on art where animals were explored to develop three initial concepts around the theme “Art and the Animal”. The client chose the concept centred around human’s innate fear and fascination of crossing the human/savage divide, and after discussion, suggested we bring in small elements from the two other concepts, which spoke about the rawness of human emotions when expressed symbolically through an animal as well as human intervention in the natural world. This made the final outcome visually rich and conceptually layered.
Joanne: There is an aesthetic balance but conceptually, it originates from discomfort. Harmony, contrast, colour and how these different elements work together beautifully is aesthetic balance. These are factors that are transdisciplinary and not defined as art or design. My conceptual approach of discomfort comes from deconstructing my design projects. Like in Several Islands (2011), a novel written by Ho Rui An and curated by Heman Chong, I was presented with a collection of fragmented stories about The Substation. My approach looked at how to express this idea of disjointedness yet still present a single picture of a collection of islands. The title is broken into several units that can still be seen together as “Several Islands”. I was also careful to be not too literal, so some may see the fragments of letters as shapes. There is some order, but there are also moments when you’re not sure what they are.
Do you practice art too?
Roy: I’ve been very interested, and building kinetic sculptures and installations in recent years, moving on from the more formal mediums of painting and drawing that I was trained in. 天下 / Universal Balance (2012) was my undergraduate thesis project, and the sculpture shaped like a gigantic Chinese ink well questions and explores the place and possibilities of infusing Daoist aesthetic values of naturalism and law upon modern aesthetic viewpoints, building towards a Chinese ideal of “Universal Balance” (天下). A big part of this interest comes from how technology has become so interspersed with our lives; every tiny aspect has been influenced in some sense.
Bryan: The studio has created two art installation projects that incidentally blurs the line of art and design.
The first, The Singapore Cart, was exhibited at Aliwal Arts Centre in 2013 as part of "The Smoke Filled Room". The mixed medium installation of a supermarket cart filled with specially designed packaged items questioned Singapore's import culture, and the validity of such practices for the sake of growth and progress.
Our second work was a site specific piece for The Substation, as part of "(interiorities)(peripheries: 1". We designed and placed satirical and fictitious flyers with QR codes that linked to a website at the brochure and pamphlet stand of its box office. We wanted people to consider the exploitive nature of marketing and advertising.
Our philosophy is to be curious about every aspect of our work, and that stands true for both art and design. For design works, we examine all possibilities and angles to provide a range of answers for the problem. In our art, we turn the tables and get people to ask questions and be curious instead.
Joanne: I make sculptures, installations, paintings and drawings. In many of my artworks, it’s very much been about a place. The structure of a place becomes like a design brief is for me. For instance, “Go Further In” has these insulation foams placed on two doors of a space where I exhibited in Denmark. This foam is used as insulation in European houses, and usually found between the walls. I appropriated the concept and poetics behind this foam to place on a door, which is something that we can penetrate through, and gave the material a new meaning. By letting people see this foam that is usually invisible, it also changes the way they typically encounter it.
Based on your experience, how do art clients see design differently from others?
Roy: Whilst there is definitely a greater understanding in the value of design from art-based clients, there are finer, invisible lines that need to be threaded on lightly. A good working relationship always comes with both parties being able to complement or challenge each other at times, allowing for the possibility of an end product which is better than what either one envisioned at the beginning. Art clients sometimes already have a distinct vision of the final design. You do not want to overstep the lines as a designer, but the challenge lies in how to push boundaries, by recognising their existence.
Bryan: Most art clients—being creative people—come to designers with already a very strong vision of the final outcome that they would like to see. Although the situation is much more desirable than a client or project that has no distinct point-of-view, it may also restrict the range of possible solutions.
Joanne: More openness in visual expressions. Art and design have a lot in common, and art clients who are more exposed to such aspects have a better eye. They are more open to visual expressions that are not so corporate.
What do you like about working for the arts? Anything you don’t?
Roy: It’s usually more free play, with more conceptual thinking involved. It allows designers to push their boundaries above and beyond what they are used to. As an art practitioner, I enjoy working with other artists, in the process speaking to them about the concepts behind their works. It feels a lot more engaging when you are designing for something you believe in.
Bryan: The great thing about working for art-related projects is how it is usually a playground for ideas. Different trajectories and possibilities are already inherently present in these projects. We have the privilege to take apart the ideas, research deeper for a more in-depth understanding, re-assemble, and even look at it from an entirely different angle. This allows for visual outcomes that may not necessarily be “commercial”, “mainstream” or “expected”. Thankfully, the tolerance for such visual outcomes in art project is higher than most other types of projects.
Joanne: I feel more connected to the context of the projects. Also, I know my client more personally; it is not just a business relationship.
What has working with the arts taught you about design and vice versa?
Roy: Working with the arts often makes me question, and reminds me of, the purpose of the design: to communicate the experience of the art to a wider audience, and not to overshadow it. One instance was when we designed the exhibition branding for, Fellini: Circus of Life, a show held at ADM Gallery. This was an introduction to works of the late film director Federico Fellini. We had to portray the distinct style of his works via visual language of the branding, so we were careful not to overshadow the exhibition’s content, whilst maintaining the strong visual presence at the same time.
Bryan: Although there are many formal qualities shared between the two disciplines, working with the arts has taught me how that the biggest difference between art and design is in its end point. Fundamentally, graphic design will still need to communicate one or more messages without ambiguity, and elicit a definite call to action from the user. Art, conversely, can be infinitely subjective and open-ended with no fixed response required from its viewer.
Joanne: To deconstruct, control and let go. To deconstruct is to break down a brief into its concepts or understanding of what are the elements that make a site. To control is to then make sense of what you have deconstructed and to make connections or formulate new relations. To let go means the work you have created has a life of its own. Ultimately, the perception formed from reading it, encountering it, and experiencing it, that is beyond me.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.