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Lauded local agency Asylum thrives on the cheeky and irreverent

Published on Apr 22, 2013 4:36 PM

If there is one event that illustrates how award-winning designer Chris Lee thinks, it is from his early 20s.

A late-blooming desire to study design had taken a hold of him, but he had no art portfolio to prove to the sceptical course manager at Temasek Polytechnic that he, aged 22 and considerably older than most first-year students, had both desire and talent.

The electronics engineering course dropout had to think fast. He realised he did have a portfolio of sorts. It consisted of Valentine's Day cards with lettering cut from magazines and other such handcrafted gifts he had given his then girlfriend. It was not of the same depth and breadth as the work of a proper art student, but it would have to do.

She was in Canada then but as luck would have it, she had kept the items organised enough that her mother could find them and pass them to Lee.

Background story

My Life So Far

“During that period, especially with creative companies in Britain, the names they had were irreverent. Tomato, for example. They had funny names. So we chose Asylum. It seems nice now, but it was a disaster back in 1999. We would get phone calls from people asking for ‘As-slum, Ers-slam’ because they had no idea what that word was. It was a bit too clever. But later, the name became a filter. If a client thinks, ‘Ugh, what kind of name is Asylum?’, then they would not be the clients for us anyway.”

Chris Lee, on his agency’s name, Asylum

“I don’t think I’m a good businessman. I’m bad at micro details. I gloss over things. I look at the financials and ask, ‘Are we making money?’ We are? Okay, good.’ I don’t look into details and say, ‘Cut down on this expense or that.’ But I think I know the fundamentals of how a business should work.”

On switching from being a creative person to being an entrepreneur when he co-founded Asylum in 1999