RYAN & SHERMEEN
Company Founded in
Name of Founder
8 May 1984
B.A. (Hons), 2007, Business Studies, Nottingham University Business School
Don't Mind If, Communications Design Industry Report Co-Founder, 2019-Present
The Design Society, Vice President. 2018 - 2021
The Milton Tan Memorial Fund, Member. 2012 - Present
Bukit Pasoh Road
Period of Occupancy (Current)
2018 - Present
No. of Staff (Current)
Location (3rd Office)
Period of Occupancy (3rd Office)
2016 - 2017
Space (3rd Office)
No. of Staff (3rd Office)
Location (2nd Office)
Short Street, Golden Wall Centre
Period of Occupancy (2nd Office)
Space (2nd Office)
No. of Staff (2nd Office)
Location (1st Office)
Period of Occupancy (1st Office)
Space (1st Office)
No. of Staff (1st Office)
OuterEdit T-Shirt Collaboration
Pioneer Portraits, SG50
Passion Made Possible Brand Launch, Singapore Tourism.
Street of Clans, Singapore Design Week
Millenia Walk Design Play Space
Singapore Suite, F1 Singapore Grand Prix
Millenia Walk Tidings of Tomorrow Christmas Tree
Archifest Festival Branding & Digital Experience
Shortlisted for the President*s Design Award (Singapore)
RJ ‘Good Intentions’ Calendar, 30th Anniversary Edition
Millenia Walk Happy Park
Don’t Mind If Inaugural Communications Design Industry Report
Through the Cat Flap
By Chris Low, 1 April 2022
A big hello to Ryan Tan and Shermeen Tan from OuterEdit. They are our guests here today on Studio SML. I’m just going to jump right from the start. Ryan, you grew up in America, you studied in UK. You’ve stayed away for some time but you came back to start your career here in Singapore. What was that decision like?
Ryan Tan Thanks Chris. First of all, just thanks for having us here today, very happy to share whatever we know and I hope it’s helpful and beneficial to anyone listening.
Yeah so, I was definitely raised in the US and I got to further my studies in the UK. I was actually born in Singapore. I would consider myself actually raised in Singapore as well, and definitely also served my national service here. I think having the exposure overseas definitely helped, you know. I think in terms of framing your perception and your world view in general and definitely I am very blessed to have the opportunity to further my studies overseas. My parents actually emptied their pockets for my brother and I to do that. They believed very heavily in education. And I think like, for me, it was very valuable to be exposed to different types of cities, different types of people, cultures and environments. But ultimately, being overseas really made me realise how much I love Singapore.
And I love the creative sector here as well. So I think, I was actually even more compelled and excited about these things as I was overseas. And I was really keen to come back to contribute in any way I could. I think it was really much about whether or not I wanted to try to plug myself into a creative sector that was already very well established, or whether I could be helpful in the uplifting and supporting of something that was still in the process of developing, something that was still fighting to make a name and a space for itself. So I think that was really the fire in the belly that I had, even as I was overseas.
And I was really keen to come back to contribute in any way I could. I think it was really much about whether or not I wanted to try to plug myself into a creative sector that was already very well established, or whether I could be helpful in the uplifting and supporting of something that was still in the process of developing...
It's just so good to hear that you actually find that we're not too small, a country to actually start a very, very global business. You actually started an online t-shirt company in 2011. It was a very exciting idea collaborating in a five-way direction. So when you guys actually kind of moved into creative branding, what was the change that you felt was most unexpected in this new business model that you had approached?
Ryan Tan Yeah, I think when we did that we already had the reason why we set up a collaborative model to begin with, as a lot of people do ask: why, why exactly did you do that? Because it's so 'le-che' right? Don't you feel five-ways is going to cause some tension, some heat? The idea was actually to be able to take someone else's artwork, cut it up and produce something new from that. And collaborations in this format could take a few days, some of them could take a few weeks to complete; but you actually end up with things that you would never be able to create unless it was through this model. And at the core of it all, it wasn't just a game that we wanted people to play. But it was actually a way for us to celebrate the people and the hands and the skills and the background, behind creatives around the world. So we had collaborators from different parts, different design cities, including Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Singapore, Tokyo, Malaysia, and even though they couldn't speak the same language, they could definitely still converse through the work that they're producing and the meaning behind that work. So the initiative was really about questioning consumers, right? Do we pick our artworks or our printed t-shirts based on how cool or how beautiful they look? Or is this something more that we can create, that we can showcase within the retail sector, and the meaning behind the art piece; maybe the names and the stories behind these art pieces as well. So that was the collaborative model. That was what it was set out to do. What was surprising was that we later got approached by numerous brands who are interested in t-shirts. Yeah, the t-shirts were cool, but they're actually more fascinated by the platform of creativity and the platform of collaborations. So we actually got to start working with them to produce their own collaborations. And that slowly evolved through a lot of hardship, and a lot of hard work, it evolved into a more consultative business, which is what we do now.
Okay. You guys went into this creative branding agency work since 2014? Is there a project that you remember where you go, like: "Okay, we are finally being noticed, or looks like someone has seen our stuff. And we have made it you know, we are here now." Is there a project that comes to your mind?
Ryan Tan I think what was interesting is that, you know, of course, we entered this industry through the cat flap. We started off with all intentions thinking to be the next 'Threadless' if you like, the next t-shirt online store that will conquer the world, right. But it was quite serendipitous in a way, of how we got to work on a B2B (business-to-business) scale. By evolving the collaborative platform that we had and trying to solve other brand's and other people's problems in communication challenges through that. I think what was quite exciting and surprising to us was actually how open some brands were to how work is to be done, not just to focus on what is meant to be created at the end of the day; but to focus on the process of creativity. And to try to uplift, the creatives that you work with as well as the work that you're looking to produce together. So I think that was quite an amazing epiphany for us to focus on how that work is to be done in values and principles that underpin it as well. As to whether there was a period where we felt that we had made it, whether we felt we've been recognised. I think this is an ongoing struggle for us, because I don't think we ever think of it that way. But I know one project that we worked really hard to get in. And then once we got it we realised the timeline was so short that we had to quickly get it out. And as best way as possible, and that was 2019's: Street of Clans for Singapore Design Week.
We entered this industry through the cat flap. We started off with all intentions thinking to be the next 'Threadless' if you like, the next t-shirt online store that will conquer the world, right. But it was quite serendipitous how we got to work on a B2B scale.
That was a fantastic project! It was fantastic.
Shermeen Tan Thank you! I think in a sense, like what Ryan said, it's not so much like whether, have you made it? Because I think we're still trying to make it. I mean, there's a lot more to go that we can learn about. But I think Street of Clans was so iconic for us, because, you know, collaborations for us is being able to play with other creatives, not just in the design industry. But you know, beyond that, as well. I mean, like scientists can be creative, someone in the Lego field can be creative as well. And so I think, it felt always about how can we become a platform that allows emerging creatives, as well as established creators to come together to produce something more? So I think with Street of Clans we were able to really do that on a bigger scale. So in the sense of being able to have that kind of impact and do something that's that meaningful together with our team, then, in that sense, that was something that we felt like: Okay, wow! We have really honed our skills to this point. That we can actually pull something like this to happen and to make it a success in the sense that people are impacted by it and people from different communities as well.
I think what was quite exciting and surprising to us was actually how open some brands were to how work is to be done, not just to focus on what is meant to be created at the end of the day; but to focus on the process of creativity.
Right. I think it's interesting that you mentioned Street of Clans first, because when I was looking through your works, that is really a very community based project. What were some of the difficulties you faced when you want to approach a much older generation and get them to see that creativity is something that they can actually participate in, especially when we talk about clans?
Shermeen Tan So I think our background is that we are located at Bukit Pasoh, and we're actually located in one of the clan houses, the Koh clan. So when Design Singapore actually called for a district activation, we immediately thought of our street because we just shifted in that year and there's just so much heritage in that street, right? But you are right, like, I don't think our landlord actually knew fully what we did. And I think when we first came to them and said: "You know, hi, we kind of wanted to do this." "Oh is it like Heritage Festival?" Then we said: “No, it’s or something like that, but we kind of want to do it through a lens of design and creativity.” And you could kind of see like the question marks that were growing up above their head, but they're very open about it. They said: "Okay, let us introduce you to the other clans as well." So we ended up going for Koh clan’s 70th anniversary and meeting the Gan clan, and then Tung On Wui Kun. So that was really interesting to see and it then led to the further conversations.
And your question about whether it was difficult or not; I think yes, at the start, you know, to get something as an idea as new as that: to bring heritage and creativity and design across multi generations across multi races and bring it to life. I don't think people actually knew what we wanted to do at the start. So I think it took a lot of actual relationship building first, and kind of them giving us the trust, and then being open to just letting us try this out, for us to really get across. But you could see, that once Street of Clans actually took place and it clicked, in the mind of all these different communities about what we were trying to do, then it was like a spark that you knew that next time, it could go further and it could go bigger as well. And even without our involvement, it's something that they could take on to spread.
And I think that's really the part that's meaningful to us and what we mean by making an impact. So it's not just like, impact in the sense of: do you get more publicity out of it? Or do you get more money out of it? For us? It's at the heart of it is really like, you know, design can change the world and change people's lives. And hence, how can we do our part in (other aspects of) Singapore as well?
So it's not just like, impact in the sense of: do you get more publicity out of it? Or do you get more money out of it? For us? It's at the heart of it is really like, you know, design can change the world and change people's lives.
So let's just rewind a little bit. It's easy when the outcome is done already, and you're looking and say wow, this is just great. But I'm just wondering, what was the brief that you actually got from Design Singapore? Like, what did they ask you guys to do? Or was it really something, you know, very, very vague. And you guys then ended up thinking, what direction shall we go? So what was the brief from Design Singapore?
Ryan Tan Great question, oh yeah. Thanks for asking that question. I think that the original brief was mainly to do with district activations. So this is a relatively young brief, I think it only had happened one or two years prior to 2019. And the idea behind district activation is to see how designers can spruce up life and interest around various neighbourhoods in Singapore. Yeah, so I think that previous versions of this initiative were street parties, maybe craft markets, lots of music, you know, lots of good vibes, you know, within a festival sort of space. And I think that when we came across the brief, we were obviously very interested to see how we could participate in the design. But for us, I think it was an opportunity to really showcase the impact that design can have on communities who otherwise wouldn't have a reason to interface with design or designers.
For us it was really imperative that the community was involved with us in some way, shape or form. I mean, I think we felt that there was our interactions with our landlords, you know, as we're walking up towards our floor, as we pass by their space, they will share with us their aspirations, what clans can become. Or they'll share with us what they were before, how they were involved in Singapore's roots in establishing hospitals in schools, including giving out bursaries to their family members, or even people outside their family members as well. And they also shared with us their concerns for what clans will become, or what the future of the clans will be in the future, that was just a local story that really needed to be told. And in our interactions with the other clans, we felt that that sentiment was the same, there was a lot of uncertainty.
Shermeen Tan The original brief was very much about the location itself or the heritage of the location, the history of it. But I think where we took a step further, was really looking at the people that are still existing, living within that location, what spirit did they have, what spirit anchored them previously, but is still present today? And how do you translate that to the audience.
You mentioned that when Design Singapore came with the brief it was something that you were very interested in it. So when clients come to you, is there a kind of checklist? And then you say:" Oh, no, this is not what we want to do. Or, oh yeah, okay, does it look like something that we can explore?" Is there some kind of checklist that you have, you know, or is it generally you take on anything and you know, that something good can come out of it.
Ryan Tan For this question, I can try to answer this, then you (Shermeen) can fill in the gaps, and plug in all the holes before the ship sinks.
Ryan Tan I think our approach is, obviously to make as much impact as we can, the slogan that we go by is to 'make meaningful matter' and you see that listed throughout the website. And I think that's to make meaningful things to make the idea of meaning matter more in contemporary society. And they're going to be projects, which are not going to have much avenue for you to explore this. And I think that's totally normal. And it's totally okay. We genuinely want to do our best for the projects, to go beyond to answer the creative brief, but also go beyond what the clients typically asked for. I think that's just the kind of culture and spirit that we have within our process of work. And of course, if there are projects where, you know, we sniff an opportunity for us to go beyond it and turn it into something that can still generate impact, then we'll always try to propose that as well.
I don't think we wake up assuming that the briefs waltz through the door perfectly moulded to our liking. I don't think that's something that we expect of our clients. But at the end of the day, we're, you know, a consultative service, we are in the service line. So we definitely try to generate the best ideas and not just answer it. And produce the nicest thing from it, but hopefully try to generate a sense of value and sense of purpose.
And in terms of selection criteria, I think over the years, we established like, six or seven prong selection criteria, which of course includes like the usual stuff, you know, is it profitable? Do we have bandwidth for it? But at the same time, I think we try to factor in the team's interest in the projects that we take on. For example, recently the team told us that they will love to work on more beauty style projects or food related projects, F&B. So I think those are the areas that we try to keenly keep an eye out for. I mean you feel like if the team is generally interested and passionate for the stuff that we work at, we can only expect like the best ideas and solutions to come forth from that as well.
Shermeen Tan And the other two criteria are creative impact and portfolio. I think definitely we look out for clients that are open. I mean, they're open to us. We're just trying something new. I mean, we can try something new within the parameters they set as well. But I think just for them to understand that design can do something more for you, as well. So when clients come to us these days, usually, it's not format specific. It's not like they say: Can you please do an annual report, or can you please do a website. They usually come to us and they have a certain need. So we definitely work with them to define, like, what exactly are you looking for? And as to what exactly is going to be the successful deliverable we have, right, then that's something that we discuss first. And it's not set in stone because you could come in thinking that you want a website, but actually what's going to do really well for you is actually maybe a brand experience that's more physical. So I think that's the way that we work here, like Ryan said, that's the way that we want to service as well, like we do want to give you our best and sometimes that means not giving you exactly what you wanted in the first place.
Our approach is, obviously to make as much impact as we can, the slogan that we go by is to 'make meaningful matter' and you see that listed throughout the website. And I think that's to make meaningful things so that they could actually also make the idea of meaning matter more in contemporary society.
Okay. Just a reactionary question: When you talk about brand experience, you know, when you guys did the branding for the Bak Kut Teh Song Fa, does it come with food as well? Did you guys feel like "I can't do any branding and experience related stuff unless I get to eat the whole range of food?" Does it come with the package?
Shermeen Tan The downstairs clients are amazing though! They kept feeding us.
Ryan Tan We didn’t have to ask for food. They are such a dynamic and young team. They will pull us into their R&D kitchen and they will feed us all their prototypes, the dishes that they are experimenting with.
Wow. Right, so you even get to be part of, to be participative in the R&D process. That’s really intimate isn’t? [Yes whether food comes with the job right?] Maybe that's why your staff is saying "We should do more F&B projects!"
Ryan Tan Might be? It also helps that the team are massive foodies in their own right.
Shermeen Tan And the clients are like amazing. They always feed us when we are there. But definitely, I mean, it does help to understand, you know, the product in order to be able to brand fully for it as well and to tell the story that it needs to tell.
Right, right. If I look at the works that you have done, and then there are also projects that seem to be on a much more smaller scale in a way, like the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the yearbook. Is that a big and stark difference in approach for you guys when you approach these kind of projects?
Ryan Tan Yes and no, right, because I think like, over the years, we've actually managed to develop quite a wide range of work that has involved different types of disciplines at the end of the day, and that's something that I think, well, we've heard that it sounds confusing. People are not too sure whether we still do t-shirts. Do we just build Christmas trees every year all year round? Do we do publications? Do we do animation, photography and so on? I think we actually enjoy that diversity of work. In fact, I think recently we just decided to term it beyond disciplinary. It's no longer about being multidisciplinary, but we want to think what's next, like what's the next creative? What's the next way of telling stories in a fresh and interesting way for people out there and I think that's really something that we have to champion.
It's not about us as a creative team doing all the work ourselves; as much as possible stemming back from the t-shirt days, we want to collaborate, we want to champion the spirit of collaborations. So in it being more open and more transparent, more fair. Just trying to stress test, like what it would take to pull a successful partnership off with our partners is something that we're genuinely very interested about. So I think that even though the projects do vary from ten, twelve metre tall Christmas trees to, you know, self initiated photoshoot for XPLR, I think that the principles and values of our team and our brand remain the same in that all of it really celebrates the unique way of telling a genuine story, right? How do we ensure that the work that we have has more meaning than just the product itself, but is a story that we can tell? We can tell the compelling ways in which it can inspire and uplift the lives of others.
I think we actually enjoy that diversity of work. In fact, I think recently we just decided to term it beyond disciplinary. It's no longer about being multidisciplinary, but we want to think what's next, like what's the next creative?
So it kind of goes back to your slogan, right? Make meaningful matter. So size actually really doesn't matter at all, isn't it? It's also interesting because I am actually looking and thinking you know, when you say collaboration; are there things or you know, collaborations between groups, or brands that you imagine - it's just sounds ridiculously impossible, but you can see that something electrifying is going to happen if these things actually come together, you know. In your mind are there things that you hope can happen in that way? Collaborations that can happen in a way?
Shermeen Tan Art and science I would say? I mean, for me, I feel like what we can do more is just like, l think in the science industry in Singapore and in the creative industry in Singapore, it's been something that sometimes sits quite far apart. Like even when you think about our education system, right? There are two streams that are for it. So I think for us, actually, that's exciting if you could bring them together and you could get people on the same playing field. Because if you think back to the Renaissance, Da Vinci wasn't like just an art guy or just a science person, right? He was very much both, and the training and thinking actually merged together to produce something much more. So, for us as well. I think it's how can we do that with our lives. And also, I think with our team as well, they are all very growth minded and very open. So how do we constantly create and learn more from other people and try to seek out I guess, and this year really actually, it is a lot about broadening our mind. Well, broadening our exposure as well as the way we think, to be able to create collaborations like that.
Because if you think back to the Renaissance, Da Vinci wasn't like just an art guy or just a science person, right? He was very much both, and the training and thinking actually merged together to produce something much more. So, for us as well. I think it's how can we do that with our lives.
If you start and look inward at your own team and your own office, right, does it also apply? Like the people that you take in to join you guys, do you purposely kind of look for people that are outside of the parameter? You know, like who applies to your firm?
Shermeen Tan We say we're very lucky with the people who have applied to our firm. They are all very talented. I think the people that apply to our firm and those that really go forward with us are people who, at the heart of it are very open. They could come from creative backgrounds. They might not actually be trained in creative backgrounds also, but have a creative soul within them. So to us, it's not about looking at your credentials as much as it is looking at what you've done, what's your philosophy, and you know, all the skill sets that you gathered over the year. How do you want to bring that forward in what you do at OuterEdit?
I think it also stems from both Ryan and my background, because we both studied business in different universities. But both of us had side hustles at the same time while we're studying business. For Ryan, he was designing flyers for all the parties and the clubs for the university and then for my side, I ran Frujch, a student cafe with three other friends as well. And so we were always interested I think in just designing and visual communication, and how that just spoke to other people as well. For us, we didn't follow the usual idea of how you become a designer, which is you go to design school, and then you study and you become designer. We kind of also went by the back door. Which is why a lot of our projects are also like, a bit through the cat flap because I think having come into the design world, not actually trained in design, but you know, ultimately being able to ....
Ryan Tan Yeah, I mean one of the things that we tell ourselves in terms of what our brand stands for, is to believe in the brands that want to be more and to believe in the people that want to be more. I think what Shermeen was mentioning, like we come from very varied backgrounds is quite atypical in terms of where we've come from and where we've landed and the journey that we've taken to get where we are today. I mean, 10 years in, I believe we’ve built a brand that has that sort of nature to it. And the types of people that we attract genuinely tend to showcase an interest or an ability or a track record or try to stretch the possibilities of what design can achieve. And I think that's something that we genuinely like to value, regardless of age regardless of background.
We have a team member now with us who has a very traditional background in fashion, one that we're interested in, and she joined us as a designer and we're actually currently trying to challenge her to blend the two together, to think out the box, don't think like a designer anymore. And I think that moving forward, design can't just stay in its own pigeonhole. You know, design needs to find new ways to apply itself new ways to make itself relevant and to enhance its own empirical value. I really feel that in terms of a dream collaboration. For us, it would really be to be able to showcase the effort that goes into design, and to really showcase how it can move and shape and impact lives.
Shermeen Tan Well, I think I really struggled to find the words, and Ryan put it quite well. I struggled to find the words because it's something that was so personal to me at the point in my life as well. When I finished graduating from business school, and I felt like I wanted to be a designer and I felt like I had to go through the whole studying process as well, in order to become a designer and put myself in that box. But you know, I didn't actually have to at the end of the day, because creativity is really, it's within everyone. I think it's how far you go to find it and hone it. So being at OuterEdit, I think it's given me at least, a chance to see that and grow that in other people as well.
We have account managers that joined us, they may have a background in business or in design or like creativity, that's more crafty, but then we might shift them into creative strategy, because that's where their strength is. So I think at OuterEdit you're not defined by the labels you come in with. Typically, we really try to look at what you're strong at. And then we look at where you can grow in, as well as where you want to grow in. And then for us it's a lifelong journey learn to do that, to make use of those strengths.
We didn't do the usual, well not the usual idea of how you become a designer, which is you go to design school, and then you study and you become designer. We kind of went by the back door, which is why a lot of our projects are also like, a bit through the cat flap because I think having come into the design world, not actually trained in design...
Thanks. So after being in this creative industry for about 10 years, right? Instead of asking you, so what advice would you give to a young designer start up company? Actually, what I think I want to ask is, what would you tell them to avoid? If they wanted to start something like that? What should they avoid?
Ryan Tan Well, I can go first. I think a lot of things that we hear these days from young people that we get to interact with is that a lot of them suffer from imposter syndrome. That's one thing we hear pretty, pretty often. And the other one is the term where they say, "I don't know what I don't know, therefore, I don't know". So I wouldn't say that we need to avoid this entirely, but I feel that there is a different perspective you can take. To say that I don't know what I don't know, assumes that there is a certain way of doing things that people know how to do, that they need to somehow learn in order to do things correctly. But I think it's important to know that within the creative sector, there's many creative ways of running a creative business.
There is no one way, it isn't one path. And in fact, creativity itself is not a straight line. There's always something we call the messy middle, which is you just making mistakes like going out there trying things not being afraid to adjust, not being afraid to ask the wrong questions or say the wrong thing. But ultimately learn and adapt from that. And be able to build your skills and your wisdoms accordingly. So I think at the end of the day, the key message that we normally share with young people and we would really love to share in a much more wider basis is that we're all here to learn from each other at the end of the day.
You know, we might have been in this business, we have 10 years of experience running this, but that doesn't mean that we're always right. And at some stage, we need to learn from the younger ones as well. So when we do have younger team members joining us, we tell them that they have a certain way of working which we're very interested in. And at the same time we've got 10 years of making mistakes that we would love for them to learn from, so that you don't have to go through the same issues that we did back then before as well right? So at the end it is a massive partnership. At least that's our approach to working with the team. It's not always top down. It's not always ground up, but it can be diagonal as well. We feel that there's a lot of an enriching work environment that we can create when we establish those guidelines and the sort of team vision that we have for each other.
Shermeen Tan For me, it would be to avoid thinking that there's only one way of doing it, everything is a bit linear, you have to achieve this and then you achieve that and then you become successful. No, I don't think there is a whole recipe to it. There certainly are tips for you to figure out how you can do better and that usually comes from talking to people who have gone before, as well reading books about it, listening to podcasts, but even as you do that, you know, it's really personal. It's still something that you are building that is unique to you. So you have to figure out what works for you as well and it's actually easier said than done. It feels like one day you're going to wake up in the morning and you know exactly, this is what I want to do. The clarity didn’t come that quickly for us. So some days it's really just, you know, penning down a small thought, thinking like, ok this really makes me happy. This really is something that I can see, it resonates with my team and how can we do more of that in a sustainable way and in a consistent way? Because yes, you can have a burst of energy to do it. But how do you keep doing it? Day after day, year after year? People get tired and people are so important. In fact, the most important thing to look at when you are running a creative business, you know, you can't do it without the rest of the people, without the rest of your collaborators. So how do you take care of that? That's something I would say is important.
I think it's important to know that within the creative sector, there's many creative ways of running a creative business. There is no one way, it isn't one path. And in fact, creativity itself is not a straight line.
Okay, great. Thank you so much. Thank you for your time!
Ryan Tan Thank you!