JONATHAN YUEN

Graphic Design

Roots

https://www.whererootsare.com/

Founded in 2011, the branding and creative design company, Roots was started by Jonathan Yuen with the goal of returning to the basics of good design. As the principal designer of a small company, hear about what growth and success means to him, and his opinions on where the industry is headed.
  • Company Name

    Roots

  • Company Founded in

    2011

  • Founder

    Jonathan Yuen

  • Birthdate of Founder

    Dec 1977

  • Education

    Dip. Comm. Design, LICT, Kuala Lumpur

  • Education

    B. Arts (Design), Curtin University

  • Previous Job

    Interactive Designer, Formula8

  • Previous Job

    Art Director, Kinetic

  • 1st Office

    Own Bedroom

  • Team Size

    1

  • 2nd Office

    80 Playfair Road (2013)

  • Team Size

    2

  • 1999

    Grauduated in Kuala Lumpur with Dip. Comm. Design, Limkokweng Institute of Creative Design (LICT), 1999

  • 2000

    Graduated with Bachelor of Arts (Design), Curtin University

  • 2000

    Worked at Formula8 as Interactive Designer

  • 2002

    Worked as Art Director at Kinetic

  • 2011

    Founded Roots

Small But Steady

By Amber Sim, 29 December 2021

So, where were you working before you started Roots?

I’m actually from Malaysia, if you haven’t known. So, after I graduated in Malaysia, I worked briefly in KL (Kuala Lumpur) for about 8 months. Then I got the opportunity to come and work in Singapore. So, I started in Singapore at Formul8 - a boutique design agency - as an interactive designer. I was there for 2 and a half years, then after that, I applied to Kinetic, which I got in, and joined as a print designer, and from there, I worked in Kinetic for 7 and a half years.

Wow, 7 years is a while. So, what made you take the next step to start your own studio?

I’ve always wanted to start my own. As in, not so much about starting my own, but more like.. hmm…I always dreamt that one day, I can… kind of like… do my own things, you know? Kind of explore doing graphic design by myself, and If it results in running my own shop, then why not? During the 2010s, I started to kind of take on a more managerial role in the company. And I ended up doing less and less hands-on design. So, I started to feel that I missed doing hands-on graphic design and stuff like that. And also, I just got married at that time, so, it just kind of gave me that incentive, to try and venture out on my own; that it would be the perfect opportunity to go out and try myself.

During the 2010s, I started to take on a more managerial role in the company. And I ended up doing less and less hands-on design. So, I started to feel that I missed doing hands-on graphic design.

When you started Roots, what did you envision it to become?

Actually, I don’t have grand visions, you know, even the name Roots, I kind of thought up the name in, like, 5 to 10 minutes. Basically, the whole idea is just.. I wanted to kind of go back to my roots, in the sense that I wanted to go back to doing good design, you know? Yea… so having an approach of what makes good graphic design in projects and stuff like that. So, yea… that’s how I envisioned the studio - that I wanted to do good work. And then, how it is going to grow or evolve... I will just take it one step at a time. I don’t have like a 5 or 10 years’ kind of plan, but as long as I can survive the first two years, I would think that I kind of made it... on the first step (laughs).

Actually, I don’t have grand visions, you know, even the name Roots, I kind of thought up the name in, like, 5 to 10 minutes. Basically, the whole idea is just.. I wanted to kind of go back to my roots, in the sense that I wanted to go back to doing good design.

Yeah, so do you think that today, are you still holding on to those origins? Or do you think it’s kind of changed a bit? Do you still have that same philosophy as when you started?

Yeah, I would say so. Hmm.. I mean, it has never changed from day one. Basically, we have always focused on doing good work for our clients, we always view our clients as our collaborators, and we always work closely with our clients. So yea... that has not changed since day one. So, I guess the changes are mostly on the operational side of things, but we also don’t really intend to grow the studio, so we are still a staff of two - including myself - in the studio.

So in a way, you like having more control over all the different areas?

Yeah, and hmm… one thing is that I like to talk to clients. Before I started out on my own, I was kind of an introverted person. But once I started my own business, I realised that as a designer, talking to clients is actually an important aspect of the design process. So, by talking to clients, I feel that I am more empathetic to them, and I am able to put myself in their shoes, in terms of… sometimes when they have different thoughts, different perspectives, or the issues they are facing. So, I try to put myself in their shoes, like… how they think and stuff like that, and then try to be empathetic and try to work together with them to solve the issues. So, in a way, it actually makes me a better designer, I would say. Rather than, you know, just kind of behind the computer screen, and people just tell you what to do then you just kind of do it, without knowing the full picture of all the little gears working here and there that kind of constitute the whole process.

Before I started out on my own, I was kind of an introverted person. But once I started my own business, I realised that as a designer, talking to clients is actually an important aspect of the design process.

Yeah, in a way, it’s good to have the perspective of a non-designer, right?

Yeah, correct, yeah. I learn from my clients as much as they understand and learn from how we design everything for them.

So, when you first started, it was just you, was it?

Yeah, it was just me in a HDB (laughs)... study room, yeah.

What were some of your biggest worries or concerns back then?

Actually, the biggest worry is that… whether the studio will survive…it’s quite natural to think about that. But I kind of convinced myself that the worst thing that can happen is that… let’s say if things don’t work out, I will just go look for a job. That wouldn’t be, like, a bad outcome; it’s just something you tried and you fail. So, I guess the biggest worry is more like, you know, whether the studio is able to find the right clients. When I started, I wanted the studio to only work with clients that can build mutual trust with us… with the studio. Because only if we have that kind of relationship, then we are able to do good work.

I wanted the studio to only work with clients that can build mutual trust with us… with the studio. Because only if we have that kind of relationship, then we are able to do good work.

So how did you find your first few clients?

Hmm… actually… along the way, I have a lot of friends who do referrals to me, you know… they introduce their friends to me… friends who are looking for graphic designers… so yeah… my friends kind of referred contacts to me. So, I am always grateful that in the beginning, I have friends who do referrals to me, so hmm… yeah, from there, it just kind of built up. So, one project leads to another through word of mouth, and through portfolio showcase, things start to grow, and we kind of attract the kind of clients that we wanted to work with, in that sense, that was how we started the first steps, so to speak. Although we work with all kinds of clients, from different industries… there was a period when we started to work with a few photographers, and that led to… hmmm… quite a few projects that were all photography related (laughs). So, once we start working on a certain genre, say, brands, or theatre, then similar kind of projects will start to come in… it’s quite interesting in that sense.

So, would you say, like, the whole creative community in Singapore is quite supportive of each other?

Yeah, I would think so, yeah. It is a very small community in a sense, but I guess… hmm… everybody just kind of helps each other out.

And you went to University in Australia, right?

I didn’t go to Australia per se, I got my degree from Curtin University but it’s through a program that my college at that time piloted. So, I took the degree course, but from Malaysia. So, I don’t have to go to Australia and spend more money, hence I completed my degree in KL.

So, from your experience of having worked in both Malaysia and Singapore, would you say culturally, the design industry here and there is quite different?

I only worked in KL for 8 months in a single agency, so I can’t say much about that. But in terms of like lifestyles, and hmm… the kind of work, the kind of clients both places have, definitely, there is quite a bit of differences lah.

Would you consider yourself a Singaporean designer?

Hmmm… (laughs). That is a good question. Hmmm… I have been for like almost 20-plus years… yeah, I would consider myself a Singaporean designer… I mean, a lot of things are definitely influenced by context… in terms of local context and also like all the things that I see, all the things that I learn, all the things that I draw inspiration from… a big part of it is definitely from my surroundings. So, I guess, yeah, I am a Singaporean designer (laughs).

And for young local designers starting out, do you think that it is important that they always make reference to the local context?

I wouldn’t say yes or no… because I think each designer, whether they are young, aspiring, upcoming… I think each will eventually find their own place in the grand scheme of things? Some may have a more global mindset, so it’s okay that… you know… their works are more globally situated. Some are more interested in, say, their own cultural and history… a bit more rooted, you know? So, instinctively they will draw their inspirations from their surroundings, so their work will be pretty much rooted in the local context. That is fine as well. So, I think - to each his own, with all these things around us, it’s up to them if they want to grab it or not.

You have worked on a lot of branding projects, right? Can you kind of take me through the process of how you design a brand identity?

Okay, our process is kind of quite fluid in that sense… it really depends on the scope and budget (laughs). Yeah, so hmm… bigger budget, bigger scope… we will definitely have a lot more steps, a lot more details that we need to work on. But whether it is a big branding project or small, they will all follow a few key steps in a sense lah. The very important thing in the beginning is to always talk to the stakeholders of the brand, try to understand their side of the story, and listen to them. Before COVID, we always have face-to-face meetings, see their body language, understand them as a person, as a human being, and then try to understand how they see the brand, and try to reflect the kind of direction that they want, to try and capture the personality of the brand. Then from there, the next part is really to try to internally generate keywords that capture or encapsulate this whole conversation, or the bigger workshop that we have done for them. From these keywords, we try to have ideas that kind of, like, piece all these keywords together, then from there we translate the ideas into visual forms; and from there, the design can kind of carry on, yeah. So that is kind of like the basic process that we did for all our projects, in terms of branding.

The very important thing in the beginning is to always talk to the stakeholders of the brand, try to understand their side of the story, and listen to them. Before COVID, we always have face-to-face meetings, see their body language, understand them as a person, as a human being, and then try to understand how they see the brand, and try to reflect the kind of direction that they want, to try and capture the personality of the brand.

So, would you say that COVID has kind of impacted the way you worked?

Yeah, I would say so. We love to meet the clients, so when we can’t meet them and do everything face-to-face, I would say that the magic part of it is kind of lost. I mean, in the end, we will have to make do, as we definitely have to do what is necessary. But I think meeting face-to-face will always give us a bit more understanding.

What was your reaction to being chosen to design the branding for the Singapore Bicentennial?

Hmm… the SG Bicentennial, hmm.. at that time, JWT wanted to form a consortium, so Jon Loke, the ECD talked to me and they wanted us to handle the brand identity bit of it, so we kind of went in with them to pitch for it. When we got the project, I was definitely excited, but also cautious in a sense, because it is a national branding project, and that was probably the biggest project we have done so far. But luckily, we worked closely with the client, Gene Tan, and his amazing team, and also, with the support from JWT, we were able to go through the whole process very smoothly. I would say it is quite smooth, for a big project like this.

That’s good! So do you take the same approach with your other branding projects?

Hmm, yeah, I mean the key steps as I have mentioned earlier, are more or less the same. It basically gives us the right understanding of what and who we are crafting the branding for, you know? And then the rest kind of follow the process as necessary. Again, it depends on the scope of the branding project, then we just kind of adapt and scale accordingly.

I guess conventionally, to be a successful designer, you would have to have a big studio and a lot of employees, but I think that’s changed a lot now. Would you consider yourself successful?

Hmm… honestly, I’ve been through a journey and then along this journey, you know, I have done this and that. But I will always see myself as kind of just starting out… I always have the feeling that I still have more to do and things that I want to do. So, I think it is a good feeling that.. hmmm… I don’t see myself as like, “Wow I’m successful” or that I have made it; because I always feel that I still have more to learn in that sense lah. Yeah, so, it is like this Chinese proverb, it basically says that you might never climb a mountain your entire life, but in your heart, you should always have a mountain. So, the whole idea is that, you always have to keep challenging yourself. So, I don’t see myself, like, I have made it, you know?

I don’t see myself as like, “Wow I’m successful” or that I have made it; because I always feel that I still have more to learn in that sense lah. Yeah, so, it is like this Chinese proverb, it basically says that you might never climb a mountain your entire life, but in your heart, you should always have a mountain.

You have won quite a few awards over the years, right? Would you say that played a big part in your growth?

I guess if you are asking whether these awards help the studio to grow, I would say no. Actually, all our clients who came to us… they never see the awards as part of the reason (laughs) why they came to us. It is always about our work that they kind of resonate with, and that is why they come and then they talk to us, and then they understand how we approach a creative process, and then they want to work with us. It’s never never about the awards. Although we always kind of present that “oh, we have been awarded this, this, this…”, but to them it is just passing remarks. But personally, these awards are a kind of validation for myself. It’s just, kind of like - as you do, as you grow, or as you charge along, you just want to see that in the grand scheme of things, where you stand in the community; whether locally, regionally, worldwide, where do you stand with all your peers, all your seniors, and your juniors. So, awards are just a way to give myself a bit of validation that, “okay, I made it to this stage.” It’s a pat on the back, like okay, you did good, or you did the right thing. So… hmm… yeah. But I guess awards are just a bonus in terms of what I do everyday lah. For every project, we put one hundred and ten percent into it, so, sometimes when the results turn out good, and if we think that it is award-worthy… then we just give it a try lah! And if we get something, then that’s a bonus!

I guess if you are asking whether these awards help the studio to grow, I would say no. Actually, all our clients never see the awards as part of the reason why they came to us. It is always about our work that they resonate with,

And what would you say has been the biggest challenge in your journey so far?

I guess the biggest challenge is always trying to think like, for the next 3 months, how do we bring in the projects. You know, for the studio, we are always trying to plan like this - 3 months, 3 months at a step, and then in the longer term… I’m not the long-term kind of a planner, but I always like to see how things kind of evolve or change. I will just think in the next three months, how should I react to it… yeah. That is always the biggest challenge for me.

I guess the biggest challenge is always trying to think like, for the next 3 months, how do we bring in the projects. For the studio, we are always trying to plan like this - 3 months, 3 months at a step...

So, you said that Roots is just you, and you have a partner?

Presently, for the past 2 years, it’s actually just myself and my producer, Stella, who happens to be my wife as well … she joined me (laughs) two years ago. She is a graphic designer as well, yeah so, she joined me right before COVID, and before that, I have four designers who worked with me throughout the years - Ho Gai, Stacey, Xin Ying, and the longest one is Pamela. Each of them joined me at a different time, so it’s all this while, it’s more or less a 2-person kind of studio.

Are the roles kind of equally shared between the two of you?

For any new project, I will always do the initial part of it. In terms of the creative process of like, realising the whole conceptualisation, exploring the art direction… etcetera etcetera, I always work with my designers… you know, we have discussions… we have explorations and stuff like that. When the project starts running, depending on the scale of project, the type of project, and the experience of the designer, sometimes I will let them run it. So, they will talk to the clients directly, you know? Like I said earlier on, I strongly believe that designers should talk to and interact with the clients. It is also kind of like training for them. Until shit hits the fan, and then I jump in and (laughs) try to salvage.

I strongly believe that designers should talk to and interact with the clients. It is also kind of like training for them. Until shit hits the fan, and then I jump in and try to salvage.

(laughs) And that’s been working so far?

Yeah, so far okay, yeah, so far okay.

What are some, or one of your favourite projects that you have done?

It’s hard to kind of pin point a favourite project because each project has a good experience… especially, you know, all the projects that you see, that we put on our website, and Facebook… it is kind of hard for me to say if I prefer this project over the other, because each of them has its own experience and outcome, and the different things I learnt from each project. But I guess if I were to say, amongst the most recent projects, I’m really kind of glad to work on this spirit brand, Malt, Grain & Cane. I can’t drink, so it’s quite nice to be able to work on a spirit brand (laughs). And the client Marcus has been really wonderful. He trusts us, and gives us full creative freedom, collaborating with us; even the name is actually from him. So, I am just glad to be able to work on that project, and really happy with the end result.

So, like, what is your ideal dynamic between yourself and the client?

I strongly believe that the most important element is trust. Mutual trust. Without mutual trust, it’s very hard to do good work. So, with mutual trust, in the sense that the client trusts your instincts, your intuitions, your consultancy, your advice, your explorations, your proposals… and in turn we trust the clients to have a certain confidence in how we explore, how we approach it, how we look at things, how we help them to manage the strategies, and the visual execution of it, and then both of us are like… you know… take on the risk together so to speak, to roll out the outcome and see how it works in the real world. I think that is very important for doing any real work. So, trust is the one thing that I always look for whenever we start talking to clients, when we start project negotiations,

Without mutual trust, it’s very hard to do good work. So, with mutual trust, in the sense that the client trusts your instincts, your intuitions, your consultancy, your advice, your explorations, your proposals…

I guess like everyone has had experiences with difficult clients, so, would that determine whether you choose to do the project? Or how would you deal with a difficult client?

I am quite grateful that so far in the 10 years… we don’t really have difficult clients per se. But probably 1 or 2, it’s probably less than… I would say 3 or 4 lah. And… hmm… amongst these few, we either broke off the project in the beginning once we know that it wasn’t going to work out, or we just kind of stick to our obligations and responsibilities… and just try to finish the project as soon as we can, and then we just kind of broke off with them cleanly in a sense lah. One thing about our studio is… I always emphasise that we will always treat the clients with respect, no matter how difficult it is lah.

Talking about technology, it has such a big impact in your field of work. Do you think there’s anything that it’s taken away, or any negative aspects to it?

I’m an interaction designer by training… by education, so I just happened to go into print advertising when I joined Kinetic. From there, I learnt so much from Pann and Roy, and then I started to, kind of, see the bigger picture in terms of designs, and the overall design thinking… and the approach to everything. So, medium is just one of the channels for design. In that sense, I started to really see the bigger picture of graphic design and everything. So.. hmm… I guess it’s almost like I roll back from technology? When dealing with interactive design, you have to deal with all the technical bits. For graphic design, it is a bit more tactile, playing with papers; or when we do packaging, we play with boxes… and all kind of things. So, hmm… I guess technology is good and bad lah. It’s definitely streamlined the creative process, and you know, helps with a lot of things. But I guess the negative thing probably is that… sometimes it makes us also a bit lazy? I don’t feel that it is negative negative in a sense, but maybe it makes us a bit lazier in certain aspects? (laughs) Yeah, if that makes sense.

I guess technology is good and bad lah. It’s definitely streamlined the creative process, and you know, helps with a lot of things. But I guess the negative thing probably is that… sometimes it makes us also a bit lazy?

Yeah…and you have done a lot of lectures and talks over the years, right? What are some of the most common questions that you have been asked?

Quite random, but I think the only question that I always remember is that a lot of them will ask, “Are you taking interns?” (laughs) Yeah, but the studio is very small… I used to take in interns quite a bit during internship seasons, … I have stopped since many years ago lah

So, when it comes to employing new designers, and especially for younger designers who are looking for jobs… do you have a process? Does it normally start out from internships and just word of mouth?

My longest designer is actually from internship. So, when she did the internship… I was really impressed with her dedication, her discipline, and you know, her focus and stuff. So, after her internship ended, she went back to school, but I actually, immediately kind of like chope (colloquial in Singapore which means “to reserve”) her… once she graduated, I got her in. So, yeah, you can say that through internships, when you work with someone, you start to understand them… and you can see whether they are able to fit with your style of working, the studio process, and all that.

Your studio is still quite young, what do you see changing in the future of the industry?

It is actually one of the things I’ve been thinking about.. to adapt the studio to the industry changes, especially with COVID in the past two years… it has actually accelerated this trend… that a lot of the bigger agencies are actually starting to have collaboration with smaller studios. It’s almost like forming a collective with smaller studios who are more specialised in certain aspects, like recently, AKQA formed a collective with Made Thought. So, there are a lot of collaborations between bigger agencies with smaller studios to tackle projects, tackle campaigns, and various kinds of projects together. So, I think, moving forward, this will be the continuous trend, and it may even accelerate and probably evolve from there. So, we are trying to open ourselves to collaborations with bigger agencies… you know, to work on more interesting projects as well, yeah. I mean, in the past, we have worked with Ogilvy on the SG50 icons, then we worked with JWT on SG Bicentennial… and recently we worked with FARM on the Hungry Design exhibition, so we hope that we will have more opportunities to work with bigger agencies on more interesting projects.

There are a lot of collaborations between bigger agencies with smaller studios to tackle projects, tackle campaigns, and various kinds of projects together. So, I think, moving forward, this will be the continuous trend, and it may even accelerate and probably evolve from there.

So, your idea of growth is not really just a linear kind of growth in terms of size, but more in terms of being able to work with different design studios?

Yeah, correct, yeah. And I feel that when we have a collective and come together to work on a project and solve it together, it’s much more exciting, then trying yourself, you know? it’s no longer about just growing your own studio and hoping that you are able to work on a certain project any more. I think maybe 5, 10 years ago that worked? But now things are changing so rapidly… we need to adapt to that as well. I mean, the bigger agencies… a lot of them no longer look to grow internally, but rather they prefer to work with external specialized studios for certain things. So, I think it is an interesting and dynamic kind of setup that actually works best for the client in the long term.

Would you say that you have a dream project? Or is there anyone that you would really like to work with?

Hmm… my dream project is probably… hmm… design an airline branding? (laughs) An airline… or a museum branding? Yeah, I think it will be very interesting. Branding projects like these… it’s like… you have to think in a global way, but you also have to think in a local context. Yeah, so I think that will be interesting…

Hmm… my dream project is probably to design an airline branding or a museum branding...

And in the future, do you think that your studio is still going to maintain at 2 persons? Or are you looking to make any changes to your company?

Hard to say. Currently our setup suits the way we work, and the kind of projects that we have, the kind of processes that we are running. But hmm… I don’t rule that out, you know? Things can change, as maybe when we take on bigger projects, or maybe we take on bigger collaboration, then depending on how all these projects’ parameters and requirements might affect us, we will need to change to respond to that. But as of now, the current setup kind of works for us lah. So, we will try to maintain it and then you know, try not to give ourselves unnecessary stress.

So, it’s kind of hard for you to plan too far in advance, right? You just kind of have to evolve to the circumstances?

Yeah, correct. Like I said, I’m not a planner in the sense that I will not think, like, in 5 years’ time, I want my studio to have like, 10 people, you know? Or that we want to work on this and that kind of project… because I’m a very hands-on person, so I’d like to see, like… you know, as projects come, and I can kind of enjoy the present, and then from one kind of project, hopefully it can lead to similar kinds of projects that I would like to work on, and then just kind of let it roll and plan from there, yeah. So, it’s a very - I would say - organic way, to look at it, yeah.

And, if you could go back and do anything different, would you?

Hmm… no… actually, no. Hmm… I’m a person who believes that things happen in the way that they should. So, I like who I am now… as a designer, so all the mistakes… all the bad things… good things that I’ve done previously, they need to happen in order to arrive at the me now. So, I don’t think I would want to change anything in the past in that sense, yeah.

I’m a person who believes that things happen in the way that they should. So, I like who I am now… as a designer, so all the mistakes… all the bad things… good things that I’ve done previously, they need to happen in order to arrive at the me now.

And lastly, what advice would you share with young aspiring designers who are really anxious about the future?

Yeah, I mean with the COVID thing… hmm… it’s really getting harder and harder… you know, not a lot of companies are actually hiring… But actually, not really true… I’ve seen a lot of recruitment ads as well. But anyway, I guess it’s to stay humble and be hopeful. And then, you know, just trying to find your way… find your voice… and find your place in the industry, in the community that you are going into. That’s the most important thing… also, take on internships and stuff like that, yeah.

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