TEMASEK POLYTECHNIC, VISUAL COMMUNICATION
CO-FOUNDER OF NEIGHBOR STUDIO
Team Size (1st Office)
NEW INDUSTRIAL ROAD
Team Size (Current)
Graduated from Temasek Polytechnic
Co-founded Neighbor Studio
&Larry was Founded
First collaboration with Filmmaker, Royston Tan.
Founded The Design Society with 6 other creatives.
Awarded Designer of the Year, President*s Design Award.
Launched his Menswear Label, Faculty.
Awarded Design of the Year 2016, President*s Design Award for Bynd Artisan
Launched a new identity for &Larry.
To Build a Studio with Purpose, Reason and Voice
By Marcus Choy, 18 October 2021
How did you start out in design or what piqued your interest to pursue a career in design?
I think I’ve said this many times, but it’s basically because of Fabien Baron, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. That was how it all started because I was always into art in school. I didn’t know design could be a career, so I did really well in school for art.
What happened was that I used to hang out at one of my really good friend’s house. His sister was an air stewardess and he had a lot of magazines lying around the house. So, I’ve picked up, amongst them, the Harper's Bazaar and I was totally drawn to it, like, “Wow, this magazine looks so different from all the others!” I didn't even know what typography is but the words look so beautiful, as well as the photography and art direction. I looked through the contributors’ page and found the name, anything that’s art or design and his name was there. Back then (without the internet), it was hard to find out who Fabien Baron is and what else he does. So I went to the libraries to find out more about Baron because my friends were not into these kinds of things.
So, that was how I decided to pursue a career in design and I found out that Temasek Polytechnic was the one and only place that I could go to pursue a graphic design course.
I was always into art in school. I didn’t know design could be a career, so I did really well in school for art.
At that point of time, Temasek Polytechnic was the only Polytechnic that offered design courses, right?
Yeah, correct. I mean there's no University, there's no other institutions. I am not sure If Lasalle was around yet, should be, and NAFA but those schools are more expensive, and I think Temasek Polytechnic was like my only choice.
What was your first internship or first ever job in design?
Actually my first real job was designing a plastic bag for this plastic manufacturer. They needed a cool plastic bag to stand apart from the competitors, so they suggested to have a fish on it, you know the Chinese word 鱼 (fish) means abundance, and I said, “If you want fish, maybe 年年有余 (translates as every year in abundance), I’ll just do a nice logo for you.”
So that was probably my first ever paid design job. Until today, I’m kind of proud of it but yet I’m ashamed of it because it’s everywhere. If you see a plastic bag with a fish flipping left and right, it’s actually designed by me.
Is it the white plastic bag?
Yeah, there’s white, there’s blue, depending on which manufacturer did it. It was the worst IP example ever because you designed it and you cannot protect it and why would you protect it anyway. It’s been mass produced by many manufacturers. As long as they get a hand on the graphics, they will just use it, so it’s one of those things that’s everywhere, 无所不在 (translates as omnipresent), but nobody cares who designed it.
But every time I buy something from the convenience store or mama store or wet markets and I see them handing over the white plastic bag with a fish on it, it always gives me a feeling of, “Oh My God, what have I done?” But at the same time, hey my design is still around.
It’s like a mixed feeling?
Yeah, yeah, correct. I also interned at this design place called Ling Image. They were at the crossroads of turning from a design studio into a printing production house. But I didn't know that when I signed up for it. So, I ended up being the guy behind the computer, printing stuff for people. Yeah, it was kind of disappointing. It was a harsh environment, but yet I learned a lot. But it is better to turn this disappointment into a strength rather than bitching about it. So, I had to do things like, setting up new partitions to accommodate the print machine, painting the partitions, etc. Most days, I was preparing people's files for printing, collecting money, and painting partitions. Occasionally I have some design jobs. So that was when I was happy - when I got to do some design.
So how did the plastic bag design job come about?
Because someone knew the manufacturer and then they just needed some cheap student intern.
Looking back, the job wasn't really that cheap. It's not bad. I think it was $400 or $350 for a logo, it was ok for a student but not for a company of course. So, for a student at that time, in 1995 I think, it was like, wow, okay, cool.
Let’s talk more about your first full time job.
My first full time job after my National Service was with Design Asylum. Everyone knows the founder, Chris Lee.
He was a fantastic boss. Of course, there were dark times too, when he was trying to get business for the office. He was never around. He was always out and about. That was where I had to learn everything myself or with the peers around me, my colleagues. But again, I learned a lot from the place like how to pao kao liao (Hokkien phrase that means to do everything on your own). Even when the print machine breaks down, or if there were some errors, and the technicians couldn’t come, I would have to fix it. I was always hands on, on everything. Yeah, I learned a lot through my time with Chris as you have to learn to be independent. For example, there was an instance where my account director was sick, but the timeline was very crucial, so we couldn’t wait anymore because progressively we need to do A, B, C, D, E, F, G, right.
I was actually very ballsy. The client called up the studio and I said, “You know, they’re all on MC and not around. But if you don't mind, I can come down and present it to you.” The client was a big client, and she said “Yeah, cool. I mean, anyway, I only have a time slot for today.” So, I just took a Grab, sorry, no Grab back then, I took the taxi down and I just presented, and it was a risky thing to do because I could have screwed it up.
The confidence probably came from the fact that I had designed it, so I went down, presented it and the client was really impressed. She actually told Chris like, “Wow, you know, you've got a great designer who can design, can talk and sell the work without anybody else.'' So that's how I kind of realised that despite being an introvert, quiet, shy guy, you still need to be out there to sell your work. Until today it’s still the same, I'm reluctant, I'm still reserved, I am very private, I don’t really like to talk much. But those who are close to me know that I'm very open and I can talk a lot. So, I think there is a duality to me. I'm so happy being alone. I love traveling alone. I like doing everything by myself. But yet when you asked me to do a workshop with 50 people, working with my colleagues, not a problem at all.
That's how I kind of realised that despite being an introvert, quiet, shy guy, you still need to be out there to sell your work.
I'm kind of like an introvert also. There was once, Kelley brought The Press Room team down to conduct a workshop for a group of students and I couldn't do it. I cannot speak in front of people.
Well, you just have to overcome it. I read that Steve Jobs is probably like us or like me, people think he's an extrovert but he's not.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not comparing myself to, say, oh, I'm so great like him on stage , I’m just kind of saying that, I used to think it was so easy for extroverts to go up the stage and just talk. Yeah, I managed to overcome it.
What made you venture out, to start your first studio, Neighbor Studio?
Design Asylum was a great place. I left after they got acquired by a Minneapolis agency and Duffy Design became our parent company. I told Chris, “ Eh I am very bored, you know. They are throwing me all this stuff from the U.S. office from big clients, but they're very boring.” We were no longer doing the sort of creative work we used to do, but it was always like following the guidelines for big brands. Do not do this, do not do that. In the end you're just kind of executing, kind of working around the guidelines. Chris said, “Just be patient, you know this is the beginning phase.” But I was itching to do something interesting and back then, a friend started a company, and he was all alone dying, working alone. I kind of told him, “If you have some freelance job, I can help you.” So, I just started with a freelance job, doing, doing, doing and until like, one evening I just thought, “Hey, you know, since I’m very bored at work. Why don't we do something together?” And that was how it started.
There was a moment where I sat down with him and we listed out top 10 things to hit, We gave it our all. So, yeah, we both listed the top 10 things and I believe a lot of the items on my ex-partner’s list I have already hit. But for my own list, I'm still at it today. Some of it can be trivial, like, we want students and interns to write in and say they want to work for us. Because we were unknown then, nobody knew us. And there were things like, what does it look like to have a million dollars in your bank account? Yeah, we hit it.
Back then it was like a big deal. So we have a lot of this, some childish, some trivial points. We want to get into D&AD, we want to at least be awarded for One Show, New York. I don't care much about awards actually. For me, it was what good design can do, for example, one day when we are rich enough, we can do charity for work like I said I’m still at it.
After Neighbor Studio, was the process of starting again and creating &Larry a difficult one?
It was difficult because after I left Neighbor Studio, I think we were quite a comfortable team of about eight or nine people. So, when I started &Larry again, I became a one man show again. There were a lot of things I didn't have to do back then and I realised now I had to do. Like, “Oh, shit, I don't own a Pantone chart. Oh, what are the rates for newspaper ads? Oh my god.” Now, I have to figure out half page ad, full page ad and what are the dimensions? I don't have these. I don't have that. So, I had to call friends for help. “What's this, what's that? How do I get this, how do I get that?” And I don't have a studio. So, I worked from home. I was like a pioneer of working from home, it was tough. People look down on you because you don't have an office. And a lot of the old clients, I didn't take them with me. So, it was hard trying to make a name for yourself all over again.
Fast forward to today, was not today. How many years ago, I can't remember. But when the business was doing quite well, and I had some hard cash with me, for the company. That was when I decided that I wanted to buy my own office space. You can imagine, I dropped a lot of cash for the upfront payment of our current office. That made me hungry again. Because if you've got money lying around, you probably get more chill. I can recall, this episode was the same as when I forced myself, kicked myself out of my house. And I said that I didn't want to work from home again. Because it's making me lazy. So, I got to fulfil my rent. I was renting a place at South Beach Road, and that was where I met a very wonderful landlord and she helped me. It is very strange from day one when she saw me, she asked one question, “Why do you need such a big space for yourself?” Then I told her my story and that I wanted to start out, force myself to work. Then she said that she was so moved, she said ``I'm gonna charge you really low rent and when you're ready, I can up your rent.” I said, “Yeah, okay.”
In Chinese, they call 贵人, your benefactors, throughout my life I have so many of them and somehow some are gone but every time I walked past the area, I'll think about them.
I was like a pioneer of working from home, it was tough. People look down on you because you don't have an office
What were the first few projects like when &Larry first started?
I will never forget my first project. It was a nightmare client from the UK. It was very strange. At that time without social media, without everything, I don't know how she found me. She just found me, sent me an email saying someone recommended me. “I want to start a line of yoga wear.” Very progressive right back then. That was 2003 or 2004, I don’t remember. So that was like, wow, cool. My first client from England, wow, big deal. I put in my very best, but it was a nightmare job, a nightmare client because she almost rejected everything I did. Back then, we even had to use fax. I still remember. “Can you fax it across to me? I can see clearer, bigger,” My last straw was when she said, “I totally dislike all the fonts that you proposed, can you use this font?” and it was Chicago from the system. I was like, I cannot do this anymore. “You don’t have to pay me. I’ll just take the deposit. That's it.” In the end, I still delivered the design in Chicago typeface because she was kind of upset. She was like, “Because you're not hitting the target. That's why I'm doing this.” Eventually, I just delivered and did it for the money. That became like a real eye-opener for me. At Neighbours I had people working with me, so many people, I left this job and now I'm all alone. I'm getting screwed by a client and forced to use a typeface that even I can't live with. And I cannot walk away from it because I needed the money. That was painful, really painful.
After that, I felt worse. I was at home. I kind of walked away from this bad job and while hoping the next one could come, I didn’t really know how to advertise for myself and that was when Royston Tan called me. He is still my good friend and my benefactor, my 恩人. He called me and said, “I'm doing this film 4:30 and it’s going to open in Berlin, and I need to design the logo, the masthead,” whatever you call it and I said, “Okay, I'll do it but please pay me because I can't do it for free.” He asked me how much I wanted, and I just quoted a very small amount for a friend because I said, one of my philosophies is that we shouldn't be doing free work, you know, for anybody.
Even over the years, we've done a lot of charity work, but it wasn't free in a sense because we were paid with food, you know with drinks and with everything else. Anyways, so that became how I got out of my own shadows because when he showed me an email from the German folks and I can't remember who else but they were all commenting on how beautiful the poster, the design, everything was and he told me, the posters we designed got smashed and stolen from the lightboxes and bus stop ads and of course, I mean he was the rock star, not me.
In a way it's like, we were all part of the team and I made it so beautiful that people wanted to keep the posters. Making a poster is kind of like - you tell us what you want people to know about you. I mean, Royston is the rock star, but my design is better, HAHAHA. And I got out of my shadows, and I remembered that the next client was, I wouldn't name them but they said they wanted someone who can do work that looks like Neighbor Studio. Of course, that made me upset as well. You come to me because I'm second best. But the PR agency knew that I was from Neighbor. So, they said give it a try. I said, “Okay, okay, I'll do it.” When we finished the project, we had lunch together and they made a casual remark that “You know your work is like Neighbour Studio. But I think it's beyond.” That was another pat on the back. So, it was these two projects that I remember vividly that got me out of depression.
In Chinese, they call 贵人, your benefactors, throughout my life I have so many of them.
At &Larry do you have any active form of business development or how do you grow your clientele?
Despite all the social media platforms, I'm not really interested in growing business that way and I had this very stubborn and naive thinking back then. I once told my team like if you're good, people will know you. So, that naive thinking lasted till today where we say no to free pitches. If we hear about this five-way pitch, we are not interested. Some people say we are snobbish but I like to stress that it's not, because we're a small team.
I treasure the paying clients very much. Because when they come, they’ll say, “You don't need to pitch. We'd like you; we want to work with you. We've seen your works. Yeah, please discuss the budget and let's work together.” These people who came knocking on the door, we treasured them. That's why we do our best for all these clients. We have no space to entertain any clients who want us to pitch for free.
These people who came knocking on the door, we treasured them. That's why we do our best for all these clients. We have no space to do any other that want us to pitch for free.
As a designer, do you think it's important for a designer to have a distinct style, such as David Carson?
How to put it. Yes and no, I would say a distinct something that shows everyone who you really are is important. In this case, for &Larry, we don't really have a distinct style, like David Carson, for example. But we have a distinct voice. That voice, maybe it's not the right word. But yeah, we're not singers, but the voice comes across from the way we write the copy, the way we choose what to put out there, the way the feeling you get out of it. I feel that it's definitely important. Otherwise, you are replaceable, right? It's almost like, on a rainy day, I would like to listen to, you know, a song by Billie Eilish, or by who and who and who, you see? There are certain moments in your life, when you're happy, you want to hear certain songs, or you want to look at certain things or you want to pop open this champagne or open that sake, or whatever it is. You know, like, why that brand, why that champagne, why sake, why this song? I feel it doesn't have to be visual. It can be in many other forms. So, I think you would sort of need to have a distinct voice more than a distinct style.
I think you would sort of need to have a distinctive voice more than a distinctive style
Does it tie it back to your design philosophy?
No, it's not a design philosophy. It's just one of those prerequisites. It's like, even if you pick apples like, oh, a Fuji Apple it has to look like this, tastes like this and smells like this.
As for design philosophy, I have never really thought much about it. But it's always for the people, you know, we're in the business of people. A lot of things should stem from your knowledge. You should be born out of it. Don't do it just for yourself. Don't do it for selfish reasons. I think it's as simple as that.
One of the things like why we call ourselves &Larry. We just designed a new logo where I dropped ‘ARRY’, it's just &L now. That big philosophy behind me was that I believe good things, good design should fade into the background. It should disappear. So, a lot of things that we do are always in the background. And that I feel transcends everything and it goes into everything that we do.
In 2016, you won the President's Design Award for the rebranding of Bynd Artisan. What do you think are the key ingredients to make a successful branding project?
I think the most important thing, I would say is honesty and integrity, from the client side and us. Then we are able to do a good job because they are really honest about why they wanted to do this. They have a genuine cause, you know. We didn't know that. They didn't know it until we went on this journey with them. We discovered that the people behind the brand are very important. Like the old Craftsman, Mr Chong, one of the co-founders, Winnie, grew up with. She wanted to kind of pay tribute to them, she wanted them to have a job, she wanted them to pass down what they know. So, that became the genesis for the brand essence or tagline, “Something worth sharing”. I still remember she asked me, “What's worth sharing?” I said, “You decide, what is worth sharing.” And if that question is posed to Mr. Chong, the chief craftsman, he will have something else to share. So what is worth sharing? It must touch the heart.
So, if it's a skill, well, that's worth sharing. That's why you have workshops, right? If it's an old item that is handed down by someone that is very meaningful to a customer, they can bring it back to you and say, “I want to fix this. I want to share with me how we can fix this.” It can be an old book, or an old Bible, for example, that is meaningful to someone. So, these little things became the backbone of the brand. When they work with people, collaborate with people, that's when they can say, hey let's share what we can do together. So, this is multifaceted in that sense.
Was there a project or like a few projects, you've thought propelled &Larry to its current reputation in the industry?
I think in the local SME scene, the Bynd Artisan project really helped us a lot because I think a lot of brands in a similar situation saw the potential of what we can do. Like you know, second generation, trying to make a name for themselves or dying craft or trying to be relevant again. Hence it brought us quite a bit of other similar clients such as Direct Funeral, for example, that was also when we realised a lot of brands who came to us understood what we do, and they saw something and felt something different. And that's what we call today after 16 years of business in the industry, we codify it and we call it Soul Purpose. (Soul Purpose is a term coined by &Larry. It is grounded in the purpose that drives the brand forward, and draws fans and followers together.)
It's not enough to just have a purpose. You gotta have soul in what you do, and it's very hard to quantify and codify it. So, we kind of figure out a way to help our clients and ourselves, get clarity. It's almost like when you hear someone sing, or hear someone play a song or you see an image on a page and almost move you to tears or that feeling. That is you know, beyond just playing well, beyond just looking good.
It's not enough to just have a purpose. You gotta have soul in what you do, and it's very hard to quantify and codify it.
You are also a man with many interests. You founded a menswear label called Faculty. Was it an experiment to create a brand from scratch or was it something you always wanted to do?
It is very interesting. I still love the brand a lot. I think one of the questions was, whether it is still running. It's kind of on hiatus for a long time. It was started by three of us, but unfortunately, the other two business partners moved out of it. And for me, I was very naive. I always start everything very naïvely and I just wanted to do something that I've always wanted to do. I'm a big fan of denim. My wife once scolded me, ”Your wardrobe is filled with so much denim, you’ll be crushed by your own denim.” I realised that, yeah, shit, I’ve got more than 100 pairs of jeans and I realised there is a reason for that. Because one day i would think, this could be my favourite pair, then no it’s not, and I will move on to another pair, another pair and I never figured out why. Until the day I took a long look at them and had a realisation, “I know why. Because they are all not designed by me.” So, I just wanted to design my favourite pair of jeans.
So I started out on this journey, and one thing led to another. I called someone who knows someone and somewhere to get it done and I ended up in Okayama. I was so in love with the place and people, and that was like where the best Japanese denim was made. I managed to convince the local guys to make the denim for me, despite having such a small order. I could offer them nothing and you know, the factory that made my denim, these guys make stuff for big brands, like Double Taps, Neighborhood; you name them. Then there is this dude not from the industry, how dare this guy come in and tell us what to do. I was there telling them I want like this, I want like that, it has to be this, it has to be that. But in the end, the translator told me that I gained their respect because even though I'm not a fashion designer, or a big brand, I knew exactly what I was going for.
Because of translation, or the difficulty of it, I had to cut to the chase, and I just went in and said, “I got to do this; I want to do it. And if you cannot understand me, I can go down and show your craftsmen how to do it, or what I want.” At first, they were apprehensive, but in the end, they allowed me. That was where the magic happened. You know, you scratch like this, and you do this, do that. And the paint splatter must be gray and black. And as this shade of gray and the shade of black that is a bit translucent. It was like. I did this to my denim. So, yeah, I’ve created my favourite pair of jeans.
And that's it, I just wanted to do that. And the jeans were sold out. Yeah, the first season was sold out. Then that was when I think we did it. We made a mistake with our T-shirts. We made like 500 T-shirts, and they sold out. Wow, big deal. And I kind of told my other partner, “You know that this is it. We just have enough money to make the next collection.” Even though, frankly, it doesn't make sense, because making things in Japan is so expensive. The cost price is so high. You know, for example, we have to sell the denim for $600, $700. That's because maybe the cost price of the jeans is like $400, $300. It's crazy. Because of all the damage and the handwork and everything, right. None of us took a salary from this, imagine you have to pay this and pay that in the end, you're dead. Yeah, so that's kind of how we started the hiatus because the business model is wrong to begin with. I started with the desire to make something and one of my partners, her name is Lynn, why she came on board was because she helping big brands churn out big things, she has a factory in China and she makes millions of things, 500,000 kind of quantities. I think this was her way of seeking some kind of sanity - handmade 200 pieces, 500 pieces. So, we all kind of naively, got into this thinking that, “Wow, you know, we could have some outlet for creative expression.” I actually wanted to kickstart the collection again. It was right before COVID hits.
We have actually designed everything, and we already made samples and they're beautiful. But the plan all got screwed because, the reason was that I've always been wary about, you know, mass manufacturing causes harm to the environment. So, making small quantities and selling out is my way of experimenting with this fact that if you do something, well, it can last you a lifetime. So, if you don't throw away, you don't need to buy more. So, my latest collection was really hardcore because I imported all the expensive fabric from England. We made the sample, they're all supposed to be made to order. We wanted to do this traveling show around the world where you can touch and feel and try on the clothes, and if you want to purchase it, then that's where we will buy the fabric and make it. But you can imagine why it was totally screwed. Because with Covid, no touching, social distancing, traveling, no. So, that was it. Till now, we can't see a start to this. So I don’t know what to do yet.
But the good thing is, this remains like a hobby. So, it's nice that even when we have no presence online and we have got so few followers. But we've got people from all over the world, writing in to make orders. I really want to ask all these epople, “How do you find out about us?” Someone just bought a cup from us, bought jeans from me, or a friend asking another friend, “You know, I heard you did this. I want to buy it.“ So, we're just selling what we have slowly, without doing anything. If you want to start a business like that, please don't do it.
Faculty and &Larry how different is it running the two businesses?
One is a hobby, like I said, where I don't have mouths to feed. I have my own office here where my partner says it’s a good idea to store the goods here. Faculty is a hobby, I don't have to get so stressed about it. But &Larry is a business where I have a team to feed and goals to meet. So, that's where I think the biggest difference lies.
You are also one of the founding members of The Design Society, or how did the idea of The Design Society come about?
Again, it was one of the very naive ideas that just got out of hand. I can't remember, maybe it was with Chris, that we just spoke about this idea of like, “New York has MoMA. You know, why can't we have our own museum of modern design?“, “Yeah, yeah, we should. Dammit, we should.” So, it was as naïve, as stupid, as silly as it sounds. Since we have some connections, probably we can start this non-profit thing and people will all come and join us. It spiralled out of control, and we got a secretariat, we applied for non-profit status, tax rebate was really good, and we've got legal help from someone who's really touched by us and gave us freebie advice and drafted up all the necessary documents. Then after that, we realised that not everybody wants to join of course. A lot of people say we did well, we did the right thing. But also, we started to get hate groups coming, a bunch of “Who do you think you are. Avengers, is it?” Then we asked for people to contribute and the same old people contributed. Because these were the people who believed or agreed with what we're doing. Again, a lot of learning curve, learning experience. And guess what, who became the head of PR. It was me, one of the most shy, don't-really-know-anything-about-PR person. But I did a pretty good job. I had to do interviews with Channel News Asia, with magazines and newspapers. I got to keep a lot of photos and videos. I learned a lot from it. But one thing I really appreciate out of this whole exercise or crazy ideas, was that we got closer, a lot of us, the founding members. I remember every time when we met for our meetings, it was nothing but jokes and laughter but we managed to get things done.
A lot of people say we did well, we did the right thing. But also, we started to get hate groups coming, a bunch of “Who do you think you are. Avengers, is it?”
Moving back to &Larry , would you want to expand &Larry to a bigger team?
I actually tried. I experimented with many different models. There was one point I think I grew about eight or nine, and I kind of freaked out and I stopped because I realised the company was not ready. I became like the doctor to 10 patients internally and externally, many other clients. I was overstretched, and I couldn't make enough money as well because you kind of have too many mouths to feed and that made a big hole in the soul of the company. We become a bit, like in a game, your energy bar just keeps going down and, in the end, after you run for so many kilometres and miles in, you don't really have enough weapons and tools. So, is that what's going on?
You're running a multi-disciplinary studio, right. Do you struggle with looking for talents with a broad skill set, or what do you look for when you're hiring new designers?
We look out for people, who are, I mean, I hate the word multidisciplinary, but someone who kind of likes to get a hand on everything. If you come in and say “I'm an illustrator, I love to design and illustrate.” Then straight away that's not what we're looking for, not who we are looking for. So, yeah, not saying you should come across like, I know everything but a master of none but it's almost like [Marcus: willing to try?] Yeah, like if you look at the portfolio itself without even calling the person in or over the zoom for an interview, you should be able to see a multi-faceted person, like “Look at my photography, look at my design, look at how I look at things, from a UI/UX point of view.” I mean, I'm not looking directly into all these terminologies like UI/UX, because to me, these are all skill sets and tool sets that can be taught. There's a lot of SkillsFutures Programmes you can go to. It is not wrong. But over the years for myself and even the team members. I've seen that relentless, that hunger to say we need to get this done.
I remember Chris, in Asylum, he got this job that requires a CD ROM design with multimedia skill set, and he dumped it on my lap and said, ”Larry, I trust you. You can handle this.” I was like, “Oh my god, I don't even know how to launch Adobe Director, like, oh my god.” Chris said, “Don't worry, I have freelancers to help you.” Eventually I put together a team that could help me and I completed a project and the client was happy. I learned a lot like, well, I still don't know how to use Director but we figured out how the program works.
It's the same when we got this project from the German embassy to do a film, the film idea came from us. We wanted to do a short film to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how it is similar to Singapore. So, I came up with this idea of like, let's do a video. Imagine we Skype with a director from Berlin, and we tell them what we want. And we brought someone here in Singapore to film something, and someone from Germany to film something and then we tried to put it together. Little did we know that this, again, was a prerequisite to what we're experiencing now. That's a teaser to what we're doing now. It's kind of interesting. Again, we don't really know how to put it together. We don't really know how to do the kinetic typography with After Effects. One of my designers, a young designer, she's kind of equipped but not 100%. So, we googled it. We tried this, tried that, and eventually, Felix from Anonymous Studio, was nice enough to say, “Oh, you want to show your stuff in my Design Film Festival? You can do it.” And we struggle to even create a format that is playable on the big screen. We had to Google. We had to call for help. Eventually, we did it. That's what I mean, you know, today you call it this, tomorrow you call it that. “Are you equipped with UI/UX experience, design thinking, blah blah blah?” To me, it doesn't matter.
Over the years for myself and even the team members. I've seen that relentless, that hunger to say we need to get this done.
When you first started and till now, in 2021, how has your approach to design changed?
One thing remained the same was the fact that I want to use design to do good, it sounds like a cliche now, but it was there, right from the start. But the definition of that has changed, in the beginning to do good, was kind of straightforward and naïve. Like, I need to sell this product. I need to help the client look good. I need to make sure this exhibition has people coming in and saying “it's great.” I need to hit certain milestones or KPI. So, the one thing to do good has slowly evolved towards clearer and more accurate in the sense that we could actually use design to help the people around us, to help the society at large to even consider the environment. So, doing good remains, but the definition has changed, or rather the medium itself has changed.
One example, we were working with one of the companies that started up really well, but they have never really considered much about green finance. We could see that what they are doing will attract investors of the right kind and indirectly will cause them to rethink how they are doing certain things, which manufacturers they are using, and what kind of good they can do. Again, like they are into the art of selling things, whether it's NFTs or physical, but we actually influenced them, or give them our perspective of ‘if you make something well, it can last a long time.’ That's kind of doing good for the environment too, rather than keep trying to sell. If there's a way you can take back your old stuff as well. Yeah, how about recycling, how about designing new stuff with some of your recycled parts you're getting, and constantly getting investors. We are also helping them to do the pitch deck. And the green finance bit was weaved into it to call out to companies who are actively seeking out partners who are doing their bit - sustainable future, circular economy, this sort of thing, I feel that is no longer a buzzword and as designers you can't just sit on the fence or sit on the other side and say, “I know, it's meant for bigger boys.” So, we actually put it into our proposal. We actually put into one of the strategies for them to say that this is something you should look into. You should slowly move yourself towards a short term, midterm or long-term plan. In that sense, we're using our design skill set to influence good to create something more than ourselves.
Doing good remains, but the definition changed, or rather the medium itself that the guns have been positioned in the right direction now.
How much do you think the industry has evolved, and what do you think the general attitude towards design is currently?
Definitely, the design industry has evolved quite a lot. I think this sort of change has happened to every industry. The days where you can just rely on your knowledge and skills as a designer are long gone.
I’ve just shared recently in one of the talks that some things I have to ask my 13-year-old daughter to answer like, “I've been looking at this kind of thing. Do you know how to do it?” Or sometimes we will be drinking this new milk tea or whatever, and I'll be commenting on the design, “Why do you think the sticker is so small and odd shaped, and the illustration is even smaller than the sticker by, like so much. Why don't they make it bigger, like more real estate?” And she - without even being design trained, I call her aesthetically trained by the media - can actually tell me her point of view exactly like from a design perspective, she said, “The target audience are people like us and making it smaller means kawaii (cute in Japanese). But for us, it's like, you know you put up on a shelf, it looks better right?. To that she said, “No, because you order, then they will bring it to you and you have to accept it anyway, right?”
The differing perspectives can be insightful. Of course, we know this, but it's interesting to go into this conversation with a 13-year-old. And you realised, she can use the iPad Pro better than me. For once you can't just use your skill sets to try to make money out of things, because everybody else can probably do it better than you. The fact that what's out there is so easily learned and this whole idea of design thinking to equip non designers to think like designers. This is kind of like an old topic, but the argument about like, what's in it for designers next? So, it's a good thing and a bad thing. I'm not here to comment but, and I think as creative again, what is the distinctive voice you can lend to this project, or that project, it determines the value people place onto you. So, I feel the value is in your point of view again. That is how we can continue to have a future in the creative industry. It is to lend that unique voice that is born out of passion, experience, intuition, so on, so forth.
I think I missed a question before. In 2014, you want the President’s Design Award “Designer of the Year. Did that have an impact on, in terms of gaining more recognition, and like, more jobs?
I think it definitely helped with the general perception, and with laymen. They bought into what we do. No doubt, I'm really, really happy that I won the award, and it has a positive impact, especially my folks, like I said. I've always said this. They finally understood what the hell I was doing. Previously, I told them, you know, my company got into the Tokyo Type Directors Club. The first question was, “Got money or not? No money for what?” So, this is one of the awards where they're like, “Wow, wow, big deal!” They can go around telling their neighbours. Suddenly all your relatives, all know that you've done something well. That to me, is more priceless than someone coming to you and saying, “Oh, you have won.” Because I just think it's kind of a pat on the back. I don't see it as directly equivalent to like. If people people come to you because of the award, then they can also rush to Kelley, Theseus, or Chris or Hanson. So it doesn’t work that way. It's just like, you're one of the guys who did well and a good pat on the shoulder, on your back. So, that's how I feel it has benefited
I think Kelley spoke briefly about it. She noticed more people applying for internships after she won.
Of course. I mean, it's generally a positive thing, right? Why would you want to join someone who just got an award? For obvious reasons, right? Would you want to join somebody else if you can learn from someone who did well, you know?
So, congratulations to Kelley.
In the recent pandemic, the Covid-19 pandemic, how &Larry adapted?
We really had to figure out how to work online. That's really a no brainer answer, because everybody has to do that. But in a way we were trying to work like that already. I remembered a few years ago, I paid a lot of money, a lot of fuss over our so-called server thing. If you are in the I.T. business, it's kind of a given to have servers and security, but for a design studio it is probably unnecessary. You just have a backup drive or throw it to iCloud. So, we have been creating our own servers, during this, then multiple drives to back up and things like that. As a result, I've been kicking everybody's ass to say, “Can you put things online, can you kind of don't create a mess on the server. Can you do this, and do that?” Everybody is being creative, right-brainers. So this is like asking them to do sweeping, cleaning, I mean, washing dishes is like a chore to them right? So, but they did it and I remember I had a big flare up one day, because one of my art directors said, “I have so much trouble, I haven't been updating.” And then some shit happened and we were almost at the brink of losing all the data on his drive. Yeah, because he just said that it's so time consuming. That was one moment I regretted because I was, for the first time, very harsh. I scolded them. I could have calmly told them, right. I just blew my top. But anyway, that was what I was trying to say. You have to be disciplined. You kind of wonder if you one day you cannot leave your house, can you still access your files? Can you still do this? Can you still do that?
When we conduct workshops. I always wonder about all these wonderful 3M Post-It notes. Everything is so digital but we're still using a lot of these Post-It Pads. Yeah, I've always thought about it before the pandemic. “Can we kind of do this online?” So, we dabble a little bit on it. But well, shit hasn't hit the fans. So, we just continued, and when it happened, we just did it. My able colleagues kind of pivoted quickly. We could actually shift things around like Post-It Pads. Let's just get people to type in. Let's do this and do that. Then let's get an iPhone. Let's get a laptop, we can swing here, swing there. So, it's not difficult because in some places, some workshops, there is a need for a hybrid model. So, it was kind of in the process of doing it already. Then when it hits, we just have to do it. But it was less efficient, I'll have to say, than when we are doing it live.
Even going through designs with my team. I remember we spent 3 hours on Zoom trying to get something right. My designer showed me a sketch on camera, and I sketched something, took a picture, and uploaded it to the chat room. Then when we finally could go back to the office, and we were working on a similar project, I believe it took us like 20 minutes to resolve the same issue. The job was exactly the same as the previous job and we took 3 hours to discuss on Zoom. Just a different client, but we managed to resolve it within 20 minutes. So, anyway, we still got to do it, like right now, we're back to WFH again.
But work wise, client wise, thankfully we're not really affected. In the beginning, yes. Two months or three months, because everybody was just panicking, or everyone was just kind of fighting other battles. So, projects were put to stop. For us, our projects are all long term. So, you can imagine when you pause for three months, we can’t even meet the previous milestone. And hence we cannot bill for work done. You have to constantly pay the mortgage, the team. So, how many months can you bleed? Thankfully, after the third month, everything started again, and we were okay.
What is one advice you will give to fresh graduates looking to begin a career in graphic design?
First of all, you need to rethink, examine the word “Graphic Design”. What does it really mean to you? It’s because there's a space for everyone, in every discipline within each one of these categories. So, are you happy doing graphic design, as it is? What does it mean today? And if it is, who's still doing it well? What kind of prospects can you get from it? Because people are jumping into things because of its worth. Like, oh, you got to know UI/UX. Everybody signs up for UI/UX.
So, Graphic Design, what does it mean? You know, doing logos and doing graphics, and how much can I charge for it? How can a company thrive to this? So, I've always given examples like that through conversations with different people about the greatness of IDEO, and the greatness of Pentagram. So, first of all, you cannot compare the two companies and say who's better. You can't say Pentagram is not as good as IDEO because they're not so much into design thinking and user journey mapping. They’re great designers. But that's what they're so good at. They are kickass designers. They are legendary. I would like to work for them. Yeah, I mean, of course, it’s more than that. But in terms of image, and perception wise, that's kind of how I would see the difference between the two. Of course, we're not going to go into details about who's going to create more impact for the world and environment, business, and so on, so forth. That's not for me to decide. But I'm just speaking out loud. If I'm a student being asked this question or thinking about his/her career, what is it that you are after? And where do you want to look for a job that will propel you into somewhere else? Where do you want to go in the long term, right? What do you think is your purpose?
So, if you feel like “I want to join some company that is a Pentagram equivalent, where they do great designs that could impact lives.” Yeah, go ahead, if that’s what you aspire, that’s your purpose and go for it. But if you feel like “I need to do something that is beyond just graphic design.” Then your career can go many ways, right? You know, research could be part of it, anthropology. I don't know. These things are related to design these days.
I realised that not everybody is very clear about why they go into the design business, and what they want out of it. So, I think that's a first step in trying to get clarity in the mind. Yeah. Ask your soul, what is it that you want, and what do you want to become, and who do you want to help besides yourself of course.
Like what Kelley mentioned in one of the chats. Of course, this is competition from online platforms like Fiverr, which, if you compare yourself with Fiverr, then that's a problem. Even an A.I. will have that so-called distinct voice that I have mentioned earlier on. So, when the time comes, then what else do you have up your sleeve? That's something that I feel strongly for, if you ask me to give any advice at all.
I'm not here to comment but, and I think as creative again, what is the distinctive voice you can lend to this project, or that project, it determines the value people place onto you.
Lastly, do you have any advice for those who want to start their own studio, or business?
Find out how to run a business first before you go into trying to run it. For example, what are the things required? These days, you can find almost everything online, you know. And I would say, think about the business model first. Of course, I mean, that is after you've gotten your purpose and your reason, your why, get all these out of the way, then you look at the business model. Don't be like me who used to think, “Oh, you know, you do good work, people come to you.” While that advice is still true because we still rely on 100% word of mouth. Of course, a lot of people came to us because they found us online. But in a way, I think the majority is still word of mouth. But how do we scale the business? That is something that I feel will make or break your own studio. Because that is one problem of mine that I cannot resolve.
You can scale the business but doesn't mean your profit will scale accordingly, then something's not quite right. So, back to the drawing board. So, don't start it because you want to. “Yeah, I hate my boss. I want to start. I don't want people to tell me what to do.” Because there is a lot of burden in setting up your own studio. But having said that, there is nothing wrong with just being like me when I started. I just wanted to do something for myself. You know, on my own, I have my own voice. By all means, you know, just do that.
Ask your soul, what is it that you want, and what do you want to become, and who do you want to help, besides yourself of course.