Creative strokes: Designers craft clever workarounds amid Covid-19 crisis

As Covid-19 changes the way creatives work, four designers and a consultancy talk about how they are taking on the new challenges

(Clockwise, from top left) Designer Theseus Chan, fashion designer Nicolette Yip, Anonymous founders Germaine Chong and Felix Ng, and designer Jason Schlabach.
(Clockwise, from top left) Designer Theseus Chan, fashion designer Nicolette Yip, Anonymous founders Germaine Chong and Felix Ng, and designer Jason Schlabach.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THESEUS CHAN, NICOLETTE YIP, CALEB MING, JASON SCHLABACH

Like many sectors, the creative industry is reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

For some Singaporean creatives, disruptions this year include the postponement of a major poster campaign for the 2020 Olympics and an annual design film festival.

Added woes come in the form of slashed advertising budgets and project pipelines slowing to a trickle.

But four designers and a consultancy that The Straits Times spoke to say that isolation and social distancing are challenges the artistic community thrives on.

With an arsenal of digital tools, they are crafting clever workarounds that keep them connected and inspired.

Last May brought good tidings for Theseus Chan.

The Tokyo organising committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games announced that it had chosen the award-winning Singapore designer to create a poster to commemorate the world sporting event as well as to be part of the Olympic torch relay, which was supposed to kick off in Fukushima in March this year.

But then came Covid-19, which forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games to next year.

Chan, who is dubbed the godfather of Singapore design, is not fazed by the disruption.

"The current thinking among most in the design world is that they will wait for the Covid-19 crisis to be controlled - then it's back to business as usual," says the 59-year-old, who founded design studio Work in 1997 and has been self-publishing his annual art magazine Werk since 2000.

"But I see it as an opportunity to write a whole new chapter and craft a new course forward in design. There is simply no returning to the status quo after Covid-19. That should be crystal clear," he says animatedly in a telephone interview with The Straits Times.

Theseus Chan’s poster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics titled Extreme Revelations (left) and for Toppan Graphic Trial, called Colour Noise. PHOTOS: THESEUS CHAN

Named Designer of the Year at the inaugural President's Design Award in 2006, he has also garnered design accolades from the prestigious D&AD - a British educational charity that promotes excellence in design and advertising - and Tokyo Type Directors Club.

"The way we work, interact and create - everything will be very different. My creative response to this disruption is to forge a new path, but still stay true to my vision and the work I want to create."

He says creative people thrive on challenges and the pandemic has affected designers in such a way that "their thinking, reactions and interactions are generating positive energy that will result in very different work".


"Designers will re-examine how they have been working prior to Covid-19. The sterile approaches to design and manufacturing, standardisation, certification, automation and commercialisation may no longer be relevant in a new era.

"The faster we accept and adapt to this new reality, the faster we will move to the next level."

Chan is working with the Hong Kong International Photo Festival as its featured designer this year.

For the event, he is collaborating with iconic German publisher of glossy art books Gerhard Steidl, who is staging the exhibition on photographer Robert Frank in Hong Kong.

Chan is designing the collaterals such as the exhibition catalogue, posters and communication materials.

Another "emotional project" is the design of an art book for Steidl written by American photographic artist John Gossage.

Gossage, 74, is a photographer who explores under-the-radar elements of the urban environment as well as themes on the link between architecture and power.

Chan says: "I wanted to re-imagine what books can look like when they are disconnected from established design theory.


"The design I came up with for Steidl questions what marketeers define as 'books that sell'."

He explains that designs the world over are looking homogeneous.

"Designs need to be bold, expressive and innovative to be differentiated. They have to have the quotient to connect."

Since working from home, Chan has used illustration apps on his Apple iPad Pro to create digital Pen and Ink portraits of friends and their pets on Instagram.

Theseus Chan uses Apple iPad and Apple software to create sketches mimicking watercolour and gouache. PHOTOS: THESEUS CHAN

"The isolation is excellent for me as I tend to work best in solitude and quietness, always outside of the mainframe," says Chan.

He is one of four foreign artists in the group of 20 artists and designers invited by the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to create artworks that articulate the power and energy of sport.


The other foreign artists are Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili, Paris-based illustrator Philippe Weisbecker and Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen.

For Tokyo 2020, Chan will rub shoulders with prominent Japanese names such as manga artist Naoki Urasawa and calligrapher Shoko Kanazawa.

His artwork, titled Extreme Revelations, shows actual grind marks made by skateboards. It mimics the criss-crossings of brushstrokes and took six months to create.

It was unveiled in January this year and will be reproduced on Olympics-related merchandise for the lead-up to July 23 next year, when the Tokyo Olympic Games are scheduled to begin.

"There are no monetary rewards for designing the Tokyo Olympics poster, but it's a great opportunity to fly the Singapore flag high on a world stage."

Nifty digital workarounds do away with brushes and ink

Designer Nicolette Yip of e-commerce platform The Salvages says the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way she works. PHOTO: NICOLETTE YIP

A fashion designer whose T-shirts and fashionwear for e-commerce platform The Salvages have been sell-out successes, Nicolette Yip believes that the lasting lessons from the coronavirus pandemic are more important than the short-term pain.

"Fragmentation, social distancing and isolation have allowed me to focus and concentrate on my craft," says Yip, 28, who joined the e-commerce platform in 2016, when she was tasked to design the logo for The Salvages.

She next started designing small-batch T-shirts, which became runaway successes. Today, one of her mohair sweaters on the website retails for $490.


Experimenting with augmented reality

With the SketchUp Viewer app, American designer Jason Schlabach can now virtually "place" furniture in his apartment.
With the SketchUp Viewer app, American designer Jason Schlabach can now virtually "place" furniture in his apartment. PHOTO: JASON SCHLABACH

American designer Jason Schlabach recently finished work on one of the most cutting-edge hospitality design concepts in Seoul - the Ryse Hotel in the famed Hongdae district.

He helped corral together the global creative team that did not just design a boutique hotel, but also crafted a brand that was an artist incubator, business hub and marketplace of ideas.

The Ryse, which was launched in 2018, is part of the Marriott Group's Autograph Collection of independent hotel concepts.


Agility key to staying in the design game

Co-founders of Singapore creative laboratory Anonymous Germaine Chong and Felix Ng quickly adapted to using their Apple iPad Pro and iPhones to work from home. PHOTO: ALICIA NEO

"Isolation is a double-edged sword," says Felix Ng, founder of Singapore creative laboratory Anonymous.

Together with co-founder and business partner Germaine Chong, 35, who is key project management lead of the multidisciplinary consultancy, Ng believes that those who are in the business of creative output and who are artistic see opportunities in crises where others see only uncertainty.

"The solitude and movement restrictions have helped us to focus on our own projects and research, but it also takes away from the joy of connecting and collaborating with others," says Ng, 37, who has been helming Anonymous since its inception in 2005 and oversees design and strategy.


Advertising agencies adopt problem-solving mindset

Ms Emily Poon, executive group director of Ogilvy, remembers how during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, digital services saw a huge acceleration.

"Covid-19 is no different. While we have certainly seen a tightening of belts in marketing budgets especially in harder-hit sectors such as travel, tourism and aviation, clients' need for help and consumer appetite for content and virtual experiences are greater than ever," says Ms Poon, who heads the public relations, influence and social division of the integrated creative network.

"We are seeing a double-digit growth in our fast-paced short-form content production as client partners pivot towards more nimble and agile production forms and delivery."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2020, with the headline 'Creative strokes'. Subscribe