With this latest addition to our Design Around the World series, meet Foreign Policy in Singapore.
Everything Foreign Policy creates just feels like smart humans are behind it – no tired buzzwords or dated design trends to be found. Their work has so much personality, I knew the team behind it must be awesome. And they are. I visited the Foreign Policy studio in Singapore to meet them in person and talk with Yah-Leng, the studio's inspiring co-founder, about the design community in Singapore. And of course, I brought my camera.
Hey Yah-Leng, tell us a little bit about yourself and your studio. How did you and Arthur WeeSheng Chin decide to co-found Foreign Policy together? And what inspired the studio name?
Arthur and I both came back from New York after studying and working in the U.S. for 15 years in 2007. We wanted to build a design practice that different from the bigger international agencies that were the main players in Singapore during that time. We started with two and today we are about 12. The name Foreign Policy is really a reminder to ourselves that we should keep a more global perspective and diversity when we approach design.
What is the design community in Singapore? It seems like you contribute a lot with events like LUMEN and The Swap Show. Are there other events or platforms where designers can connect with each other?
The Singapore design community is a young and vibrant one. I think I said in 2015 that this is absolutely the best time to be a designer in Singapore. Everyone is driven and inspired to do good work, to up the design standards and to have their own voice in each project. I think this is really heartwarming to see as the landscape was different when I first left the country compared when I came back. Many designers are taking initiative to organize various events and exhibitions, and working on collaborative projects with different creatives, which is absolutely awesome. It brings the designers ever closer and grows the community even more beyond the non-design community.
The Foreign Policy team works across many disciplines, from branding to architecture to website design. Is it standard for studios in Singapore to be full-service this way, or are most more specialized?
It really depends on their goals and mission. Singapore is a tiny market for us; it just makes sense as we grow. Especially since we are creating brand experiences for our clients and their customers, a holistic 360 approach works best so we can cover all bases in terms of delivering a consistent brand experience.
"As with all designers in the world, designers in Singapore do not have it easy."
You trained and worked in the States for quite a long time before going back to Singapore. That gives you a pretty unique perspective. How would you compare the life of a designer in Singapore to other places you’ve experienced? Do Singaporean designers and studios work or think differently in specific ways that you’ve noticed?
As with all designers in the world, designers in Singapore do not have it easy. We have to be sure we stay in touch with current affairs, be on top of current and future trends, and stay knowledgeable in various genres. We cannot only be knowledgeable about design, but every non-design subject. Every project is a new subject to be learned, a platform to harness our previous experience. Good designers here and everywhere work hard to push the boundary with their clients. Good designers here and everywhere are hungry to make a change in the client’s industry through their work.
Does Singapore have recognizable design style? How does your culture and history influence the work you do today?
We do not particularly have a Singapore design style. As an island nation with a super strategic geographical location, we are a hub for trading and air travel — we were founded by the British due to our strategic port for trading in the 1800s.
We are really quite well-exposed to various cultures and influences coming through the city or going out. Especially in this day and age, many of us are super well-traveled and well-informed of what's out there outside of our little island. Our jobs, our education and air travel being so cheap and accessible, we get to see the world much more frequently. Being a former British colony, we do get influences from the British; many design students choose to further their studies in the UK. But I would say we find influences all over.
Singapore is considered one of the most technology-ready nations as well as the city with best investment potential. How does that impact your work as product and digital designers? I’d imagine you get to work with some exciting startups and projects.
I think it's becoming to be — the past 10 years were just a lot of restaurant and cafe startups, with a lot of work coming from that sector. In the last two years and moving forward, we are seeing more tech startups in the city nation. I hope they do work with designers; it would help to jump start yet another aspect in the UX/UI and interface design side of things, as well as a larger spectrum of projects that would challenge Singapore designers.
"Either we as a nation need to learn to be better planners or we as a nation are too quick to react and demand a solution too quickly."
Singapore is also the second-most competitive nation, based on factors like economy and business innovation. That seems like a lot of pressure! As business owners, do you see or feel that spirit of productivity and competitiveness?
I don't think we are that productive as a nation to be honest, but yes — demanding clients and a super fast pace for sure. Lead time to launch is usually shorter and rushed; either we as a nation need to learn to be better planners or we as a nation are too quick to react and demand a solution too quickly. I hope clients can understand that good design takes time, and hope that they do a lot of homework and planning so that each project can be planned ahead, so as to gain ample time for execution.
Singapore is of course a small country compared to its neighbors. Do businesses typically look to work with local studios like yours within the country, or do you find yourself competing with companies outside of Singapore? And on that note, how often does Foreign Policy work with clients overseas?
I do think we have some advantages due to our strategic geographical location. And being a former British colony, our business language is English. That has helped us gain access to other countries, especially the developed western countries. With that, doing business is much easier and that helps with our overseas business development. Plus, we are pretty bilingual — Chinese being our mother tongue, it helps us bridge the gap between clients from China. Our communications barrier is zero. I would say half of our work is from outside Singapore.
I’ve read that UX/UI designers as well as designers with coding ability are highly sought after in Singapore, since the market moves fast and new companies need websites. Have you seen this to be true? What are the biggest opportunities that you see for designers in Singapore right now?
Yes, and I think this is true everywhere. Singapore is a small market so you have to know many skills to do as well and be able to approach a problem from different perspectives and viewpoints. I think that is very valuable, and clients and employers hold this breed of designers in high esteem. I would like to say Singapore designers are always looking to challenge and better themselves, choosing more testing work with each new project.
Why do you think good design is important? What does good design mean for you at Foreign Policy?
Good design is not just a pretty design — that is a given. What's most important to us is that the story holds water and strikes an emotion with the beholder and most of all, that it makes an impact in somebody's organization and somebody's life. This is what matters to Foreign Policy: to create design that makes an impact, design that matters.
In your opinion, what are the top 10 design studios from Singapore that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Singaporean design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
I think the internet and social media are pretty strong links for everyone globally. I also encourage the Singapore design community to put their work and their thoughts on these mediums. We cannot deny these are very powerful bridges to the rest of the world. Myself and my fellow design studio owner friends run a design society here in Singapore and hopefully in 2018, we can create a greater awareness of the Singapore design community to the overseas design community.
Yah-Leng, thank you so much for taking the time out of your travels and busy schedule to talk with us! So many great insights here and I'm excited to continue following your work and learning more about Singapore's design community. Readers, be sure to check out Foreign Policy's awesome site and follow their work on Instagram. You'll not only learn more about other design communities outside your own, but I promised you'll be inspired by Foreign Policy's unique approach to design and life.