MELVIN TAN

Graphic Design

Currency Design

https://currencydesign.info/

An experience in a curatorial programme during his university days planted the seeds for Melvin Tan to organically grow his own studio. Having designed for major arts institutions and independent creatives, Currency Design is no stranger to Singapore’s arts and culture scene. In between running a design studio and caring for his plants, Melvin’s active role as an arts audience and organiser put him in the sweet spot of collaborating with artists, curators and programmers. We catch up with Melvin over a can of beer to discuss the ebb and flow of tending to his studio, how he navigates the intersection of art and design, and what keeps him going.
  • Company Name

    Currency Design

  • Company Founded in

    2016

  • Name of Founder

    Melvin Tan

  • Founder Birth Year

    1988

  • Education

    Master in Design Research, School of Art, Design and Media, NTU

  • Other Pursuits

    Hothouse with Form Axioms and INTER-MISSION

  • 1st Office

    Sin Ming Avenue

  • Period of Occupancy (1st Office)

    2016-2018

  • Estimate Space (1st Office)

    84 sqft

  • Number of Staff (1st Office)

    4

  • 2nd Office

    Aliwal Street

  • Period of Occupancy (2nd Office)

    2019-Present

  • Estimated Space (2nd Office)

    2368 sqft

  • Number of Staff (2nd Office)

    5

  • 2016

    Registered the Design Business

  • 2016

    Currency's First Hire

  • 2017

    Started making kettle-cooked Salads for Lunch

  • 2018

    First overseas trip as a team

  • 2018

    Plants growing in the studio

  • 2019

    Shifted to Aliwal Street

  • 2019

    Kickstarted Hothouse shared between Research Lab and Media Art Collective

  • 2020

    Initiated Art books a Beginners Guide series

  • 2021

    Implemented zero overtime work policy

  • 2021

    5 years anniversary of running Currency

  • 2022

    Implemented unlimited leave policy

Minting a Currency of His Own

By Woong Soak Teng, 31 July 2022

For this episode of Studio SML, we're speaking with Melvin Tan, who runs Currency Design. We're sitting in the studio of Currency, it's 8pm now, and I know Melvin you had a long day of work. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us, and a warm welcome to Studio SML. So before we go more in depth into what Currency is about, I'm really curious, how did you come up with the name 'Currency'?

Anyway, thanks for the alcohol. I just wanted to thank you on record. What does 'currency' mean, as a definition to you?

Top of my mind... some kind of transaction, of value...

Money, right?

...of money.

Yeah, there are other definitions. I think money is something that I've always been quite... I guess it's the thing that we have to think about before we graduate. Early on, at least when I was still collaborating or doing freelance, there was always this stress, pre-graduation or post-graduation, to find something to earn. And I think 'currency' was... there's that definition of money. There's this pragmatism to start something that is profitable.

At the same time, I like other meanings of 'currency'. There's water current which is constantly moving depending on wind or things underneath. There's also currency in the sense of what is going on, what is 'in', what is the most popular thing to think about or talk about. What I like about the word is that it's a consistent shifting and re-definition. The state of moving and changing is what Currency is. That's why I like the many meanings that it reminds me of sometimes, or tells me that something like graphic design, or branding, or visual communication, there's always things that change. The way that we see things always changes, the way we perceive things always changes. The name of the studio sets itself as a reminder.

Currency was... there's that definition of money. There's this pragmatism to start something that is profitable. At the same time, I like other meanings of 'currency' - there's water current which is constantly moving, there's also currency in the sense of what is 'in'... what I like about the word is that it's a consistent shifting and re-definition. The state of moving and changing is what Currency is.

It's expanding the definition of 'currency' for me, definitely. In the organisational chart that you quickly put together, we see three concentric circles, and it's in bright yellow. Right in the middle, it says 'personal currency'.

And it looks like a coin.

Yes, it looks a little like a coin. I'm wondering… what does that 'personal currency' at the core of this chart stand for you?

I hope that I got the brief right. So this chart is meant to frame your own take on how you see your organisation, right? Okay. I think of 'personal currency' in the same thread as talking about the definition of what 'currency' is to me, and what keeps me going.

There are two concentric circles. The first one draws connections between five words. I will start with 'designing' and then it points to 'workflow', 'workflow' points to 'aesthetics' and 'aesthetics' points to 'art', 'art' points to 'people' and 'people' points back to 'design'. It's like a loop or an interconnectedness of practice that often is dealing with how people perceive and understand things.

I will start with 'design'. It is a starting point for this circle, because this is something that I decided to do. It links to another word 'workflow'. It's many years of devising ways of working with people and methodologies. That is something that is pretty important to me in terms of what keeps me going, and what literally keeps things going. It's setting protocols and ways of working and navigating an independent practice, like a small studio or design agency.

'Workflow' leads to 'aesthetics'. I think this is a kind of misconception that Currency is often a very visual studio, maybe because we deal with a lot of visual output. Sometimes the assumption is that we are this experimental, weird outfit. But there are a lot of methods in the madness. There are a lot of workflows in something that may look pretty strange. Aesthetics does come into play because that is the first love. In general, why I'm in creative practice or why I do what I do is largely because I am, firstly someone who consumes a lot of visual culture. I love Tumblr, I love Pinterest, I love going to art shows and seeing what people do. I love illustration, drawing and seeing people draw. This has led me to practice in my own capacity. Aesthetics is still something that I'm very excited about all the time.

Then 'art' comes into play. I have been in the arts stream in Junior College and studied in an art school, Art, Design and Media in NTU. Art has always been something that I was taught and I have grown to appreciate it in different capacities and tracks leading up to today. I'm quite an art audience in general and that was how I came into this. I would think that the questions later will probably open that up.

'Art' brings me to 'people', and how I understand my practice and how then, my practice has to relate to the art or to connect the art to the people. My role as a designer is to bring out the best message of what I'm doing, to people. What I would want to influence my team to think about all the time, is how design has to relate to people. It doesn't have to be always a kind of accentuation, or always at the beck and call of direction from a client, or even an artist. Sometimes it's good to have different devices and methods to see what is needed in order to cater to the output that the artist, client or collaborator is trying to do.

The second tier is a little bit more open-ended. There's nothing intellectual to say about this tier, but just maybe how I think. It's four words. The four words are 'living', 'balance', 'working' and 'happiness'. Very cheesy, but it makes a lot of sense to me. 'Living' is about dealing with money or lifestyle or how you deal with emotions. To me, 'living' is one component. 'Balance' is how to negotiate that. 'Working' is something that keeps you sustainable. And then, there's 'happiness', which is something that you always look back on. Am I happy doing this? Is this time to stop? Is this time to push harder? I think these often negotiate themselves. I feel these four words feed each other and it's helpful for me to keep grounded.

Why I'm in creative practice or why I do what I do is largely because I am, firstly someone who consumes a lot of visual culture. I love Tumblr, I love Pinterest, I love going to art shows and seeing what people do. I love illustration, drawing and seeing people draw. This has led me to practice in my own capacity. Aesthetics is still something that I'm very excited about all the time.

How do you see these three circles connecting with each other? Do they keep each other in balance?

It's a bit more like a cosmic chart. The 'personal currency' is the earth or the ground. Some of these words like 'workflow' and 'designing' are like the air that I have to breathe. 'Living', 'balance', 'working', 'happiness' are more in this small, different paradigm, cosmic level of principle and values. Or at least, reminders.

Why yellow? As a designer, you are probably sensitive to colours?

Just being cheesy. Currency is a coin. We were trying to design an abbreviated logo with my team and we were like, "Let's do a coin". It emphasises a certain definition of 'currency', but I do like the funniness of it.

We will look forward to that. This is a preview of the new logo. You spoke a little bit about the relationship between design and art. In fact, in the organisational chart, the 'art' leads to the 'design'. I wanna go into a bit of that intersection. Currency seems to be quite focused on working within the arts in Singapore. The studio has designed for arts institutions, independent spaces and initiatives, as well as art events and festivals. Some examples are the National Gallery Singapore, NUS Museum, OH! Open House, Asian Film Archive, The Substation, and also more recently, the Singapore Art Book Fair, which you have worked on for three editions so far. So how did you...

I think four.

Four editions already?

Blue, red, silver and yellow colours. Got four. Eh? I really can't remember. Yeah, very embarrassing. I think it's four.

Okay, we'll count that out. It's fine. Renée (founder of Singapore Art Book Fair) doesn't have to know

And then she's like, "Oh Melvin can't even remember?!".

It's actually about scale. You can see my brochure container box. It's quite a lot. Five years is a long time. It's going to six years. The brochures just keep coming. You'll try to recall what are the things that you've done, what used to be the conversation. Sometimes it's very surprising that you remember the moments, sometimes the client remembers you very thoroughly about what you said at a certain point, and we laugh about it. It's very nice, and weird, and almost makes me feel very old in the scene. But at the same time, I feel I'm still the same.

Yeah. So my question is, how did you carve out this niche in working with the arts community? Or how did you land up in this ecosystem that way?

As I was saying, in Uni, I was one of the first few batches in ADM. It's an art, design, and media school. I did go into Visual Communications but in the foundation year, we were taught a lot of Asian Art history. Then, the curriculum was more rigorous in a more exhaustive syllabus. I was quite excited about the visual culture in Southeast Asian history. I also was introduced to the foundation, where it trained us in conceptualization. A lot of things were in reference to art.

Long story short, I was considering some kind of a more artistic practice. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do what I wanted to do. My prof for my FYP, Martin Constable, was sharing with me about a programme called 'Curating Lab'. He said that I should try that out based on what I'm interested in as a creative person. The experience I had and the kind of mentorship I had with Ahmad, Heman and the trainers that he had brought in, as well as my peers, and the senior batch who had been involved in training us. It had been quite an experience and I'm still very close friends to a lot of them till today. This has really informed a lot of things I understand quite foundationally about how to work with art and work around art.

I was also like a token designer there. Everyone else were from history majors or worked a little bit in the arts, or were in literary school. When I was attached to some of the institutions in the later part of the programme, that was when they were like, "Oh, you are a designer, right? Can you help us do this quarterly thing, or this catalogue thing." I was doing that, freelanced, collaborated, worked on certain things. It just was natural that it came to a point where I had to register for business to bid on ITQ. It was a very pragmatic reason then, that led to where I am today. In fact, at the place that I used to work, or was part of 'Curating Lab', the programmer there was the person who introduced me to my first staff member. I will always remember the first person I hired. It's a milestone. To a lot of people who start their agencies, it's the first thing you invest and commit to. You have to take care of that first person. I remember that moment. That's why I would say this programme really brought me to where I am.

I was considering some kind of a more artistic practice (in university). I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do what I wanted to do. My prof was sharing with me about a programme called 'Curating Lab'. He said that I should try that out based on what I'm interested in. I was like a token designer there. Everyone else were from history majors or worked a little bit in the arts, or were in literary school.

It's a very organic flow. You mentioned the Curating Lab. The word 'curate' in its Latin roots means to take care. I'm sure in your role as a designer, there are a lot of things that you need to take care of, a lot of information and content. How do you then translate that into design, and with the same care in the way you curate the information?

My exposure to a curatorial programme for a few years allows me to better understand my place as a designer. That's why I'm also very careful in using the word 'curate' or dealing with design 'curatorially'. Sometimes I do understand where I stand as a designer, and how I have to tactfully work with a programmer or curator who has a certain vision. I tackle it with that kind of care and consideration from the training of how to take care of artists. But at the same time, when it comes to a certain scale of a festival or an exhibition, the interfacing is the first thing a lot of audiences encounter. I see design plays an important role in the first perception and how it should communicate. It's very different from branding other things. Art has a specific way in which it engages, or any other festivals for that matter, in terms of approach. The way that I navigate working within the arts and culture or clients within arts and culture is very much dependent on the needs of the artists. Largely because we're dealing with sometimes very sensitive topics, topics that have certain nuances or wordings that have to be laid out in a certain way. These are things that I feel that my training and some of my interests allows me to know how to navigate that nuance.

Art has a specific way in which it engages, or any other festivals for that matter, in terms of approach. The way that I navigate working within the arts and culture or clients within arts and culture is very much dependent on the needs of the artists. Largely because we're dealing with sometimes very sensitive topics, topics that have certain nuances or wordings that have to be laid out in a certain way.

I noticed that most of the clients in the arts and culture that you work with often come back to Currency again for the next edition or an event.

Oh, is it?

I mean, I'm thinking about the Singapore Art Book Fair. I'm thinking about the State of Motion.

I feel like every time I work on something, I don't think about the next one. It's up to the client to decide whether my team is doing something that they are looking for. I was fortunate enough to work on projects that kickstarted with me so a lot of brain pickings were done before some of these things came about.

It's great that you have this opportunity to work on the same event or festival or exhibition, because you get to really build on the knowledge and experience from the previous edition, and then push the boundary in the next one.

Technically, it's easier. It's a very pragmatic reason why it's not the status quo. Because a lot of times, ITQs or restrictions to work with the same agency all the time is something that a lot of larger institutions have. Otherwise, I do feel that it makes a lot of sense for any studio, not just ours, to work on a project for the long term. I do like, for example, the 'Pulp' series by Swell, who collaborate very closely with Shubigi. I do like other projects that I'm seeing out there that people are able to work with a specific artist or client that really builds on the project, beyond its early stages. You really see the project mature because the designer becomes wired into how something works.

It's a very pragmatic reason why it's not the status quo. Because a lot of times, ITQs or restrictions to work with the same agency all the time is something that a lot of larger institutions have. Otherwise, I do feel that it makes a lot of sense for any studio, not just ours, to work on a project for the long term.

You also mentioned that you're an arts audience. You consume a lot of visual content. Are there any artists or artworks that you've encountered as a designer that has influenced your design thinking? And how so?

Wah that's a damn difficult question.

I know it's like asking you to choose from a thousand babies, right?

For us, we see design in different semiotic categories. There is expressive design that is very decorative. The opposite of expressive is something more functional, so something that's a little more modern or clean. It's a very pragmatic approach. There's also an abstract approach, which is like, don't tell the thing, but hint at it with maybe a colour or some other abstract method. And the other is basically conceptual. Actually, a lot of Singapore designs are conceptual, because it's messaging. I choose green because it hints at something. I put a leaf there, so that it hints at an environmental exhibition.

These are four different approaches that I often cycle through, decide and pinpoint where I think my design should lead towards. It's very hard to say if there are any artists that specifically lead to these. You can tell that artists do deal with some of these aesthetic registers as well. I also know how design can sometimes be very artistic to a point of 'is this art?'. I am wary about it, because I am head-deep in navigating it. I do feel like I still strictly want to stay in the realm of a more commercial stance of designing. But I do enjoy art. I recall I was asked during the Curating Lab interview what my favourite artist and work were, I think I mentioned 'Play Dead' by Tan Guo Liang.

For us, we see design in different semiotic categories. There is expressive design that is very decorative. The opposite of expressive is something more functional, so something that's a little more modern or clean. It's a very pragmatic approach. There's also an abstract approach, which is like, don't tell the thing, but hint at it with maybe a colour or some other abstract method. And the other is basically conceptual.

You were talking about how because you're so plugged in, sometimes projects, memories, conversations overlap, and you may get a hazy memory of certain things. You were saying you store your catalogues and all that in boxes. As a designer, is documenting very important for you?

Not really, and that's a problem of mine. I feel like a lot of new work... you were listing out a few institution names and I'm like, "Those are so old."

You never update your website!

I know, you will see the date. Sometimes I do try to, "Oh, maybe I should put this up because it was quite cool". I get the most joy when I finish something and it really works. Sometimes it ends there, not so much that I should take a photo of that again or, I should really put it into a studio set-up and have the most beautiful photograph.

I think it's fair that you don't pay attention to documenting and promoting because especially in this Instagram-driven world, too much emphasis is put on the fact that if you don't take a photo, then it didn't happen, right? So I feel like when the work is done, and it's done well, it is out there and it takes a life of its own. Which project would you think to be the most 'successful' based on your design processes and strategies?

Success? I don't really put the works to a certain matrix of something being more successfully done than another or whether a project is super successful. Of course, we've been involved in projects that are high capacity, or general public level type of work.

I would say a project would be doing a brand audit for a local arts institution. That was interesting to me because it is entirely invisible. What we had to do was a lot of reports and re-strategizing of their visual identity. Rather than re-doing it, we improved it, and we reworked it, and we refreshed it. The whole process and talking to all the departments in that whole institution and working with the creative team in house that is trying to figure out what is best to consolidate and simplify, but also elevate the current situation of the institution, to me, was a very appropriate type of project that brought the interest and methodologies that we have as a studio.

A brand audit is trying to review how a branding is used for a business, and to assess how its usage is, through a collation of all their existing work and see what works, what doesn't work, propose options, revise the identity, refresh or tweak it, based on what you realise would work better. Or, a renewed need that they have emphasized is missing in their current guidelines, and then revise it. The outcome would include usage guidelines, as well as brand guidelines and certain templates. That's something that we enjoy doing because it impacts a lot and it affects perceptions that I feel we are very capable of navigating based on our research-based kind of headspace.

Other projects that I don't feel are in the category of what we do and we deem as successful are things that we really enjoy – collaborations with independent curators and artists that approached us to help them do personal projects. These are things that are interesting for us to devise because we like to engage projects outside of the museum complex. You do see alternative spaces, ways of working, collaboration in ways where you would never really get to experience if it's a very professional ground of navigating output. As someone who organises and works within the community, I feel this is my contribution and commitment as someone who designs. I can design with the arts because I am part of it as a creative person, as an audience person. That's why I am doing what I'm doing.

Do you think you'll be working in the arts and culture forever? For as long as you're in design?

If anything, all I can deal with is my own health and my own energy to do what I'm doing. I rather think about the future more in terms of what I can do and what my capacity is. It's quite easy to decide when the time comes.

The next question I want to ask is based on what I saw on your website. I noticed that the tagline for Currency is 'now and forever', which to me, sounded really good.

Why do you find it good? Just curious!

Hmm, it just sticks... While you're trying to show that Currency creates solutions that are good, not just for now but it can last through time, how do you make sure that you can create designs that are timeless? And more critically, how do you even know if something is good?

Firstly, it's good that you caught 'now and forever' being a part of Currency. It is about timelessness and also at the same time about the 'now'. If you think about it, 'currency' technically means that too. What keeps things going means you're good now and also what's next. It's a vicious loop of the tagline and the name of the studio being the same thing. It's also super cheesy, because 'now and forever' is always about love and romance. I like it as a tagline because taglines always sound like that.

Now that you say it, I might have heard it in a love song.

Yeah! It's a romantic term. I remember it was a beer session with my designers and we were laughing at the idea of using it as a tagline. We wanted to change it every year, but we didn't.

You got lazy.

Yeah, we got lazy, or we didn't update.

You got busy!

Yea, okay, to the question of how do we deal with what is good, and how do we think about timelessness... I think that's a very good question because I do engage in aesthetic dialogue, or critical conversations about post internet, ugly design, weird design, modernism coming back... I feel every designer who comes in has a point of view.

Aesthetics, in general, is a topic that I've always been drawn to at large. That is the reason why I do what I'm doing. That's also the approach of how I navigate the control over how I consider what strategy works and how to be part of content, or be navigating around it or just articulating the objective... different ways in which it can manifest visually. These are things that come from certain histories, nostalgias, memories. Even the verbal 'now and forever' recalls a certain song or idea. These are brand strategies that we navigate and understand and I feel that's a strength of ours.

I do like to work with designers who are able to articulate themselves very well, who are able to explain complicated things about design, and are able to be quite pointed in how something can work or not work. Vocabulary is the tool to talk about good design, because it's relational, or it relates to how someone perceives it. Good is relative, as we all realise now, so I don't have an answer for what is good design. I don't have an answer for what is timeless. But I can tell you at a certain point, something feels timeless or so during that time, because it is that moment of who you're talking to, and what you're looking as in the future or in the past, and therefore it's considered timeless.

It's not about challenging the brief. It's not about counter-proposing. It's not about trying to one up being able to explain something until people don't understand. Actually, I'm using very easy words. I'm also trying to explain things such that people can understand. It's about establishing vocabularies. It's about visual literacy in ways where, how do you make someone understand what you're trying to say that they can empathise, or are familiar with, or can understand based on their background. These are ways in which good design can then be as a result.

The control is of the articulating person, and the person who's accepting it. If the back and forth isn't strong, you are ending up with something that you cannot feel comfortable with because you just can't navigate it. To me, it's a very frustrating moment when you're trying to push something through. The control is, of course, the expert in the room, which is the designer, to say that this is good design. Whether or not the client agrees with you is how you navigate that, and how the designer can also challenge someone's point of view about whether or not something is good or better... Is the client's idea better than yours? Is your idea better? It's how you talk about it that matters. I'm not really answering the question per se, about what good design is, but I feel that it is really a very difficult thing to navigate. A very easy answer to say, which is, there's no clear good design.

Good is relative, as we all realise now, so I don't have an answer for what is good design. I don't have an answer for what is timeless. But I can tell you at a certain point, something feels timeless or so during that time, because it is that moment of who you're talking to, and what you're looking as in the future or in the past, and therefore it's considered timeless.

Kinda a cop-out answer, but I also get where you're coming from in that designing is not just about putting things on a two dimensional. It's also about being conversational, about negotiating the thoughts and the perspectives that your clients, audience and your design team has.

I know it's a wrong way of thinking about the root word of 'design', since you were telling me about the root word of 'curate', right?

I know it's a wrong way of thinking about the root word of 'design', since you were telling me about the root word of 'curate', right?

I came up with it but I don't even think it’s true. A sign is something which you can interpret in a lot of ways in semiotics. But you are ‘de-signing’ something, meaning that you are trying to put a very clear message to something that has many meanings. That is what design is. I am also reminded by the word ‘design’ but to me, I am ‘de-signing’ it. I am not making it a very abstract, subjective thing. I’m making it a very pointed message. That gesture, movement or that course or journey into trying to make something clear is interesting to me. Good design is difficult to sometimes pinpoint. It’s so subjective. If I’m a reader and I’m not an aesthetic person, I may hate a specific design approach and I won’t be a fan of that design. It’s a day in, day out of how I navigate how people think.

A sign is something which you can interpret in a lot of ways in semiotics. But you are ‘de-signing’ something, meaning that you are trying to put a very clear message to something that has many meanings. That is what design is. I am not making it a very abstract, subjective thing. I’m making it a very pointed message.

That’s why I posed that question because for me, it’s also very difficult to articulate what is good. Sometimes what is good is very unexplainable. It’s a visceral feeling, you have no words for it, but deep down, you feel that it’s good. Then it goes back to the whole idea of it being subjective.

But you see when you say it like that, I also know what your aesthetic is. You know what I mean? Versus when I talk to some people who are like… acid graphics, gradients, neon! It’s very clear, it’s visceral in a different way. It’s not about knowing, seeing and then you can feel it. Some people just need to be stabbed with it, or they just need to be compelled intellectually, or confused a bit. Everyone has a certain taste of design that hits them in a certain way and they collect that type of thing... and design should be for example, very quiet or muted, or it could be the direct opposite.

What I like about it is that I do meet many people who have a very clear idea of what they like. It’s very exciting to know that it’s really, very diverse. The taste and preference of audiences… It's so interesting to hear them out and see what they buy in a book fair, look at how they come up with their banners, and students come up with works in their show. It’s interesting to learn that it’s a continuous feeding and iteration of trends, histories, more trends… coming back… disappearing. It’s interesting to observe and see.

I feel like I just witnessed this whole design being conversational played out right in front of us. By describing my subjective idea of what good is, you got a sense of what you think I think is good.

Then we can end up arguing, but maybe not today.

Okay, fun. Let’s move on to picking your brain on how you run a team in the studio. I know that you’re a huge plant lover. The studio is filled with plants all around. There are a lot of windows…

Can describe, can describe.

You also have plants at home! So this is not the whole collection you have. How do you relate the caring for your plant collection to the way you take care of your studio and your team?

Wah, very cheam ah, the questions… Okay, firstly, these plants are quite easy. They are in the Araceae family. They are all aroids, about 70% to 80% of them are. For those who are also in the plant game, they are epiphytic, they don’t really need a lot of care, you can don’t water them for a while and they still are quite perky. I do like specific, weird plants. I was just sharing with you when you walked in, what weird plant is in front of us right now. I do like specific, uncommon, often palmate leaves, often non-variegated, ruffly, or quite normal but when you look closer, is a bit not normal. What you see in the studio is a reflection of my own aesthetics and taste, but also the way I like to vary it from corner to corner.

I used to be at Midview CIty, somewhere near Upper Thomson Road. A neighbouring creative studio gifted me dieffenbachia, I think, or Chinese evergreen… I can’t remember. It was easy to care for and it sparked my interest in plants. It also helped that Upper Thomson Road is very close to Far East Flora and a few other plant stores that you always drive by on the way home, so it was quite an easy curve to assemble so many plants. It was slightly before Covid and I was already amassing a small collection of plants. It exploded during Covid when I had more time to care for them.

How I navigate plants and how I navigate the studio… maybe what’s similar is that you need to understand time, you need to have that patience, not only for the plants to grow and but also to know what kind of support is needed for the growth. If they don’t like the place that I put it in, or I overwatered it that one time and it doesn’t work for that plant and it doesn’t recover or survive from the flooding at that point, then it won’t grow well or it will wither very quickly. It’s not me seeking out very specific types of people or plants. Everyone wants to be able to work with each other well. If you communicate well, if we know how to navigate each other, I feel that this works.

I have had a lot of dialogue sessions with my team, at least in the past one or two years, and I feel that’s very useful in terms of daily reminders about what we care for, what we would want to sort out. The team is the most important to me on a day to day basis, than the work that we do. The team’s motivation, their interest, welfare and headspace is something that I quietly focus on, watch and be sensitised to. But there’s only so much I can do as a boss. We all know about keeping a professional relationship with your team. It is a very difficult thing but I would like to say that I am invested in trying to ensure that they feel comfortable, and that they are not becoming yes-man or they are not losing control over a department of work that they are provided to do, that they have grounds to develop, grow, promote and navigate new things after a couple of year. I feel like I’m starting to be more articulate to them about all these possibilities.

I do learn the hard way early in the years. I’ve grown to learn how to reject, commit to, or navigate difficult situations, know when to be silent, when to say more, when to push a bit harder, when to stand down. All these are being people-oriented, training myself to learn to be more disciplined in how I onboard tasks and develop things. I do like to see myself continue to be at bay with my emotions, know when it is needed to be shown, to stand back and to listen, or to let them sometimes even fail and learn through the failure. It’s hard to say that because sometimes you can’t afford to fail. There’s that stance and anxiety as a business owner to feel like you need to protect them so that you also protect the business.

Having talked to a lot of peers, it’s one of the most difficult things. A lot of us come into design not to work with people. A lot of people really cannot work with people in general, so let alone run something, let alone be a creative running something with other creatives. It’s tough. I would say that I am always reworking and rejuvenating the way that I engage people.

How I navigate plants and how I navigate the studio… maybe what’s similar is that you need to understand time, you need to have that patience, not only for the plants to grow and but also to know what kind of support is needed for the growth.

And if you can represent Currency with an animal, or a hybrid of two to three animals, what would that be?

Why you never say plants? Animal ah

A lot of us come into design not to work with people. A lot of people really cannot work with people in general, so let alone run something, let alone be a creative running something with other creatives. It’s tough. I would say that I am always reworking and rejuvenating the way that I engage people.

Plants are a bit hard for our audiences to know if they are not into plants though.

It’s so random! Okay, um... I like frogs. I just like frogs. When I was young, I just liked frogs. I had a large collection of toy frogs. My aunt who used to know that I collect frogs would give me frogs from Australia when they come back from travelling. I was known to like frogs. Let me think whether frogs do inform what I am, why I am and who I am today. They change colour depending on the environment.

They look very different from their tadpole form.

Yea, they do have a few life cycle changes. But everyone does…

They’re also very loud.

Oh yea… I have a kind of like… Some people say, “Are you from theatre?”. I’m not… They do adapt and are very sensitive to smoke and everything.

So sensitivity?

Sensitivity… Yea maybe to do with being able to feel and sense, sure.

They are also green, like plants.

Oh ya… And frogs are rather endangered, especially when the environment is torn down and their habitat is lost. It’s one of the first few animals that will probably get extinct. They are also in many crazy colours. These colours also warn predators about poison that they have. They don’t taste very well, I would think. You may die if you eat me up, so…

We’re going into a frog channel. Okay, last few questions, quick ones. Which activity would you choose for a team bonding activity – outdoor kayaking, bringing the team to play escape room, or a night of dinner and board games at someone’s house, and why?

Night of dinner… The other two sound like NS, army so-called ‘cohesion’.

Well they can be fun… Get some vitamin D and…

We do have dialogue days quite a bit, so because of that I feel we don’t really do a lot of like, “Let's dedicate lull periods. Let's go and fly some kites.” We constantly strike a social relationship. We sometimes have quite long lunches…

We do have dialogue days quite a bit, so because of that I feel we don’t really do a lot of like, “Let's dedicate lull periods. Let's go and fly some kites.” We constantly strike a social relationship. We sometimes have quite long lunches…

What are ‘dialogue days’?

Dedicate one day, no work, talk about anything, everything, all our issues, all our good things.

Dedicate one day, no work, talk about anything, everything, all our issues, all our good things.

So it’s like a HTHT? (Heart To Heart Talk)

Kind of… It’s just something that we devised for a couple of years already. ‘Cause I realise… it’s two-way, they need a channel to tell me how they feel about certain work-related or welfare things. Just a casual day where they get a full, nuanced answer, discuss possibilities, record it down and then change protocol. Or, on my side, maybe I note down certain pain points about work day-to-day. I don’t raise it up and make an issue. I say it many weeks later during the dialogue session so that it’s a very comfortable and good headspace to do it. I would treat them the breakfast or dinner… It’s a fun day and I look forward to it. Actually we are having one tomorrow. I’m trying to start where they all get to share something about themselves.

It’s weird for me to do because as I said, I’m not a person who learned to do things like that. I’m not trained to be working with people, I’m trained to connect vector lines. It’s a very different skillset that I have to grow my shape into that mould, because I have to work with people. I have to understand them, and they have to understand me. If the day-to-day is not clear, then how are we gonna perform in general?

The problem of graphic design is that it’s so detail-oriented. A lot of emotional maturity has to be present and a good relationship has to be struck, in order to navigate something so obsessive like graphic design. It’s me trying to toggle and navigate realistically my obsession in graphic, and that kind of frequency and obsession in relation to collaborators and team members, who navigate in the same kind of crazy obsession. It’s as much of control as knowing when to let go of certain things, that strikes a certain balance for me.

I’m not trained to be working with people, I’m trained to connect vector lines. It’s a very different skillset that I have to grow my shape into that mould, because I have to work with people. I have to understand them, and they have to understand me.

And if you weren’t living this life of being a graphic designer, what do you think you will be doing now?

I don’t have to run something. My personality is not ‘I want to have full control over everything’. I don’t. Why I set certain methods or approaches, and why I like workflow is because I am quite afraid of not having a certain structure. Not so much ‘afraid’, but more of I don't think it will work without a structure.

I have one last question and I want to use the pun that you mentioned just now. What future currents does Currency look forward to?

I have been unfortunate enough to have friends who introduce us to new fields that I don’t fully have the experience in, and friends who gladly teach in order for us to have new fields to enter. This kind of cross-pollination and fields informing each other, and me contributing to them as friends-who-also-run-businesses type of relationships to me is always nice to have and to retain and inculcate as a safe place to share.

Sometimes when you run a business, there’s only so much you can share within your day-to-day because there’s nothing above you to define what you do. Not everyone can understand what you do. It’s always very valuable and I want to have more peers and people in the industry to have comfortable conversations. I have some of that today and I really treasure and cherish those relationships. That’s the main thing I look forward to because it is tough on top. Every step has to be taken carefully, every decision I make hinges on my headspace. The only thing I will look forward to is really more wisdom from the scene and friends.

Not everyone can understand what you do. I want to have more peers and people in the industry to have comfortable conversations. That’s the main thing I look forward to because it is tough on top. Every step has to be taken carefully, every decision I make hinges on my headspace. The only thing I will look forward to is really more wisdom from the scene and friends.

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