Design can inspire you when you least expect it, according to DesignSingapore (Dsg) Scholarship recipients, Justin Zhuang and Yeo Ker Siang. The duo pursued their respective specialisations in design and are now creating a palpable impact on society through their unique works.
Design is pervasive. Just a quick look around and you will realise that many aspects of everyday life are products of good design. It can be the user interface of self-service check-in and bag-drop kiosks at the Singapore Changi Airport, or public housing projects that offer a variety of unit types with flexible layouts and integrate communal spaces within the estates.
The ubiquity of design demonstrates that you do not have to be a designer in the traditional sense to design something practical and useful, aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking.
Justin Zhuang graduated from journalism school and he practices Design Criticism, using words as a medium to communicate facts, perspectives and other musings on culture, history and design.
Similarly, Yeo Ker Siang studied engineering but pursued design after an epiphany during his National Service (NS). Now, he practises design extensively and nurtures aspiring designers at the same time.
Both Justin and Ker Siang are recipients of the Dsg Scholarship, which is awarded to students and professionals to study design.
Power of the Word
Take a printed copy of a newspaper and look at the way the stories, pictures and advertisements are positioned. Apart from maximising space, there are subtle nuances added to engage the reader visually. Justin realised that when he was laying out his university newspaper and this was what got him interested in design.
“I noticed how I was constructing visual relationships that shaped the way the stories would be read. A well-laid-out page could capture readers’ attention and even add meaning to the stories featured. Design is invisible yet impactful,” he mused.
To him, typefaces, or the design of lettering, was also more than just an aesthetic creation.
“A chance encounter with Steven Heller’s Eye Magazine essay on the Nazi Party’s obsession with the Gothic typeface opened my eyes to how design is a product and expression of culture, society and the times. I then started seeing the world as it was designed.”
He added: “Design neither comes from a stroke of inspiration nor the whims and fancies of a creative maverick. This I seek to record through publishing stories in various media.”
While he has always been intrigued by design, Justin did not study it formally until he worked and managed his writing studio, In Plain Words.
“After working for five years, I was convinced I wanted to spend the rest of my life pursuing design as a subject. I came across an article featuring a Dsg scholar, and found out that the Dsg Scholarship supports various design disciplines such as Design History. I realised I could get funded for pursuing something similar too.”
After being awarded the Dsg Scholarship in 2013, he studied Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the first Dsg scholar to do so.
Design Criticism, according to Justin, examines how design impacts and is the outcome of different groups of people, from designers, manufacturers, marketers, policymakers and even users—negotiating their different visions and beliefs, exploring material constraints, managing economic costs, and even speculating about the future.
After earning his master’s degree, Justin continued to uncover editorial angles that matter to him, such as Singapore’s architectural heritage. He co-authored Everyday Modernism: Architecture and Society in Singapore, which explores the history, culture and design of some of Singapore’s most interesting buildings. The book is slated to be released at the end of 2022.
“I hope the book can bring forth the background of Singapore’s iconic buildings and infrastructure, and help readers understand how they came about,” Justin shared.
And when it comes to recommending the Dsg Scholarship, the wordsmith simply answered: “Why not?”
Indeed, there is no reason not to. The Scholarship can open doors of opportunities into the world of design and inspire you to reimagine new futures.
A Challenger of the Norm
Although Ker Siang majored in engineering, he had always felt the urge to challenge the status quo, which came to a head when he was serving NS. Eventually, he found himself pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Industrial Design at the National University of Singapore.
“At that time, design was not a sexy, trendy, clear and obvious choice of a career for Singaporeans. That motivated me to try something different, to see where it would take me,” he recalled.
He added: “In an increasingly visual- and media-driven world, there will be plenty of opportunities where experiences have to be managed and communicated. We are only beginning to understand this. The world changed with writing, paper and printing, but now we are embracing a world where images and experiences are everything.”
Ker Siang’s penchant for going against the grain and his fluid yet focused mindset have been the cornerstones of his design journey. He was inspired by different design approaches, and constantly explored alternative avenues for his assignments. This led him to pursue post-graduate studies in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom.
“After graduation, I worked for a while in digital transformation, started teaching design and founded my own studio to do challenge-status-quo projects.”
One of Ker Siang’s significant works includes the Absolute Relative installation for Absolut Vodka in SONAR+D, Barcelona. But the design practitioner and educator at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) said that his proudest achievement is being able to nudge design students to express their creativity and ideas, and prioritise their relevance for industry and society.
He advises students and professionals who are considering design education to just apply for the Dsg Scholarship when the opportunity arises.
He quipped: “Don’t think so much.”
This article was first published in BrightSparks July 2022 magazine. Reproduced with permission from Kariera Group (Singapore) Pte Ltd.
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