(Graphic) Design is Not Dead

13 June 2017

We speak to three of Malaysia’s best and brightest graphic designers about the state of graphic design in the country, and the challenges and opportunities that come with the job.

The typical role of a graphic designer, as a communicator and as a conduit of ideas and messages – as a type of translator, even – differs, depending on who one asks. According to Zachary Haris Ong, the first Malaysian and Southeast Asian president elect of International Council of Design (ico-D), “The work of a graphic designer is, fundamentally and simply put, commercial. It can spread across more spectrums, commercial and non-commercial, but at the end of the day, it communicates a certain message.”

Zachary, who acts as an advisor to the Malaysian government for the development of its national design agenda and policy, as well as directs and designs at Zachary Haris Ong & Associates based in Kuala Lumpur, was appointed to ico-D as president elect in October 2015, due to “the mandate of members all around the world”. He previously also served two terms as the president of wREGA, or Pertubuhan Wakaf Reka Grafik Malaysia.

Zachary Haris Ong

“We have work to do,” he says, “and it’s a huge honour”.

Zachary’s mission is to make Malaysia a design powerhouse in the world. The first order of business: the transformation of the design industry in contributing to and impacting the country’s GDP. To that end, the upcoming Reka Negaraku: Design is the Future open forum on 16 June will involve a discussion with guest speakers such as Freeman Lau from Hong Kong, as well as Eddin Khoo, Nani Kahar, Lisette Scheers, William Harald-Wong and Johan Ishak to kickstart a conversation. This will be followed by a closed forum at another date with industry leaders along with our Prime Minister Najib Razak and Zachary himself coming together towards forming a blueprint of the national design policy.

“What I intend to do in and for Malaysia, based on my personal and professional capacity of working with Malaysia Design Council, with wREGA and other design associations, is to build an importance for design economy,” he says.

A design economy refers to the acknowledgement and appreciation of the role of design as a driver of economy in Malaysia – however, according to Zachary, we have yet to capture the data or the statistics to legitimise or recognise a design economy.

“We need a national design policy to put in place a structure, or infrastructure, that will spur the design economy,” he says. According to Zachary, the number of design students in Malaysia between the year 2000 to 2010 gradually increased, each year, from 8,000 to 10,000. “It’s 2017 now, I imagine there are more. More universities in Malaysia that traditionally don’t teach design, now have design faculties; Sunway University, for example.” It’s a snapshot of the state of graphic design in Malaysia; it’s an indication that it’s a trend, or that it’s popular.

“We are creative, we have talent – and the doorway is open, it’s a matter of stepping in. We have to avoid, to repel the point of view that other countries are better than here,” Zachary continues. “The challenges that graphic designers face in Malaysia are similar around the world, we’re no different, except I'm of the point of view that Malaysia is at an exciting intersection.”

Chua Suek Mei (right) with Calleigh Yap (left) of A Good Reason.

At that intersection is Chai Suek Mei, co-founder of Design Union, newly based at The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap (the other co-founders are Cliff Leong, Fidella Ch’ng and Zeejay Wong, the trio of The Alphabet Press).

“Malaysian graphic designers are multidisciplinary and multitalented; we can do a lot of things, and we’re very diverse,” she says. As a prime example, Suek Mei co-founded the risograph print studio A Good Reason – the first in Kuala Lumpur with colour ink – with Driv Loo, and she is also the founder of Miracle Watts, an interior, signage and wayfinding consultancy.

“With A Good Reason, we wanted to introduce risograph printing in Kuala Lumpur – simply because there wasn’t any before, and we wanted local designers to get to know risograph, to provide them with an option other than digital printing or offset printing,” says Suek Mei.

Late last year, Design Union came into existence “to make conversation”. Its intention is to “create beautiful solutions together”, in the elevation of the country’s creative scene in hopes of strengthening the community of creatives. Collecteral, which exhibited at RUANG by Think City at 2 Hang Kasturi, was Design Union’s first curated event. It was a showcase of over 1,000 pieces of posters and pamphlets from all over the world, collected by Malaysian designers and design collectives throughout their travels over the years – hence, the play on the words ‘collect’ and ‘collateral’.

“That’s how we started: we wanted local designers to come together, to take local design to the next level, to let the big guys know that actually, lots of local designers are, you know, talented,” says Suek Mei, adding that Design Union is self-funded. “We’re still very new and very small. Design Union belongs to all local designers who want to do something for the scene. Come, join us, we need hands.”

A risograph printer at A Good Reason’s studio.

Design Union has been hard at work. After Collecteral, Design Union and Isetan The Japan Store co-organised a solo exhibition by up-and-coming, young Japanese artist-illustrator Yu Nagaba at Isetan The Japan Store’s Free art space in March. In April, Rj Paper contacted and commissioned Design Union to co-curate an exhibition to commemorate the launch of Colourplan in Malaysia, an iconic range of premium coloured paper by Britain’s leading supplier of specialist papers.

“There’s a need, and a demand, for exhibitions like these – so we’re trying to do more, but at the same time, we have full-time jobs,” says Suek Mei. Her clientele is cool, hip, and urban; think the likes of co-working startup Common Ground, retail space repping local artisans and designers Ilaika Select Store, cosy Hartamas café Rubberduck, and many more.


Risograph print samples.

“I’ve been in the industry for six years. It’s frustrating, because young designers are suffering – at Design Union, we want to build a support system for young designers, but we also need the support,” she says.

“Malaysian design is getting there, though; it’s encouraging, there’s some progress. I mean, take where we are now, at Zhongshan – now we’re getting to meet a bunch of cool, like-minded designers and creative people, and we’re all trying to do more.”

Meanwhile, at the forefront of the industry is Melisa Wong, the managing director at Octagon Creative, who reprised her presidential role at wREGA last year; she served her first term as president in 2002/03. “I was one of the seven founding members. I was the second president; each president served for two years with the exception of Zachary Haris Ong who served for four years, and after him, I was asked to reprise the role for another two years,” she says.

Melisa Wong, managing director of Octagon Creative and wREGA president.

“With me taking up the post again and in my second year now, I hope to be able to build up the recognition of the association to a wider public, to students and to designers,” says Melisa. 

wREGA is the only official, non-profit and non-political authority on graphic design in Malaysia, with the objective of promoting design excellence and professional practice; it is recognised by ico-D, and it currently boasts over 70 to 80 members. Membership with wREGA has major benefits, namely with networking, as well as to contribute to the design community and to connect with other members and graphic designers.

Recently, wREGA participated in Invention and Innovation Exhibition (ITEX), which was held at KLCC in May. It was the first time wREGA celebrated World Design Day, for which it invited about ten design colleges and universities to participate under the theme of ‘Save Ourselves To Save The World’.

“It was held as a public exhibition under ITEX – something which I felt was important to me, when I took up the helm as president of wREGA again, to bring graphic design to the public. In the public realm, most people engage graphic designers purely for certain branding’s sake or for corporation purposes. Not many people in the public really, truly understand the value of design through graphic design. Most people see value in design in architecture, in product design, but they overlook the value of design through graphic design,” says Melisa.

Melisa has been practising in the industry for over 20 years; she also publishes Octane, the design magazine, and her clients include Hilton Worldwide, for which her agency has carried out award-winning work in the past ten years.   

“I think that, in the past two decades, we’ve still been very much bullied into pitching for work with no returns. It’s great if we can generate sustainability, meaning that you’d have a client that would engage you for two, three years,” says Melisa. “I’ve been around long enough, and people like us, like at Octagon Creative, we’re affected by the war of costs. Clients say, ‘Someone else can do this for much less’; we’re up against freelancers sometimes, plus the war of costs is killing the market.”

“For many, it’s a matter of cari makan. Unless you’re an Andy Warhol, you’re a David Hockney – when you’re bordering fine art and graphic design – it’s difficult for graphic designers here because the day-to-day commercial work doesn’t require you to do really amazing work, as long as it’s good enough,” says Melisa.

We’re not yet a design-driven country; it doesn’t appear that Malaysia, too, has a design identity, as it’s something that should and will take time, and not deliberately designed. Malaysia is constantly looking for a Malaysian identity – in all aspects, and not just in design – and as a people, we can learn about ourselves and our culture, as well as who we are as a nation, through our visual culture. Malaysia Design Archive, for instance, is currently exhibiting Reka Negaraku: As We See It at Balai Seni Negara; it attempts to articulate a timeline of Malaysia’s history through the lens of graphic design, from everyday objects to propaganda posters.

“A graphic designer should read and research, should write, should be able to manage things – so he or she becomes a thinking designer, not simply a layout designer. I always find that if you’re in touch with the fine art world, your work will have a lot more depth because you’re creating something that’s about your feelings and the work will be different,” says Melisa.

Learn more about Reka Negaraku: Design is the Future Open Forum on www.negaraku.com.
Reka Negaraku: As We See It exhibition runs until 30 June 2017 at Balai Seni Negara.

By Ng Su Ann
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

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