by j u s t i n . z on October 14, 2013

Half a year ago, I was invited to write a piece for  Me & My Shadowa design project to encourage solitude in today’s hyper-social society. I’ve neglected this space since moving to New York City for my MFA in Design Criticism, but I’m in the midst of revamping it and blogging again. Consider this a pause, while I gather new adventures and thoughts.


An astronaut.

A hacker.

A ninja.

A spy.

My childhood ambitions all revolved around becoming someone who is typically seen as a solo character — one who relies on his or her abilities and single-mindedness to complete seemingly impossible tasks.

Today, I am a writer. While this occupation has none of the excitement that I wished for as a child, it is certainly just as ‘solo’. The stereotypical image of a writer is one who is cooped up in front of his computer churning out words for a living; and this is how I would describe myself as I write this essay.

Writing is truly a solo activity, and I work best where I am all alone with myself. Even when working at a café or kopitiam, the people around me dissolve into the background as I need to hear myself in order to write. You could say that writing to me is a transcription of conversations with myself.

It is certainly not something everyone enjoys. Many people I meet are always amazed at how I much time I spend on my own, but for me, it is a source of strength to know that I can do so — that I do not need to rely on too many people and resources to get by.

One reward of having spent so much time alone is becoming very familiar with who I am. Away from the madding crowd, the cacophony of opinions, and endless distractions, I can hear my thoughts and I am sensitive to my feelings. This has helped me understand what my personal values and beliefs are, as well as how I function.

And it is being on my own that I have discovered the difficulties of being alone. One person can only achieve so much, it is easy to become insular and ignorant to the world outside if we simply keep to ourselves. The yearning to be part of something bigger than myself is also never too far in the background.

These reasons are why I find the image of a writer as a solo figure, a tad romantic, and even misleading. Most of my time is not spent in front of this computer, but out and about: whether it is attending meetings, seeing exhibitions or meeting friends. In order to write, I need to have something to write about, or at times, someone to write to.

In this context, the act of writing for me is akin to pressing the pause button in life. Momentarily, I shut out myself from the world to reflect. When I come out of my cocoon, I resume my life with an appreciation of the past and a clearer vision of my future.

To me, going solo is a state of mind rather than just a physical act. It is being able to recognise that it is the space in between words — the invisible pause — that are essential in establishing meaning. Just as being alone is not the same as a lone person, one should not be afraid to press pause to dictate the rhythm of your life.

Power Platforms: Raising SG Creativity

by j u s t i n . z on June 8, 2013

Just over a decade ago, Singapore unveiled the Creative Industries Development Strategy to build its creative economy. Today, this cluster consisting of the arts and culture, media and design has  grown and given the city a creative vibe. But while the  talents and their works draw the most attention, an important component are platforms that help to nurture these individuals and groups, raise their profile and support the design ecosystem. These range from the media, community-building initiatives, creation and collaboration programmes as well as institutions and shops. Over the next week, I will attempt to map out the platforms that underpin Singapore’s thriving design scene, starting today with the media.


From blogs, websites, magazines to publications, the Singapore design media has grown substantially from a decade ago. Today, design is featured regularly in mainstream newspapers as well as lifestyle magazines, and there are many local publications dedicated to it. In the early 2000s, the advent of iSh (1999),  d+a (2000), CUBES (2001) and a smattering of other initiatives breathed new life into a scene where design magazines meant interior design and fashion rags or the academically-driven Singapore Architect.

Since then, the local design media scene has grown tremendously with websites like DesignTaxi (2003), THEARTISTANDHISMODEL (2005), Culturepush (2007) as well as indie print magazines kult (2009) and Bracket (2010). They are also joined by the Asian offices of international design magazines such as Surface Asia (2010) and Dwell Asia (2011) that a licensed by MPG Media Publishing, as well as Australian design media brand INDESIGNLIVE who acquired CUBES when it expanded into Asia in 2011.SG-Magazines

Besides a growing mass media, the design book publishing scene has also grown. While local design book publishers such as PageOne and Basheer Graphic Books might have published the occasional monograph for a Singapore design studio — such as :phunk studio’s Universality (2007) — they were more keen on earning from reprints of  popular titles from the West. That has changed in recent years as overseas publishers have started looking more closely at the design scene here. Singapore-based Patrick Bingham-Hall has done several monographs for Singapore architects such as WOHA under his Pesaro Publishing, ORO Editions put out Lekker Design’s Horror in Architecture, and international creative books publisher Laurence King recently published a book on the the works of the Design Incubation Centre in the National University of Singapore. Design studios themselves are also trying out self-publishing including DP Architects (The Dubai Mall: Sand to Spectacle), Ong & Ong (Conserving Domesticity) and Hjgher (Creative Cultures).SG-Books

Beyond the written word, an emerging medium is film. Local design studio Anonymous was the first in Asia to put together A Design Film Festival in 2010, creating a platform to screen design films from around the world. While the festival has yet to screen a Singapore design film, it has started work on one. There are also similar efforts such as an on-going interview series with local creatives by Design Says Hello as well as government-sponsored documentaries on Singapore’s design scene including City Lights (2006), More Than Meets The Eye (2004) and Design Superheroes (2011).

Despite more buzz and media, much of it has represented design as a lifestyle and consumer product and a business solutions provider. A lot of the media also looks at Singapore as just one part of the larger Asian scene, and while this raises the bar for assessing what is worthy of coverage, it also crowds out smaller but significant  developments for the local scene. Both these features are most probably because most of the media are commercially-driven and need to create a product that can appeal to a wide enough market. What is missing is critical coverage on design, including examining its role in popular culture and society. A lot of the media also lacks depth as they focus on what is trendy and the now, but Singapore design has a history that is finally surfacing the increasing number of monographs as well as historical overviews being published, such as Singapore Institute of Architect’s new Rumah — 50 Years of SIA 1963-2013 and my own work on the graphic design community.

The Meme: Democratizing Graphic Design and Politics

by j u s t i n . z on May 23, 2013

Any significant political event today is often quickly marked by the release of a meme into cyberspace. These simple graphical messages seize on an event’s most controversial moments, translating it into a digital file of less than a hundred kilobytes. In a matter of seconds after its creation, a meme is shared and read, and if effective, its message spreads like wildfire through the Internet and is received by a global audience.

Such memes, often created with just a clever juxtaposition of a tagline on an image, is an act of graphic design as its most basic—combining graphics and text to create meaning. Just as how graphic designers often tap on popular culture to create an attractive visual language for communication, these memes also appropriate images from popular films and iconography to grab attention for its messages.

One could trace political memes to political cartoons, as both take on the subject by injecting humor to create a graphical product whose goal is to make its readers laugh, and often implicitly criticize. While political cartoons have had a long history and is considered a discipline in its own right today, memes looks much more raw in comparison and are often plain ugly. Yet, it is their Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, cobbling together seemingly disparate graphic elements, that gives it legitimacy as a message that originated from the grassroots. Political memes are not the works of a professional cartoonist nor is it a slick advertisement from a politician or group with an agenda—they are the voices of the masses for the masses, an online version of the political poster.

Unlike professional graphic designers, meme creators only need to know where to Google and appropriate the image that is best suited for the message in their heads. Sometimes, it is the reverse, becoming a game of who wrote the funniest caption. The rise of memes has been aided by the emergence of simple web tools that allows anyone to quickly ‘generate’ one and share it, using a series of templates that codify how a meme works. One signature form that is characteristic of the genre starts with a lead-in text, followed by a ridiculous but somewhat relevant image, and ends with a punchline for impact. This three-step design process shows how readers often encounter memes, while scrolling in the web browser environment.

Although there are more complicated memes that allow a longer narrative to be played out, such as those based on the design of comic panels, they are mostly short and to the point. The choice of publishing memes via social media also explains its design. Clearly catered for viral transmissions that ride on platforms filled with competing messages, the design of political memes prize speed and compactness over cutting-edge aesthetics and depth.

Political memes are essentially a fragment—and at times, not even the most important—of how the masses see politics today. This is perhaps a sign of how everything in our lives today take on a certain ‘entertainment’ turn—even something as serious as politics. With so many other things in life to do, politics has to be reduced to punchlines and attention-grabbing antics in real-life and also in the form of memes.

This political form that is born from the convergence of technology, design, and society has become so popular that there are now websites dedicated to the generation, collection and distribution of such memes. Even politicians have got into the game, when during the 2012 US Presidential campaign, both candidates’ social media teams unleashed their own memes into their World Wide Web.

This new form of political expression of the times is another medium of society’s democratic conversation, adding richness to the online chatter amongst the masses, and definitely a good laugh too. But is there anything more after that? On the one hand, it can serve a vigilante function, cutting through heavy political acts by seizing on dubious messages and magnifying them through humor, but on the other, political memes often takes things out of context, mostly for the sake of entertainment.

Just as how computers made visual expression simpler for more, the simplicity and ease of creating and distributing memes is another example of how graphic design is being democratized, in this case for online communication on political matters. And like most media, memes are value-free, but entirely up to where designers — in this case, citizens — want to take them.


This was originally written for a graduate programme application. 

The Key

by j u s t i n . z on May 2, 2013

Only one way out,
Eight numbers —
Call to unlock.

Gasp! The horrors of modern architecture

by j u s t i n . z on April 23, 2013

Horror in Architecture

Horror in Architecture, a new book by Singapore-based architects Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, is not a book about horrible architecture. While it may be filled with examples of architecture most would not consider beautiful, its does not aim to measure their aesthetic value but rather to critique, categorise, and ultimately explain their existence.

The authors propose to look at “horror” in architecture as instances of failure that one can learn from, and in their 225-page book they have assembled a lens built upon fields including history, literature and even pop culture to examine this phenomenon. The result are nine typologies ranging from  ”Doubles & Clones”, and “Partially and Mostly Dead” which provide a framework to understand such diverse work ranging from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Pullman Building in Chicago, and even a pair of semi-detached houses along Singapore’s Jalan Haji Alias.

Despite the sometimes complex and conceptual language, this book manages to use the terms of horror to present an entertaining and often enlightening reading about architecture. However, the real punch of this paperback publication comes when it examines how some of these architecture have come about. As Comaroff and Ong conclude: the horrors we are presented with today are by and large driven by what they identify as “the geography of unevenness” or economic inequality.

The book can also be read as a kind of manifesto of what the authors represent in their architecture practice, Lekker Design. They have elsewhere talked about their fascination with informal architecture as well as buildings which most architects would find “disgusting”, and this book is a full-blown exploration of this interest.

Despite examining an “unpleasant” aspect of architecture, and warning practitioners of the bleak conditions the practice exists in today, Comaroff and Ong ultimately find hope in “horror” and how it embraces the problems of modern architecture, rather than attempt to hide it. This ultimately creates interesting buildings and suggests that there is a future for architects after all.