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Malaysian Graphic Designers You Should Know
Graphic design has never seen better days. Get to know three influential names in the local scene as they recount the inspiration, circumstances and challenges that drive them to produce their creative best.
It’s an exciting time for graphic design as it emerges into new territories. No longer just the function of combining words and pictures on paper, the practice now operates across multiple platforms and disciplines. The definitions and boundaries of the vocation have blurred, giving way to unprecedented creative freedom and nascent economies of content creation.
Tan Sueh Li
In Malaysia, there is much potential for designers to shape the landscape and do what they crave most. Tan Sueh Li is one of the people who have staked their place at the forefront of that drive. Along with Low Hsin Yin and David Ho, she was hired by Grab to build a custom typeface for a suite of sub-brand logos. Their concerted efforts led to the emblems representing GrabPay, GrabFood, and other supplementary services extended by the ride-hailing app.”
Tan cites this as her most significant commercial undertaking to date. In a country where the usual MO is to pair graphics with whatever font available on Illustrator or Photoshop, the Grab project stands out as an uncommon corporate undertaking in typography.
“We are still very much a visual-based society,” she explains. “Clients here just do not see the value of type design. The ubiquity of Grab has helped me convince them that custom typefaces can indeed be a worthwhile investment.”
Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, the Penangite fell into her specialisation while at university in the Netherlands. As part of her master’s syllabus, she was required to take a class in type design and calligraphy. There, she was invigorated by the local type scene and the luminaries who cultivated it. Inspired, she switched majors to type design and has not looked back since graduating in 2009.
‘Callie’ is the first typeface Tan designed in her Type and Media master programme at the Royal Academy of Art.
Close to a decade on and the niche remains confined to a few. “I can count on one hand the number of individuals who adopt it [type design] professionally,” she says.
“As always, education is the answer. Whether it is the public, clients or other designers, the best way to grow the field is to expose as many people as possible to the intricacies of letterform communication.”
Tan’s personal project to create Arabic typeface.
To this end, Tan formed a platform called Huruf, through which she organises a series of talks and workshops. So far, participants have learned the basics of calligraphy, deconstructed Chinese logographs, and used Post-it notes to generate scripts.
The underlying cultural subtext in different scripts mirrors Tan’s own fascination with multilingualism and linguistic heritage in Malaysia. Long riveted by the Arabic alphabet, she recently created a Jawi typeface, which she deems a point of pride in her personal oeuvre.
It is passion projects like Tan’s that fuel Jun Kit. By day, he provides art and copy layout for the City & Country supplement of The Edge. But he is perhaps best known for his illustrative work, most of which were for organisations inhabiting the arts and activism sectors.
“I used to hang around The Annexe Gallery a lot back when it was at its peak. I was a fresh graduate then and was struck by the crowd. They were a creative melting pot of artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, performers, academics and activists. They taught me that being different was a good thing, and it was nice to find an audience that appreciated my brand of off-kilter design,” he says.
Staging History – Selected Plays from Five Arts Centre Malaysia 1984–2014, a project in collaboration with Kathy Rowland, Five Arts Centre and Karmen Hui, designed by Jun Kit.
Instant Café Theatre Company, Five Arts Centre, Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, Malaysian AIDS Council, Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art are just some of the beneficiaries of his ink strokes. He has also contributed to group exhibitions at OUR ArtProjects, Valentine Willie Fine Art, mapkl, as well as galleries in Japan.
While his portfolio speaks for itself, Jun Kit is reluctant to pin down his style. He claims to not possess a trademark of his own, and is searching for it in the little touches he makes to client briefs.
“I take inspiration in the designers who use other modes of graphic production to attain a kind of analogue look,” he says. “In trying to achieve the same lo-fi quality, I found that illustration did the job perfectly. Its imperfections add a human element to my work. At best, I think I am a designer with artistic sensibilities.”
He also manages Ugly Malaysiana, an online archive of self-described “third-world aesthetics” present everywhere in Malaysia. From Engrish-laden tees to sensory assaulting buntings, no faux pas escapes derision. Jun Kit considers it a release outlet to counter the country’s yet developing design sense with humour.
A piece from Solitary Haiku, composed of six drawings of individuals spending time alone in their rooms. Organised by Bok Tjuv and Awe Gallery as part of ‘Nest’, an event about interiors and living.
“Design here has not matured to a sophisticated level because it is so linked to the commercial market,” he says. “People follow the mantra of the buntings produced at your neighbourhood print shop. They are all about maximising value, leaving no space empty and throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.”
Uninterested in the grunt work expected at advertising agencies, Rebecca Chew has devoted the entirety of her career in publishing, the bulk of which she served as art director and photo essay editor for the Malaysia and Singapore editions of Esquire.
“I always knew I wanted to work with stories,” she says. “And graphic design gave me more tools at my disposal than maybe being a writer or any other profession ever could.”
Her stint at Esquire afforded her a high degree of creative licence, which she doesn’t hesitate to use in her mixed-media spins on submitted copy. ‘Embroidered’ photos, woodblock prints and 3D collages are all in a day’s work for Chew. But there were times when freedom landed her in hot water.
Chew’s lettering, profile and design for Esquire Malaysia: An edit of Malick Sidibé's photographs of post-colonial Mali.
“I once made a doodle on George Clooney’s face as part of the design I had in mind for his page,” she says. “His publicist got really upset and complained to our head office in the States. I imagine that George probably did not mind though.”
With declining magazine sales worldwide, Chew does worry for her bread and butter. “I attended a symposium in Singapore a few years ago that gathered a few reputable global names. The vibe was optimistic and it was hopeful to witness so many people standing by print. This was in stark contrast to Malaysia, where only indie publications seem to be thriving. Even then, the standards are lacking as their content qualifies them as no more than picturebooks,” she says.
She is critical too of the low premium placed on good design. “Companies see it as inconsequential, a matter of moving pixels across the screen,” she says. “Content mills like Fiverr and 99designs continue to push the narrative that designers are cheap and expendable. It does not help either that some fresh graduates spoil the market by agreeing to assignments with low returns.”
Chew’s concept, art direction and design for a feature story on Judy Clarke, Esquire Malaysia.
Having spent as long as she has at the top of her game, Chew knows what it takes to stay relevant in an industry where trends come and go at the breakneck speed of Instagram.
“You need to be curious above all. You need to be honest with yourself and admit that you do not know everything. Knowing this, you would be more prepared to embrace new ideas and discover new ways of interpretation,” she says.
More Malaysian designers to watch:
Tang Yau Hoong
A specialist in editorial work, he has been commissioned by some of the world’s biggest brands.
Her branding expertise sets the tone for some of the Klang Valley’s most exciting establishments.
Vector graphics maestro with commercial and magazine credits to his name.
Purveyor of comic snapshots of urban life and pop culture.
Agency lifer fascinated by patterns and the experimental.
By Tristan Toh
Portrait photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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