Tofu Design Pte Ltd.
Company Founded in
Names of Founders
Michelle Au, & Jenny Widjaja (2011-2019), Michelle Au (2019-present)
Founders' Birth Year (Michelle)
B.FA Communication Studies (Hons), Nanyang Technological University (2000)
Previous Job (Michelle)
Junior Art Director, Pagesetters, 2001
Previous Job (Michelle)
Art Director, Gosh! Advertising, 2003
Previous Job (Michelle)
Art Director, 10AM Communications, 2005
Previous Job (Michelle)
Art Head, 10AM Communications, 2008
Previous Job (Michelle)
Creative Director, Bates Singapore, 2010
Other Pursuits (Michelle)
Founded & Designed Apartmentofu, Avid cook and plate collector
Mich's Home Study, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (1st Office)
Estimate Space (1st Office)
Number of Staff (1st Office)
72 Yong Siak Street, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (2nd Office)
Estimate Space (2nd Office)
Number of Staff (2nd Office)
1M Yong Siak Street, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (3rd Office)
Estimate Space (3rd Office)
Number of Staff (3rd Office)
77 Robinsons, co-shared with WE Communications, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (4th Office)
Estimate Space (4th Office)
9 tables within 6000 sqft
Number of Staff (4th Office)
Eon Shenton, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (5th Office)
Estimate Space (5th Office)
Number of Staff (5th Office)
1001 Jalan Bukit Merah, Singapore
Period of Occupancy (6th Office)
Estimate Space (6th Office)
Number of Staff (6th Office)
Co-founded Tofu with Jenny Widjaja & Started in Michelle’s study with team of 4
First piece of work appeared in Design Society magazine
Showcased in Tiong Bahru Design Studios Trail alongside Bureau and Foreign Design Policy
Founded Temporium a shop, diner and gallery on Dunlop Street, Little India, Singapore
Curated Karafuru's branding from visual identity, interior design, flood plating to an instore brand collaboration experience with New York fashion brand Alice & Olivia
Part of K+, a curatorial lifestyle space and design store at Scotts Square
Co-founder Jenny passed on the end of 2019
Created Franklin Templeton’s “See A Different Blue” campaign celebrating 30th Anniversary, which was shortlisted for the MARKies Award in 2021
Founded and designed Apartmentofu, a co-creation and collaborative space
Created and produced a Christmas Live Show at Apartmentofu with LITO Labs and Super Farmers featuring local artiste duo, The Freshmen
A Blank Canvas for Endless Possibilities
By Rachel Chia, 20 August 2023
Good morning. So today we are here with Michelle Au from Tofu.
Michelle Hi, Rachel, thanks for having me. Thanks, Studio SML and The Press Room for having me. Thank you.
Rachel No, thank you so much for having us at Apartmentofu.
Rachel Wah! Thank you for giving us this opportunity to interview you and learn more about your company. Yup, so let's travel back to the very start.
Michelle Okay... I'll try.
Yes! So what made you decide to set up Tofu?
Michelle I think, okay, so this brings us back to the year 2010 to 2011. So many things were happening during that time. At that time, 2010, in my profession I was actually Head of Art at 10AM, which is this local agency that was very renowned for its work and beautiful TVCs (Television Commercials) as well. So I was Head of Art there. And I was also on the brink of like getting married in June 2010. (both laugh) So the opportunity came when I was offered to become Creative Director at Bates. So Bates is an MNC, just down Middle Road. And then I thought: Okay sure, why not take up the challenge, just go be a Creative Director. After six years at a boutique agency, it was also time to try spreading my wings in a bigger place, kind of thing. So I did it together with three of my colleagues — Jenny, my then Account Director, and then our two other senior Art Directors. So we went over because the opportunity was to actually set up a design department in Bates.
Bates was a more advertising kind of agency. But then when we went over there, within six months, I really felt like, you know, it wasn't really sitting well with me. I think because coming from a boutique setup in 10AM, where I spent six years, it's a very different environment. The team was much smaller — it was 20 people — and then there was camaraderie. It's a lot more intimate, you work very closely with each other, there was a lot less red tape, like you have the freedom to do what you want. So when I joined Bates, it was more corporate, there were a lot more meetings, there's a lot more red tape. If I wanted to bring in a writer to help with the pitch, I would have to justify how the numbers would back that up. So I felt like it's not me. And by the time I finished all of these meetings and discussions, the amount of time I had left to really do the creative work was so little. It's usually like: Oh, eight o'clock, let's then get to work with the creative team. I felt like, that is not what sits well with me.
So then I started thinking, what shall I do? You know, that kind of thing, because that was a very pivotal year. And then at that time, I thought: Okay, you know, maybe it's not for me, and then I was telling Jenny: Ey, should we start our own company? You know, why not? I kind of miss having that smaller boutique setup. So she said: Okay, yeah, let's explore. All my life, I never thought that I wanted to come out and do my own thing. It was one of those circumstance whereby I felt: Okay, the MNC is not for me anymore, then what's next? Even if it fails then I'll tell myself: you know, what? Two years, max? What's the worst that can happen? Two years, it doesn't work out? Then it's okay lah. You know, I'll just move on, not to worry. 有手有脚，你怕没有东西做 (You still have your hands and feet, you can still get another job next time). So Jenny also said yes, and we decided that we will leave Bates and go out and set up our own company. So that's how it started.
Michelle But the seed of that idea? That was the first seed.
Rachel Well, congratulations for taking that leap of faith!
Michelle Thank you.
So maybe, tell us how you two landed on the name Tofu?
Michelle Okay, Tofu. (laughs) So every time we meet clients, that's the first thing they ask — like we get asked that a lot. So how the name came about. There were many reasons okay, but I think if we have to boil it down — because Jenny and I were both foodies, of course when we had to think of a name, we were throwing names at each other: What name do you want? You know, Picnic or maybe Amelie or maybe like, you know, something cooler or whatever. Then, I suddenly thought like: Ey, how about tofu? Because since young, tofu was my favourite dish. My mom cooks this comfort food, which is Mee Soto, and I love it. So tofu is my thing. Then I said: Ey, how about we call it Tofu? She had no objections. So I went to Google Tofu.com.sg..., and its not taken eh! Then, 就是这个了(That shall be it). (laughs)
Michelle Let's just run with it.
Rachel That's so cute eh!
Michelle Ya! (both laugh) And I think when we started to, of course, be a bit more serious about it — when you think about the characteristics of tofu, it resonated as values for us; like it's simple. I mean, tofu, if you think about it, it's actually a work of craft. You know, you pick the beans, you grind it, and then the end product is a block of white protein that's so easy to enjoy. And then it's honest, you know; honesty, it's something that resonated a lot with us — like we wanted to do work in a very honest way — no politics, no complexity.
Like we just want to be good, honest people doing good, honest work. And then it's just a blank canvas for endless possibilities. Like you have mala tofu, goma tofu, egg tofu. (both laugh) So I felt like tofu really encapsulated what we wanted to achieve as a creative studio.
Michelle (laughs) Thank you.
It's something that resonated a lot with us — like we wanted to do work in a very honest way -- no politics, no complexity.
Okay, tell us more about your childhood.
Michelle Oh, (laughs) childhood. I remember my childhood being very quiet. Because I was the firstborn to my parents. And you know, my parents are very simple folk, and then we lived in a three-room flat, my mom was a housewife, and my dad worked two jobs to sort of keep the family going. He had his own car accessories business in the day and at night he drove a taxi. So I hardly saw him. And thus, I spent a lot of time with my mom. I had a sister, but she came much later, like four years later. So four years later; so basically, I had four years to myself, and my mum was the main person around at home.
So with her doing housework, cooking for me, cleaning the house, you know, making sure like she teaches me my ABCs. So there was not a lot of time to go out. We spent a lot of time at home. I remember because I had a lot of time being quiet, doing my own thing, I just spent a lot of time reading, drawing, doing arts and crafts, and playing with my toys. And some of the things that I remember is she will take me to Emporium (a departmental store). And then I will be drawn to the aisle with the plates and the bowls. (laughs) Because I love masak masak (cooking game). Then I would go there and I would re-stack them [like an] Art Director: Oh, the big one go with the big one, the small one go with the small one. I would spend my time doing that while she did her shopping. So, there were all these things that I remember from my childhood. And I drew a lot, you know, like my teacher would ask me to draw Sesame Street art. She would ask me: Ey, can you draw it? Then I would draw. And I thought she would put it on the school the classroom board, but it never appeared. So I don't know. (both laugh) Maybe she put it in her room or something.
Michelle Yeah maybe. (laughs) So yeah, that was my childhood. Very quiet. I think the silence was something that till today, is very important to me. I think best when I have my quiet time — it's just me and my paper, my computer, and then I do my best thinking that way.
Rachel Very nice. Okay, speaking of the masak masak and the plates, right...
Michelle (laughs) Yes？
You mentioned you were an avid plates collector, can you share with us more about what that means?
Michelle (laughs) So it just came? I don't know. Okay, so I just have this penchant for beautiful plates. And I'm just very drawn — it's not even crockery as a whole, it's really just plates. So when I look at crockery right, the bowl might be very nice, but I'll just be like: Oh, the plate is very nice. Like, I'm always on the lookout for beautiful plates. I don't know how to explain it. It really is in the last 10 years, I discovered that I love collecting plates. Also because I love to eat and I love cooking. So cooking is like a side passion of mine. Thus, it's all about how do I create a plate of beautiful food?
Like that little experience, you know, on the plate and the different plates that would make the food look good and give me that moment, or give my guests that moment when I serve them their food on this particular plate. (laughs)
And then when I travel, people will be like, oh shopping for bags and all that, but I will be like going to the plate shop, and then buying beautiful plates. (both laugh) Yeah. And when I was 40, I thought: You know, let's do a milestone trip. So I went with my girl friend to Tokyo. And then, (laughs) I walked into this shop — it was like a Japanese pottery shop and they had such beautiful crockery and all that. I was very drawn to this blue plate, just this blue plate. It was like $70 — not the most expensive — and it was just so beautiful! But I decided to just buy one. Usually, I buy in pairs, but I decided just to buy one to sort of like: Okay, you know what? This is your milestone, you are 40 now. Yeah, (laughs) just a lot of those things.
Rachel So plates are like objects, which hold memories and are symbols of milestones.
Michelle Yeah! And I think they're like little objects of beauty for me. And I would imagine the kind of things that I would cook and serve, and I don't know how to explain it — it's very strange. But yes, I love collecting plates.
Rachel Actually, it's very interesting!
Like, would you say that the things you cook are influenced by the plate, or that the plate influences the things you cook?
Michelle Actually in a way they're two separate things. [The] language of love that I learnt from my mom was through food, she was not a great cook, to be honest, she was okay. But I think because I always see her tirelessly cooking for us every meal, so to me, that's my language of love. When I love someone, or when I care about someone, I cook for them. So I don't buy you a present, I will cook for you.
Michelle Because I love to eat, when I travel I eat certain things I enjoy. If I can't find it at home, I try to recreate it. So in a way, it's a creative process as well, and then the plates just so happen to be — I'm drawn to a particular style. Like when I go to Japan, I love the organic kind of plates, they're different and all that. So it's kind of a creative process for me as well, it's like: Oh, you know, I think this could come together; this is how I can put it together. Or it doesn't matter: Oh, this is a Japanese plate but it's okay, let's just put pasta on it.
Rachel Nice. Thank you for sharing about your hobby.
Michelle No problem, I hope it's not boring.
Rachel No! It's so interesting!
Michelle Thank you.
Okay, how do you think your early life experiences — like the silence, and maybe back in the day when you liked to collect plates, or even now — have shaped your creative approaches?
Michelle Actually I'm not sure, I've never really given much thought about it. But I think maybe you know, I mean, first is the quiet time — I really do my best thinking in my quiet time. Because I think it's also down to just having that space to feel. And then when you feel then you know, sometimes you manage to break through certain things and all that. But also because I was left a lot to my own devices, like in terms of: Oh I can do whatever I want, I have my art and all that. So it's that free play of sorts. And I think this is also an approach that I've always had but am [only] realising it now that I'm older, in hindsight, I don't feel I'm bridled in that: Oh, I shouldn't be doing this because I haven't learnt something, or I don't really know how to do this 'cause I've not done it before. I'll be like: Oh, never do before ah? I think we can try to do it this way or that way, approach it like a child kind of thing. So always be curious and continue to think like a child.
Rachel That's really good, actually.
Michelle Thank you. Thank you. We all try...
Rachel Adults who aspire to be their younger selves.
Always just be curious and continue to think like a child.
Okay, the next question is: What were some key influences that you drew from your culture, while developing your design aesthetic?
Michelle Culture. You mean like, my family culture?
Rachel Or like your — like 你的文化 (your own culture).
Michelle (laughs) 文化 (culture), okay. Let me think. I'm not sure, but I'm very proud to be Chinese actually. And I think I forgot to mention, but one of the most important reasons why I wanted the name Tofu is because tofu is an Asian ingredient. Whether it's English, Japanese or Chinese, you pronounce it the same way, tofu, tofu, tofu (pronounces Tofu in different ways) or whatever.
But it's almost like if we come out to do whatever that we choose to do, and especially in the fields of creatives in the world, I think being Asian brings a unique edge or perspective that if we can, could we work that in? And you know, everybody comes from a different background, and we bring [different things] to the table. I think creative work is one of such things, which is so unique. It's not like accounting where you can't tell who did what numbers, right? (laughs). Creative work is one of those things — an accumulation of your experiences; who you are as a person — where the same brief is done so differently from one person to the other. I think — to your question — culture contributes as well, but perhaps some people harness it better than others, right?
Like, every time I look at Japanese creatives; Japanese design — I'm so wowed, because they managed to do that balance of [being] international, but yet it's so them. No one can say like: Oh, this is just a generic one. Yup. So I think it's an ongoing thing that I try. However, you don't have the opportunity to show that in all briefs. Yes, I think that's a great question. And I should continue to think about that and try my best to, I don't know, 发扬光大 (carry forward). (laughs)
Michelle — Our Chineseness. Or at least our Asianness. Yeah, not Chinese specifically but I think Asia. Asia has a lot to; we have a lot to offer, as Asians lah. I mean, you look at Netflix now. I think K dramas are really, really like — you know, I think when you really learn how to tap into your own culture, and you sort of bring that into your work, you create something so unique that it stands out.
Rachel Right. Okay, thank you for that.
When you really learn how to tap into your own culture, and you sort of bring that into your work, you create something so unique that it stands out.
So you used to be Head of Art at 10AM Communications, like you said just now. Could you tell us what that was like, and whether it inspired you in any way, doing your current work?
Michelle Yup. So definitely, 10AM was a very important part of my creative career. I mean, 10AM was always known to be a very good local agency, and they did beautiful work. And my ex-boss, she's also an amazing woman; she is very impressive. To be able to get into 10AM then — I [only] saw her three times, but on third interview, she decided to hire me — I was over the moon. I joined as the Art Director. She had very high standards. So in a way, it also trained me. And then later on, I also had a very good CD (Creative Director).
So she was the ECD (Executive Creative Director), I was CD, and I cannot remember which year but halfway they felt like they decided to promote me to be Head of Art. And I was very happy because all I wanted to do was every time a job came through, I just wanted to do a good job — not for the sake of others, but that I wanted to put my touch on. I always wanted to make things look beautiful. Yeah, maybe that's why I love plates.
Rachel Yeah! (both laugh)
Michelle Like very beautiful things, yeah. I want things to look good, but of course, to mean something as well. And then it was during those years at 10AM that I also started to be introduced to how to approach a work in a multifaceted way. You have to consider a lot of things, like your choice of music for a TVC, or the choice of your wardrobe — of what the talents wear, the colour, and how you grade the colour. Or even when you do typography. I was very influenced because it was also at 10AM that I got introduced to Japan; Japanese design.
And we used to have a lot of Japanese art direction: JAGDA, Tokyo Art Directors Club. And the work is just so amazing because a lot of MNCs back then were always talking about the big idea — what's the big idea?
And we wanted that. But sometimes when it comes to everyday regular work, there are certain clients or certain kinds of work which do not need a big idea or concept, but something that's a little more emotive perhaps, or more branding skewed. So then how do you still do a piece of work that is meaningful; not loud, meaningful; that means something and yet looks beautiful?
Michelle So that's when I was very inspired by the Japanese because they make a simple print advertisement (ad) — a fruit juice ad look so good and there are so many ways. You'll think like: Oh you know, it's just juice right? How many ways can you make a girl drink a packet of juice for the ad? Because FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) right? You always have to show the product, and you have to show the model. But they have 1001 ways. And every one looks so beautiful.
So yeah, I was just very influenced by Japanese design, the way they create. The way 10AM looked at things, it's more emotive; it's more nuanced. So to be able to be Head of Art then, it was like: (gasp) I didn't think I was good enough, but it was good, it was good. I learnt a lot. We worked very hard! We had a lot of ideas thrown out but I think that really contributed to training us. I mean, me and my peers back then, I think all of us turned out to be very alike. We are all quiet, ya lah, well-trained.
Rachel Wow, lovely. It sounds like you really found your identity and like what you really enjoy?
Michelle Yes, I think so too. Yup.
Rachel Okay, so now we're gonna talk about your design processes.
Michelle Okay. (laughs)
How do you still do a piece of work, that is meaningful; not loud, meaningful; that means something and yet looks beautiful?
Could you tell us more about *Tofu'*s philosophy?
Michelle Tofu's tagline is "Good for You". (laughs) So what does "Good for You" mean? When we came up with the name Tofu, immediately, we felt like: Tofu is good for you. So "Good for You", in every sense of the word, I think our philosophy, or at least our mantra is: We strive to be good for you, or good for whoever who comes into contact with us — whether as a client, as a colleague, as a person, or you know, in terms of the work.
And it's so simple — like, I don't want to complicate it. So, as one of them said, we are good from the head, to the heart, to the toes. (laughs) I think that's how we want to strive to be; to be really sincere, honest, and really authentic. Nice. So I think even when I meet clients, you know, I do not just think of them as clients. I think it's that approach whereby: Okay, what is your problem? And we really try to listen and try to understand what is it exactly we're trying to solve? Because when you start to look at your clients as humans, you actually feel like you can understand their problems better. And I think that really is a different perspective, versus just like, okay, the client needs to increase blah blah blah, you know — the sales of the Pokka bottle — blah blah blah kind of thing. Okay, let's do a campaign for it, that kind of thing, ya. But it's different when: Okay, you know, this is Melissa. She is trying to increase sales because she just started in this job. And then she is also like, the gung ho type, she wants to push creativity — let's do it together, yeah.
Rachel Nice. So it's like a working relationship. (laughs)
Michelle I guess. I guess because in general, I am interested in people, like, I wish today I was interviewing you — I would love to find out more about you, you know. (both laugh) So I think that also makes me see their problems as if like: Oh, it's my own, (laughs) kind of thing. Yeah!
Rachel Nice. That's a very good character trait, I think.
Rachel It's like, you have a lot of empathy and you can understand people well.
Michelle I kind of — ya, I don't know. I mean I've never thought of myself that way, but I guess yeah, maybe! (laughs) I don't know. But yes! I'm generally interested, to know what other people's stories are.
Rachel Same! (laughs)
Michelle Okay, good! (laughs)
We strive to be good for you, or good for whoever who comes into contact with us — whether as a client, as a colleague, as a person, or you know, in terms of the work.
So let's talk about your annual calendar that you released this year.
Michelle Yayyy! You got use or not?
Rachel Unfortunately not.
Michelle Okay never mind, I'll give you one later. (laughs)
Rachel Oh my gosh, thank you! (both laugh) So for our listeners, it's called A Year To Grow: Your 2023 Guide To Bloom Through Self Love.
Rachel So what inspired this theme of love?
Michelle (laughs) Theme of love. Okay, so, there're a lot of things I want to say — how do I put it? Okay so with the current team, we actually lived through COVID together.
Michelle So obviously, COVID, made a lot of changes, I think it was like working from home. I mean, working from home is just the fact about it, but I think it's because we are a small team. And in the last few years, the environment I tried to keep within the team is I tried to be very open and transparent as much as possible with them. So when we have struggles, emotionally, you know how mental health and emotional well-being are very real things?
Michelle And among us, they do share with me sometimes — and I want to know as well, you know? Because even as a boss right, you have your own version of things. And then young people also struggle with different facets of it. So now, that mental health has really come up to the surface, it's something that in my team, I do not avoid. And I want to know as much as possible, because when we work, we spend like eight hours a day with each other, as much as possible, we try to be understanding towards each other. And if we can help each other to thrive a little bit, you know, at any one stage where 我们跌倒 (we fall) — I think that's the right thing to do lah. Ya.
And this theme came about because we had a bit of struggle during that period, you know, personally or whatever. And this was very much more of my team's effort — I took a back seat and I really let them do what they wanted to do. Of course, we had internals — they had a few concepts and we were like: Okay, what do you feel like doing the most? Then let's do that. So, this was a product of love. It may not be like, oh, the most well-designed calendar or whatever, but I think this is something that we were doing for ourselves. And it echoed the sentiment and the approach that we want to have, inwards and outwards as well. And I must say, sometimes being creatives or designers, we can be very under-appreciated.
Rachel Hmm, yeah!
Michelle Very under-appreciated. And, you know, we are essentially in the service industry, and then we try to always take on our clients — actually when we take on clients, it's also like taking on their problems, right? The good clients would actually be very vocal in appreciating you, but there are some who forget that we are also humans behind being creatives. So in a way this is to recognise that creatives also need time to recalibrate; recharge; to take care of ourselves before we can come back again to do our best work.
Rachel Right. There's always that saying that goes: You have to love yourself first before loving others, right?
Michelle Yes, yes.
It echoed the sentiment and the approach that we want to have, inwards and outwards as well.
In 2021, you completed this apartment, which is called Apartmentofu. And it's a dedicated production and gathering space where you can conduct shoots, you can produce content, you can even host events. So tell us more about what makes this space special.
Michelle This space was also an idea borne out during COVID. So COVID is very pivotal for me and also Tofu. So actually before COVID, I had an office. Of course there were many things leading up to COVID, but for this part, I will just talk about the space first.
Okay, so I had an office at Tanjong Pagar, it was 1000 square feet, and then COVID hit. Then we started to not go into the office, right? Because of the Circuit Breaker and all that. So we didn't really go in and we started to use it less and less. But obviously, the Tanjong Pagar office was quite expensive. So we started to question — which I'm sure every other SME out there started to question: Do we really need an office? People don't go into the office, but we're still paying rent. So we decided to give up the lease in Tanjong Pagar because that was just nice for about eight of us. But then I also felt that because COVID came so suddenly, we had all this stuff. Where am I going to put all this stuff? Do we put them in storage? How long do I keep them for? Like, it was a lot, a lot of uncertainty.
So because I'm quite traditional, and I love gathering with people, I still felt — especially with my team — that I believe face time is important. I still wanted a space where we could meet, whether to have meetings or just to see each other. Right? Then it was a question of whether I should go for a smaller space, like 500 square feet, or should I go bigger? Because there's no in-between. To me, a just-nice space is like: Okay lor, it's just nice, but I'm giving that up. But if I go too small: Yeah! Maybe I should go small because it's safer, it's cheaper, and all that. But big is like: Oh, too big, but I can do so many more things with it. So then I was in a dilemma.
小？大？小？大？(Small? Big? Small? Big?)
Then a wise friend told me. He said: If you take a small one, you can only meet. What else can you do with it? And then if you're just using it for meetings and holding your stuff, then you're also just paying rental. It's a waste of money what. You might as well not have it. So I was like: (gasp) Oh, oh, okay. Then, okay, let's go for the bigger one! So when I want a bigger one, then I thought: How else can I run the space without having to bear all of the overheads by myself?
That's when I reached out to some very good friends of mine — Daniel Lim, and Rebecca Toh of LITO. They run one of Singapore's very popular podcasts. Daniel is a life and business coach and Rebecca is a photographer. And I said to them: Hey, you know, I'm gonna do this space and I want to make it like an apartment. I wanna make it nice, I want to make it beautiful because I just want a space that I want to go in and feel like I'm part of a house, not an office. But to support me can y'all come and use my space to shoot stuff? Instead of you paying rental outside, you pay me ah! They were like: Yeah, okay, why not, we'll just come in and join you too! I said: Sure! So it really works out because this is a space that was borne very organically out of friendship, out of love, in a way because we were really good friends before all of these and even now we are good friends. And to be able to build this space — it's like a playground for us. So we use it for all sorts — whether it's for work, or like even for our own parties. We even have a karaoke machine!
Michelle We actually don't go Teo Heng (KTV Studio) anymore. If we want to we sing here — no limit.
Rachel So nice! (laughs)
Michelle Yeah. Then in between — we actually do hybrid, so we come in two days a week, then the other days we work from home. So for Rebecca, you know, sometimes she needs to shoot, sometimes she will use this place as a studio. And because LITO has a community, they actually use this space for their LITO gatherings and parties as well. So in a way, it has worked out beautifully because our needs complement each other. And each of us, every time we come in — when Tofu comes in, it feels like Tofu space. When LITO comes in, it feels like their space. So this space has been really, really, very multifaceted and very multipurpose as well. Then in between, when we do not come in, we actually are very blessed to be able to get rentals. So people do rent our space — like Dyson recently rented this space for a media launch event.
Michelle We even had like Cha Ban Sheng; The Freshman actually host a mini concert here, (Rachel gasps) and to 150 people as well. Surprisingly, we could squeeze so many people. So yes, this place is very special because yeah, it's just a little playground for us, but at the same time, it's our office.
Rachel It really feels like a home. Now that I'm in here.
Michelle Thank you, you're welcome to come back anytime.
Rachel Wow, thank you so much.
Michelle — With Kelley.
Rachel Yes. And you really fit into the whole design aesthetic — like your dressing, your demeanour — very calm and pretty.
Michelle Oh, thank you! (both laugh)
So, in 2020, you organised Franklin Templeton’s “See A Different Blue” 30th Anniversary campaign, which was even shortlisted for the MARKies Awards in the following year. What was the ideation process of this campaign like?
Michelle So this was also a project that happened during COVID. So when COVID first hit, I think it was a bit quiet. Then as a business owner, I mean as the CD, and business owner, of course, your first worry is: (gasp) Uncertainty is always a bit worrying, right?
Michelle But then we were very fortunate, because not long after, this client came, and then it was also a very, very challenging brief because it was during Circuit Breaker. And you know, the sentiment then was all about uncertainty, and they are actually an Assets Management House. So their brief was: We are celebrating our 30th Anniversary this year, but we still want to let people know, we are here. We want to let people know we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary, and we want to re-establish our presence. Because we have been a bit under the radar, we want to really let people know, and let them see our branding and be associated with blue. So this was their brief.
We actually thought: How are we going to even market anything? Nobody cares about what the brands want to sell at this time, you know? It's COVID leh, people are worried more about their livelihoods, and it's about money. You know? How do you talk to people without being very iffy? Like: Ah, hi, I'm 30 this year, look at me! You know, you don't want to do that right? So we put on our hats as a consumer, and I looked into how I felt. Like: I feel uncertain. I do not know what the future would bring. Could we actually try to look at things differently? Could we actually still try our best to have a positive mindset about what's happening? Because I was also feeling very uncertain.
So then with all of these, the brainwave came, and I was like: Hey, what if, we told people, "Let's see a different blue". Because blue also means that you're feeling blue, you know, you're feeling uncertain, and all that. So what about we say, we see a different blue? And it works both ways, because “See A Different Blue” also refers to Franklin Templeton!
Michelle Like: We are not the traditional, stuffy, Assets Management House anymore! We are here today again, and we are here to stay, kind of thing. So that was how it happened. It really came from sort of putting our authentic emotions — how we felt — onto the table and taking it and making it the message. A little bit of our own motivational love letter to everyone else as well, but through the client; through the brand.
Rachel Yeah, lovely.
Michelle Thank you. So the video was quite fun, 'cause we shot it during that time, we actually have a video for it. It talks about how the streets are empty, you know, things are not looking as rosy as before. But you know, what if we could “See A Different Blue”? Something like that, yeah. So that was great. And when we shot that, we couldn't be at the shoot. Like everything had to be conducted via like WhatsApp, or a live screen. Yeah. So there was a lot trust working with the production house too. But they understood the brief. And everyone had that sentiment lah, like, let's just make this our message. Our motivational message for ourselves and for others as well. So that was very encouraging.
Rachel Yeah, it was a trying time for everyone.
Michelle Yeah, it was (x3).
Rachel This idea was really ingenious.
Michelle Thank you. (both laugh)
It really came from sort of putting our authentic emotions — how we felt — onto the table and taking it and making it the message.
In the same year, you also created a 14-day playbook on Instagram.
Michelle (laughs) Yes.
Rachel And it's called "Good Citizens Stay Home".
Michelle (laughs) I think this was in the beginning, I think before Franklin Templeton, this was just at the beginning when Circuit Breaker just happened, and we were supposed to stay home for the first 14 days. I'm sure everyone was like: Okay, what is happening?
Michelle This has never happened, and it feels scary; it's uncertain. And for business owners, running our own little shops is even more because you have nobody to fall back on; you are your own cushion, you are your own fallback, and you have a team that works with and depend on you. And of course, as a business owner, my first thought was: How? The future — will it be the same and for how long?
And I think the "how long" is the part that you do not know what to do, right? So immediately, we didn't have much to do, because everything had to take a break. Clients also were not sure what's happening, they decided to wait and see. But I felt like okay, let's just do something of our own initiative. Because the last thing I wanted my team to feel was that things were shaky; things were unstable — we had to be occupied as creatives. Creatives cannot just sit and do nothing because we would start to think. And in a time like that, it's worse; we overthink. So I suggested: Hey, you know, how about we do this 14-day thing. And you know, let's do something nice. Maybe we can experiment with social media? Since we were not having a lot of portfolio for that at that moment. So yes, we did it.
Rachel So would you say your project — this one — achieved its intended objective?
Michelle I think, I don't know... (laughs) how my team feels. But I think internally, it met the primary objective of doing that. It's not so much like to put it out there for people to look at, but more like I want to let my team feel that although it's uncertain, things will be okay. So let's just keep calm, and carry on first. Yeah, so I think that met that [objective], and bought us enough time, then after that things started to come in less but, you know, it was okay. Like we managed, we were quite lucky lah. Ya we still had things that we could work on.
Rachel Nice. So you'd say, this playbook is more of like a team-bonding activity (Michelle laughs) more than something for the audience, or is it like a mix of both?
Michelle It's a mix of both — of course, primarily, it started like that. Then after that, of course, you know whatever work we put out, it's also for us. Again, it's like Franklin Templeton. It's something that we feel, and it's something that we want to help others out with as well. Because I think then there were reports of people still wanting to go out, still wanting to do that. And I had my own dad who like doesn't believe in COVID and kept wanting to go out. So, good citizens, stay home! Don't go out! (both laugh)
Rachel Yeah, okay!
Michelle And I mean, it's also exploring: Oh, actually what are some of the things you can do online without going out? So it was also quite fun when we explored that. Of course, the primary objective back then was to take care of ourselves first, but then we also wanted this to be a piece of content that we could experiment doing for ourselves and also like spread that message in our own little public service; little national duty thing we decided to do; civic-mindedness.
Creatives cannot just sit and do nothing because we would start to think.
So Michelle, what are your most memorable projects?
Michelle In the last 10 years, we have done a lot. Okay so, I think there were a few that are very close to my heart because they're like the pivotal milestones in Tofu's history. I think the first one would be this branding that we did for a friend, it's called Matt's The Chocolate Shop.
Michelle Ya. And it was very fun because he was a banker-turned-baker. He wanted to bake cakes and sell them, and his brief to us was: Ey, you know ah, there are a lot of people selling chocolate cakes out there, but because I'm a guy ah, I want my chocolate cake ah, to feel masculine.
Michelle Yes! (laughs) So then we were like: Okay. So right, because he has quite a distinct personality, so we took his personality and we kind of put in the branding like: Matt's The Chocolate Shop, it's Matt lor! So we punned on Matt, and then because his chocolate cake is also not milk chocolate; it's the dark chocolate, very dark, very Oreo-coloured type. So his branding was — I cannot remember, but something about Matt's dark, irresistible, you know, sexy or something. (Matt's Rich, Dark, Irresistible, Available)
So that was one. For the second one, where we were like: Oh my God — was when we actually got the work with Adidas. We were like: Ohhh! You know, not the main agency, they had small campaigns. But still you're like: Oh, my God! We get to work with Adidas! It's like the world's number two sports brand! So we worked with them for I think two years. We helped them with campaigns and all that — the very first one was called "Change is Good". We even got to shoot, you know, it was about like a: Trade in your shoes, you know, because it's for charity. So we actually shot paints being splashed on an old shoe, but the part that's splashed becomes new. So it was quite fun.
And then next it was 2013, I think one of my most favourite is Temporium. So Temporium was a six-month pop-up that we did in the heart of Little India, and it was in collaboration with a developer who owns many shophouses. And it was just one of those things that, you know, I just want to scratch that itch; I want to try doing a retail shop. And then because she's also like a family friend who had a lot of shophouses, so I said: Do you have a space? I don't need a big space, just a small space. But from a small space which I thought was a small retail shop, it became, like she said: I have a 4000 square feet shophouse. It's two shophouses on Dunlop Street. Do you want to take a look? And then we're like: Okay, let's take a look! But then, I was so excited because I'm that kind, if the idea sits right, I get very excited, then I want to do it. But back then Jenny, my partner, who is the business person, she's like: You want to do this? What's the ROI? Are we gonna make money or not?
Michelle So I remember we were having this discussion, right? And then in the back of the cafe in Tiong Bahru, we started quarrelling. 'Cause I'm like: No, we have to do this! You know, we always wanted to scratch this itch right? And you have to do it because you know, you never know what it'll bring! You cannot count everything so clearly! (both laugh) I still remember it was so funny — but of course, you always need that voice of reason. (laughs)
Michelle Yeah. So but eventually, she also said: Okay lah, let's do it. Because I said let's just bring all these people together. So it was very fun. And that was not really just a design project. It was really like an activation kind of project because we said okay, we need people to come and sell things, who are we going to ask? Then we decided to really bring in only homegrown brands. So at that time we did reach out to Yan Da from Do Not Design, because he knows a lot of people and he could be a good collaborator.
So we reached out to him we said: Hey, you know, we're thinking of doing this — could you actually help us too? Let's look for who to bring in. So together, we actually approached a lot of local homegrown brands and I think it was quite cool because we (laughs) started out with 65 tenants and I tell you we became like the retail person: (makes phone call motion) Ey hi! We have this shop, would you be interested to come in? You know, the commission, uh ya, you just place with us you know, the commission. We had inventories, like we just went into it and then it really became a full-on retail shop.
**Rachel ** Woah!
Michelle And then we did it for six months, but it was very, very good. We didn't "make a killing" with it, (both laugh) but I think even up to today, I would say that the payback from that somehow always just came back the other way. Because it was at Temporium that I met a lot of people, like for example, Stella of The Shophouse is my good friend. I remember meeting her there for the first time, she was interested to get to know me because of Temporiumbecause she's into placemaking. And then after that, you know, it's also like getting to know the other designers in the industry. Because I came from advertising, in a way I do not know anybody in design or the design scene and all that. So there were many creative people who came, and then it was also like, scratching that itch to always want to do different things, like to try their hand at retail. So Temporium had four parts to it: It had a shop, it had a diner, and it had a gallery. So for the diner, we actually reach out to Papa Palheta, who also brought in Willin Low. And then with WeekendWorker, who is a ceramist. And then they operated the diner.
Michelle So level one was diner and shop. And then upstairs, it was like a gallery, plus the second half of the shop. And I got to really reach out to a lot of the local brands like BooksActually, you know, there were many of them, even like fashion and all that. So that's when I realised that: Oh my God, Singapore has so many talented designers and we have so much to offer! It's just that we need a lot more support. So that was really pivotal. And that is up to today, one of, I feel, the most important works that we have done.
Then in recent years. We also did Karafuru, which is this cafe place. And that one was fun. Because we get to curate; we went for tasting, we curate like the plates (both laugh); choose the plates for the food. We really got in from the beginning, so we did the branding and we did the space. And the most recent one this year, we worked more with developers. And then, we just launched this new lifestyle portal for this development called TMW and it's quite fun because we're approaching it in a more lifestyle way. So if you see the content that we've been doing, it is more magazine-driven, not like the usual hard sell. So yeah, I think these will be some of the projects that I feel are quite distinctive of us, in a different aspect. Like each one has a different aspect that represents us.
Rachel Very nice. So am I right to say that Temporium means temporary emporium?
Michelle Yes! Correct.
Rachel That's a great name!
Michelle Thank you.
Rachel So you came up with the name?
Michelle I think so — I can't remember. I think that time we were brainstorming then it came about. Yeah. But I believe after we came up with the name, we realised that somewhere in some other Western country out there, somebody also did a pop-up and called it Emporium.
Rachel Nice. Great minds think alike.
Michelle Ya I think so too, I think it's a good name.
Singapore has so many talented designers and we have so much to offer! It's just that we need a lot more support.
Seeing that you've tried your hand at designing so many things from so many different genres — from calendars to interior design, to product packaging, which do you enjoy the most?
Michelle I think I don't have a 'the most', I think I always enjoy every one, just different aspects of it. And I think essentially, for me, I enjoy problem-solving. So it's not so much of: What am I doing, but it's more like: Oh, what am I solving? And how do I solve it? Like when I connect all the dots, I just like —(imitates the sound of a pencil scratch): Okay! I think we've nailed it! Like it just feels so good. (laughs)
Michelle Yes, (laughs) but I think in hindsight, now that you asked me this question, I guess we have sort of lived up to that original idea of why we call ourselves Tofu to be a blank canvas for different things. Because, yeah, we have really done quite a few different things, but we have never set out thinking like: No, no, no, we want to do different things, we want to be multidisciplinary. No. I think someone will always say: Ey you know, I have this thing, you wanna do or not? And then we'll be like: Oh! sounds fun. Let's do it. Then sometimes we'll be like: This one don't know how to do leh. But never mind. You know, let's work it out. I think we can because there are always ways to try. And even if we cannot do it all internally, we collaborate. You know like, if we want to do an interior small kiosk, we can do it. But if you tell me we have to do like a full hotel, Wah, that one I think we should work with another creative partner to do it. Yeah. So it's always been like that.
Let's work it out. I think we can, because there are always ways to try.
How different is it to design across these different genres?
Michelle I think fundamentally, it's always the same. Yeah. It's always like going back to when you want to start designing something, I think it's not just about design, it's going back to what we want to solve, and what are the objectives we want to achieve? You know, and it's not just about how nice it looks at the end. It's also about communication, what do we want to communicate? What do we want? What is the message we want to achieve? Who are we trying to reach? Who is this meant for? And is there a business thing?
All these are very important to keep in the back of your mind or to even recognise and know before you even do it. Right? Because what we do is to take all of that, and then out of it, you sort of capture and find a solution that answers all of the things that need to be answered, but your output needs to be very digestible for the target audience and look beautiful and appealing. So that people will want to look at it and be persuaded to agree with you.
Rachel Yeah, correct. That's always a difficult part, right?
Michelle Yeah. But that's the most challenging, but that is essentially I think, what — as creatives and designers — we are tasked to do.
It's also about communication, what do we want to communicate? What do we want? What is the message we want to achieve? Who are we trying to reach? Who is this meant for?
Okay, so that leads into the next question, which is: How do you overcome these challenges that you encounter across the years?
Michelle I think the challenges got different types. I think, if I put on my creative hat, the challenges would be: How do we continue to stay relevant as the world changes? From the time I started till now — I started from having no internet, to having internet; to having ICQ, MSN, and now social media. And now what's next? AI. The world is ever-changing.
Michelle And it's changing faster and faster and faster. So as creatives, right, there's all this talk now: Is AI gonna take over our jobs? Right?
Michelle Correct. So I think the challenge would be: How do you find your stand or craft by yourself; how do you ride the wave? And my take on it is, don't fight it. Harness it. Ride it like a surfer would ride the wave. Of course, it's easier said than done. But if we think about it, every time there's a new [thing] — back then when the internet first came, people were also very nervous. And obviously, when there's progress, things will change. But I think what is more awesome, is that we get to live through this transitional age. It's gonna be transformational, and we're here to witness it. So if you put on a mindset whereby: I'm very excited, I want to know what I can do with this. Then you think differently. And I think that is very important for us to go through life, I mean, not just creatively, right?
Michelle Because life is always uncertain. And really, come what may but, I'll be flexible, I'll be adaptive, I'll be open, I'll be like a child: What can I do with this? What can I play? How can I play?
Rachel Yeah, that's a really great perspective. Like, really positive.
Michelle I think we try. Of course, I'm not, like, every day I'm so positive. And you know, sometimes you also get bogged down by challenges that we face on a daily basis. Yeah, like AI is happening so fast, but we need to pick up on skills; some of us are still quite traditional, like, how do we draw that balance between keeping some of our traditional ways of problem-solving, versus incorporating some of these AI tools? I think it's something that we have to do, but for me, I feel like the future of creativity actually goes back to being human, I feel.
And I feel to think that at the end of the day, when we do design, it's for people; it's to communicate something to a human at the end of it, whether it's a piece of communication, it's a product. So you still have to feel things. But the challenge now is that it's a technical challenge. How do you make sense of what you know, versus what's coming in; what you don't know, and to still do the same thing? Yeah. So I guess it's like a maze? I don't know. But I'm sure we will all find a way because collectively, we are not in this alone. We are all in it together. So creatively, I guess that's the challenge.
Michelle Yeah. And then if I put on the business hat, then I guess it would be, again: How do I stay relevant? You know, for my clients, you know, because the options out there are so much, they do not have to work with agencies that's like, a platform supersite — you pay a certain subscription a month, they do all the design for you. Yeah, but the key thing I feel for a lot of our peers and our industry is, that clients sometimes do not see the value of what we do. They look at what we do in terms of items because they will think like: Oh, you're being costed for a campaign, a poster, a logo, you know, it costs this much. But they do not see the intangible value of when you work with someone or an agency who's experienced, you know, who's got those years of experience, the process is going to be very smooth.
You will not have to deal with like, oh, you know, not being able to nail it within like the second round. You might have to go through 10 rounds, and not nail it — like they don't get you. Yeah, so I think it's a constant challenge for us as creative practitioners, to try to get them to understand the value we bring is not itemised. It's not, it's actually it's more through all the other intangibles. The years of experience, the thinking, you know, the way we think it's different, and it's helping you solve the problem in the most productive, efficient and creative way possible. Not everyone can do our job. (laughs)
Rachel And that's what they hire you for right?
Michelle Yeah. But I don't know. I mean, I've mostly worked with Singaporean clients. So I feel that that's changed over the years, there are some that are really, really open, there are clients that will really trust us to do whatever. But there are some who still — I mean, I understand if budget is a real issue, but there are also so many ways to be creative within a budget.
Don't fight it. Harness it. Ride it like a surfer would ride the wave.
Speaking of challenges, how did COVID affect the way that you work?
Michelle Oh, I think when Covid first hit, we were at first like: Oooh — we enjoyed the novelty of being able to work from home because previously we used to work five days a week, right? So then we started to meet online, but I think after a while — it's different for different people — I did feel a bit lonely because there's no banter, it's just work. There's no: Ey so how was your day? What do you do yesterday? Kind of thing. I saw that movie and was like, great, you know, you don't make a Zoom call just to talk to your friend about what you did for the day. So the social aspect was missing. And then I also felt like everything became faster, like, people expect a response... just like that. And then there's a lot more engagement with the screens, you know, digital, like we gotta open this — to have a meeting, to make a change. You open the Zoom window, then after that, talk about it. Then you make comments, open your slides, screen capture, or comment... There's just a lot. Versus, you just walk from one table to the other, and you just: Ey, you know, I think we change this. But because most of us at Tofu are quite introverted, so we do enjoy our quiet time. And I think some, many of us also create best when we are in our own little space. So ever since Covid, I think we have decided to do a hybrid, which is two days in the studio and three days at home. So when there's a need to meet more then we meet more. Yeah.
Michelle But so far, okay, I think it's not too bad — I need to ask them again (both laugh), how they feel. Yeah, and we changed from desktops to laptops.
Michelle Yeah! And then because we changed from there, and then at first, when we started coming back to the office, we used to have desks, we had six desks. But when we started coming in, nobody sat at the desk for six months. Then I realised, because the team is also quite young, they actually enjoy sitting around on the big communal table to work instead because it's got that nice sense of communal-ness. I don't know, it's just more casual? Yeah, so then in the end we decided to give up the tables.
Rachel Actually, it looks like a dining table.
Michelle It is, it is. We eat there too, so it's just one of those — later lunchtime right, we will order in then shift the laptops aside, and eat. So it's just very casual lah.
Rachel Cool, okay, so that's all for the design processes.
Okay, so for your life views, what are some key factors which can help creatives stand out in the design industry?
Michelle I think it depends on what (professional) life stage you are. Whether you are a young creative starting out, or whether you are midway, you're trying to think about how you want to like pivot, or maybe which aspects of the creative you want to take a lead — take more route in — or that you're much older. So, I guess for young creatives to stand out, I think the most important thing is to just be yourself and try to put in as much of your personality or maybe your views. Make it as personal as possible in the way that you do your work. I mean, granted that your work still must look good lah, you know, not just like: Oh, I have a very different view.
But exactly right, because everyone thinks differently, everyone is unique. And also as I said before, the way the job that we do is very unique, no two creatives are the same. Because when we work on something like when you write, or when you design, it's sort of an output of who you are, as a person; your experiences; what you have experienced about; what you have seen before; where you have travelled before; you know, so there's always that bit of influence. And maybe that's something that we should all tap into when we are creating, combined with the skills that you have, the work that you look, to what you aspire, you know, your inspirations, your aspirations. It's not an easy question to answer, like, simply.
And I will say that the key thing is not being so focused on wanting to stand out. I think it should be more about you doing the work with your heart. And I do think that it will show. So I guess that's my take on so-called standing out... Really show who you are as a person and your work speaks of your approach to solving something and to designing something — how it's different, or how it's unique to yourself, but yet, also solves the problem at hand effectively and beautifully.
Rachel Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree that we should follow our own path.
Michelle Yes, yes. But of course, some people follow their own path, but it's like, maybe you're more suited to do something else. (jokingly)
Rachel Oh, dear.
Michelle Oh, maybe that one... don't edit that in. (both laugh)
Really show who you are as a person and your work speaks of your approach to solving something to design something, how it's different, or how is unique to yourself, but yet, it also solves the problem at hand effectively and beautifully.
Then the next question is we understand that Tofu's is co-founder, who's Jenny, she passed on a few years back. So if you're comfortable answering, how did your perception of life change after her passing?
Michelle So yeah. we started... Jenny and I started Tofu in 2011. And she was not just a work partner, she was also a good friend. And it was very unfortunate that I lost her at the end of 2019, but she was not the first dear person that I lost in the last 10 years. Actually, in 2013 I lost my mom as well. And it was also quite a big blow to me. And it was just before we launched Temporium as well. Ever since then, through my mom and after her (Jenny), I really do feel that life is very precious. And do not wait for the best time or the opportunity, a suitable time to do anything, whatever you want to do. Just do. Even if you think: Oh no, but only when I'm prepared. You know, when everything is beautifully thought through, then I'll do it. Don't. No need. Just do it. There is no time like the present. And life is just too short. It's like any time they can pull the carpet from under your feet. You never know so.
Yeah, and I think because of them. I think I definitely am more in tune with my emotions more so than ever. And being able to feel more, the different nuances, that also sort of has affected the way I create or I run Tofu as well. Because in the last... Jenny passed away in 2019 and since 2020, that I really ran Tofu. Because last time, at least we would discuss: What should we do? What do you think? Now I have no one so sometimes it can feel a bit lonely? Because there's no sounding board, there's no one, you're not sure, but you still need to make a decision about how to do certain things. Should we do this? Should we not do this? You know, how should we grow?
But yet with that, there's also a sense of finding my own voice. I'm also being able to run Tofu how I would want to do it. If I feel like I want to do Apartamentofu...I don't need to... quarrel with Jenny at the back of a café. (laughs) But I guess I miss that too... But yet at the same time, so it's two sides of the same coin. l get to decide firsthand: Okay, I want to do this. I'll just live out my vision. And I get to do that. But also the responsibility is fully mine. So that's good and bad. I am enjoying it lah. I'm trying to make the best of it. I didn't think about: Shall I give up? Should I not continue?
Because when she first left, I was always wearing just the creative hat. And when she left, it was very sudden. I had to very quickly, find a way to: Okay, how do I have to be on top of all the billings and the employee seeing, which as a creative person is OMG, right? So it was a very tough time... It really accelerated. I had to really take on both roles very, very soon. But I am always, always very grateful to the goodwill of my friends. I'd like to think that maybe it's through the years of when we work with simple honest folk, we have accumulated a lot of goodwill. So when Jenny left very suddenly, a lot of creative friends and partners were very empathetic and understanding. And in all their own big and small way, helped us tide through that very first transitional period. Yeah. Then ya lah, then ever since then 2020! Some more, it's the year of COVID, right? So it's been a very good learning journey for myself. And I'm still learning how to wear both hats effectively. Sometimes it can be very challenging. But oh, well come what may... one step at a time.
Rachel Yeah... Well, thank you so much for sharing. You're so inspiring.
Michelle Thank you.
Rachel And I'm sure a lot of people benefit from listening to your journey.
Michelle Grief is not necessarily a bad thing. It's okay. It actually lets you appreciate life so much better. It's almost like... Without the bitter, sweet doesn't taste as sweet.
Rachel Right? Yeah, totally agree with it.
Michelle It's really two sides of the same coin. It makes me really appreciate a lot of things a lot more! I feel joy, a lot more easily! But I'm not always happy. I mean, don't get the wrong impression. I'm not always happy but you really appreciate it better. I really feel a lot more and really, life is precious. So tell someone you love them today. Don't wait.
Rachel I really agree with that. In fact, in school I composed a song.
Rachel Yeah. For one of my modules told people the urgency of expressing yourself to your loved ones. So we are kind of on a similar wavelength.
Michelle Thank you. Thank you for thinking about that too.
Grief is not necessarily a bad thing. It's okay. It actually lets you appreciate life so much better. It's almost like... Without the bitter, sweet doesn't taste as sweet.
Moving on, how do you navigate the tension between pushing creative boundaries and meeting practical constraints?
Michelle I always try to do both. I don't accept people saying no to me easily. People will say: No, cannot. I'll say: Why cannot? Can I do it this way? Because I enjoy problem solving! I'll be like: No, can I do it this way? Can I like try to get around it this way? Maybe I'll talk to this other person. I cannot give up until I really feel like I've met my dead end. And of course, it also depends at that point in time, which is a wiser choice. Let's say, if I really, really have to choose — the creative boundaries, definitely. if you can push, then push. Because it's a representation of us (Tofu). It's a piece of work that we want to be proud of.
But if you're talking about practical constraints — like if this job has no budget, there are still ways to be creative about it. Maybe it's not 一百分 (a hundred marks), but I'm sure we can still try to get 七十or 八十分 (70 or 80 marks) so there is no need to choose. I think I've been very lucky. Like in a sense, we never really had to have a very hard choice. But if there's one job — not the sexiest, not the most easy to do, but the money is very good, I'll weigh lor... At that time, do I have the bandwidth? Do we have the resources? How short is this pain? It can be painful, but you cannot drag. It has to be very light. Just keep it at four episodes, that's it! So short and painful, okay... Because you know, even if you suffer, you'll get it (results) in the end. But there are always a lot of considerations, but if we feel that a client comes through the door, and it doesn't feel like it's going to be easy, we weigh our odds. You know, if something tells you it's off, then sometimes I won't take it up.
If I really, really have to choose — the creative boundaries, definitely. If you can push, then push. Because it's a representation of us. It's a piece of work that we want to be proud of.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a creative who came from a Communications background?
Michelle Okay, I'll talk about the benefits... I don't know. I guess the benefit is that because I came from a background in Comms and Advertising — so the focus is always communication, like what is the message? The message is very, very important, right? It's not just about things looking good. And it's something that I'm also trying to share with my team every day, right? And we try because it's not the easiest thing. Even whatever school teaches you, it's so different when you come up to practice. When I first started as a creative, I struggled with that the most and half the time I didn't know what I was trying to solve.
Rachel I see...
Michelle What is the concept? What is the theme? What exactly is the tagline like, you will not know how all these things sit together, right? At the same time, I had to design around it, I had to 'art direct' it. I had to make it communicate the message it's meant to communicate. And then the other nuances of whether people will be convinced. Will they feel anything when they look at it? The work that we do, we have so much to think about, so much to consider, but the output has to be very simple. But I still enjoy it today.
So I guess being in Communications, my approach to looking at things when I design something, still focuses me on who the end user is, what are we trying to solve, what do we want them to feel, and what do we want them to do? Yeah. When it comes to the drawbacks, the drawback is imposter syndrome lor. I always feel like: Do I really know what I'm doing even at this age? Do I really know what I'm doing? Is this the right way? Is this like what someone else would do? You know?
As a creative if you've never really rest on your laurels. I don't know, maybe some do and I would love to talk to them, but I never really feel like I don't know what I'm doing — but more like I'm not sure sometimes. If I get into that rut, then that's when I will feel: Okay, you know what, let's talk to other people. Let's ask the team what they think, let's put all our options and all the different things on the table. What is the next first thing we can do easily just to move the needle forward? Then, we'll just take it from there one step at a time. So... it's the imposter syndrome sometimes! (laughs) On the worst days!
Rachel It's okay you're not the only one.
Michelle I think is universal. All ages, regardless.
The work that we do, we have so much to think about, so much to consider, but the output has to be very simple.
Drawing on education, does your current work bank more on your formal education or skills you've picked up over the years?
Michelle Confirmed, skills over the years! (laughs) Because when you work right, the skills are not just technical skills, thinking skills, it's actually all the different people that you meet — your colleagues, your bosses, your clients, your partners, you know. You encounter different ways of thinking, different types of people who do things in different working styles. The very important thing to do is really to observe and take it all in, really take it all in. Like, what is everyone doing?
I'm still very inspired when I see how things are done differently by different people. And sometimes when we all collaborate and do something, it's always very exciting, because you can see the end product that comes out. It's different because it's a combination of different strengths or different expertise.
Rachel You're saying that your current work definitely will bank more on skills that you have picked up?
Michelle Yes, definitely banks more skills (laughs) that I picked up along the way!
Rachel Yeah, rather than your formal education.
Michelle When I started Tofu in 2011, who I was then and today are so different! Now I look back at some of the decks that I put together back then I'm like: Oh, my goodness, did I do that? (both laugh) How could I think that the client will buy that? And really lah, they didn't buy it.
I feel that wisdom really comes with each experience that you picked up along the way. A lot of it is also through working relationships with people and crafting all the skills that schools cannot teach you. Like your listening skills, your deduction skills, and then sharpening your intuition (both laugh). Knowing there are three options on the table. Obviously, let's say a pitch that we have to do, we can't possibly do up every option fully. Which do we choose such that we stand a higher chance? It's things like that, it's a lot of decision making that I'm still learning every day. How to request? How to understand them? How to understand the brief better? What exactly is the problem we trying to solve and how do I work with my team to get them to solve problems? How can I help them? How do we make an environment where it's everyone can thrive? I think it's still something I'm learning and I'm trying to do still, every day.
Rachel That's great.
Michelle It's that growth mindset, I'm also trying to... Now when I read about it, I also try to adopt.
Rachel It reminds me of the Chinese saying "活到老，学到老“ (One is never too old to learn).
Michelle Hah nor! When I was young, I thought when I reached my 40s, I can chillax already. So not true! (laughs) I've still got so many things to learn!
Rachel It's okay, we're so excited to see what you have to create!
Michelle Yeah! I love hanging out with my team! Because they are young people, sometimes they like to teach me things that I do know about. I will ask them about what are the cool things that people say now. Hey, they teach me a lot! It's very funny!
Rachel What did you learn?
Michelle They try not to judge me. Nah... I don't want to tell you.
Rachel That is so funny, it should be a quickfire question.
Michelle Oh no! I already forgot it, I'm not a very good student! (laughs) That time, I didn't understand 'simp' (slang). Then they teach me lor.
Rachel Oh, you mean S-I-M-P?
Michelle Yeah! I also like to know who they are listening to and all that, and I'll check them out. Then I still have conversations with them mah, although they're all listening (outside) to what I'm saying (here). So yes, I think it is also very important to understand people and understand how to get along with them. Young and old — not just clients, you know, even like your own colleagues or your partners and your own team.
Rachel Yeah! Two-way learning.
Michelle 活到老，学到老, mah? What you said? (laughs)
When we all collaborate and do something, it's always very exciting, because you can see the end product that comes out. It's different because it's a combination of different strengths or different expertise.
So the last question for this section is: how do you think we can move towards being more sustainable as a creative community?
Michelle Sustainable? What is your definition of sustainable?
Rachel Okay, it can be longevity, but it can also be going green that sort of thing.
Michelle Oh, okay. I do find that in Singapore although we are very small, it will be great if the design community have more opportunities to get together, to exchange stories of our struggles and challenges. Because for many of us, who decided to do this on our own, without being part of a bigger corporation to begin with, is a very courageous thing. (laughs) Nobody chooses to do this because they want to have a good life. Maybe they thought they could have an easy life, you see. (laughs) But then when you get into it, it's constantly throwing you challenges. So it will be great because it can feel very lonely running your own business without having peers to share your struggles, it doesn't matter.
You can also learn from each other: Ey, you know, this whole Covid thing. Ey so how ah, are you all on laptops? I'm not sure, should we still have desktops? But I don't have space for it! Like, things like that. Even simple things like that, it'd be nice like that. Ey you know, have you seen the government grant, maybe we can apply for it? (laughs) So it's things like that! It's also having support, to not be so insular because sometimes it feels like we are pitted against each other.
I think we will benefit a lot more if we are actually more open with each other. Like, how do we get to this? You know how we will be called for pitches. A lot of times, we do not get a pitch fee, for the time that we put together a pitch. But if you do not do the pitch, you don't have a chance. There is no standard in the way we cost. Therefore, clients don't understand our value. Because there are things that are the same, but they cost very little. So we are not even putting out a new united message for our clients — how do we convince them we are worth the value of what we should be paid for? So I feel for us to be sustainable whether it's the longevity or running the business we really need that support. And maybe to begin, we should really start off with having a united voice. I think that'll be great!
Rachel Yeah, sounds great!
Michelle We should start with our friends. Maybe after this, I will talk to Kelley.
Rachel Yeah, definitely! How about like the going green part?
Michelle Going green part? Hmm... I think when it comes to editorial design or maybe packaging, that's when we possibly can try our best to be more conscious. Whether it's through the paper that we make or to package something. Can it be very simple by not having to have something very beautiful around? So someone once told me, for every centimetre you decided to shorten something, that's a lot.
If you look across — if you're printing 5000, that's a lot of paper. Then when you start to think about it on a bigger scale, that's when you feel like it really makes a difference. So it's something that I think in this new generation — kudos to young people — because I feel young people these days, are more conscious, the older generation never felt the need to save paper.
Michelle So I'm excited to also see what are what would be some of the newer types of designs or materials that will come out along the way for us to work with. Like, there are now plastics, mushroom leather and so it's really, really an exciting period.
Rachel But the funny thing about the biodegradable plastic is that it's like so biodegradable that once you use it a few times, it's like bye!
Michelle It's not an easy problem to solve. And I feel like it may not be solved in our generation. It could be many generations later. But I think what we're doing this generation is just to have that consciousness start to be built into the younger people. And then, they want to solve it in their own generation when they have the means to the power, the autonomy to do something about it, right? Yeah. So we try... At home, I do try to get the kids to be more aware. But it's still very hard sometimes because my husband is not very conscious! (laughs) Yeah. So you know, it starts at home. (laughs)
**Rachel ** Okay, so that's all for this segment!
So I feel for us to be sustainable whether it's the longevity or running the business we really need that support. And maybe to begin, we should really start off with having a united voice.
What's a good book or podcast you could recommend?
Michelle Of course, the LITO podcast! Hosted by my good friend Daniel Lee, a life and business coach and Rebecca Toh, my photographer, very good photographer! Yes, please go listen to them! They are Singapore's top number one podcast, which has been downloaded 500,000 times I think? (laugh) Yes! Cheating, okay? (laughs)
What's a little thing that makes you happy?
Michelle It is making breakfast for myself. So in the morning, when I have the time, I like to take time to make breakfast for myself, because I believe when you take time to make breakfast for yourself, no matter how simple, it's a play of saying I love you to yourself. Yeah!
What's your favourite rainy day activity?
Michelle Oh, okay! My favourite thing is to actually put on music, sit by the window and do nothing! And just think... you know, and just nua. And I feel a bit melancholic, like thinking about a lost love. Just feel, just feel. Yeah, actually it's my favourite weather when it's rainy. As long as I'm indoors, of course!
Rachel Lovely. Okay.
What genre of music do you listen to the most?
Michelle Pop? But! I like J-Pop. (laughs) Sorry, I don't have a very sophisticated answer for that.
Rachel So what are some of your favourite J-Pop artists?
Michelle Oh, because their names on Spotify are also in Japanese characters, so I don't know how to answer! (laughs) But, my all-time favourite — two of them — a bit older ones, Pizzicato Five and Southern All Stars! Check them out! Gives away the itch.
What's one skill you'd like to learn?
Michelle Oh, piano I want to play the piano! My son is actually taking piano now. So I did think I want to maybe try too. Actually, there's a second one. I don't know how to swim. 那么老还不游泳 (too old to not know that)! So yes, I'm thinking I need to learn that in case Singapore sinks or something. I don't know.
If you could be anyone for a day who would you be?
Michelle That's a very good question. I think I want to be Coco Chanel for a day! (laughs) To live in a different era. And she was she really changed the way women dressed because they used to wear the stuffy corsets and shit, right? And then later she just like designed these tweed suits and in black and white. That's my favourite colour combo, so I wear that a lot! So yes, I would love to be Coco Chanel for a day.
What's something that moved you recently?
Michelle Hmmm... I do get moved quite easily. I think it's something my daughter said to me. First, I came home, I was not feeling great. And then she said "Mommy..." Then I told her "Why? What do you think?" She said "Mommy, you're gonna be awesome! Don't worry about it!" Oh, in fact, it was about the interview! I said, "Hey, you know, Mommy's going to be interviewed, but I'm a little nervous." Sometimes I also want to make conversations with her. I want her to express herself — talk about feelings. And she said "No, mommy, don't worry you're gonna be great! You should have told me about this earlier!" So yeah, I felt very touched. Aww!
Rachel You're really doing great. You've been doing great the whole interview don't need to worry.
Michelle Thank you!
What are three things you would take with you to a desert island?
Michelle I used to have answers to that question. Okay. Three things right? Water, obviously. Coffee... Oh my goodness... They are like opposites of each other! Because one is hydrating. And the other one it's not very hydrating. The third one... It's very hot, right? Can I bring an aircon? (laughs) Anything mah you said?
Rachel That's the most unique answer ever. (laughs)
Michelle I mean, do people really think about it like a survival thing?
Rachel Yeah... Where to plug the aircon?
Michelle You didn't say I had restrictions. (laughs)
Rachel (laughs) New technology!
Michelle Oh yeah, I didn't think about the phone! I was thinking more about how I would feel! (laughs) Actually will be good, right? Because you can say "Help, I'm in the desert! Please come save me!" Yeah, I didn't think about that. It's alright, let's move on.
Where are your favourite eating spots around the island?
Michelle Oh, that's very hard! I like to eat a lot. I don't think I really have a lot of favourite eating spots in Singapore because I do enjoy cooking. I love to eat at a lot of places. But I think the places that I love to hang out and eat with my friends, it's when I have them over at my house and I cook for them. Yeah. So in a way, you know, yeah. That's kind of my favourite when I have people over. And I just cook whatever I feel like cooking for the day and they are subjected to it!
Okay, last one. If you want a million dollars today, what would you do with the money?
Michelle That's a very good question! I think... (laughs) I'll take that one million dollars and invest it to grow for another ten years. Then, every month I'll have passive income, right? Then, I will close Tofu for a year and take a hiatus. Everybody, go have a holiday before we come back to work! That will be great.
Or travel! Oh! Or move to Tokyo! I want to move to Tokyo and live there for a year or something! Or buy a house there, then I can always go there whenever I want to. I do love Tokyo, very much.
Rachel Amazing! Thank you for having us this morning.
Michelle Thank you so much!