Jackson Tan: The man behind SG50

Jackson Tan, creator of the SG50 logo, started a collective with his friends to become rock stars, but they turned to design instead

If not for designer Jackson Tan, Singaporeans might have been stuck with a mouthful of a term to describe the country's 50th birthday such as "Singapore's 50th Jubilee Celebration".

Tan, the co-founder and creative director of multi-disciplinary creative agency Black, is the designer behind the ubiquitous SG50 logo, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

"I guess if I could receive $1 for each time the logo or name is used, the amount would be in the millions," says Tan, 41, whose design was chosen from among those of other companies who were invited to submit their proposals. He also suggested shortening the name which was originally Singapore50.

Money matters aside, the humble designer says: "It holds a very special meaning to me that it was shared so many times. It has even travelled to places like Japan where Singaporeans were celebrating. I'm just happy that Singaporeans have embraced it."

The bold white letters and number are in Gotham Typeface font against the backdrop of a red circle. Its inspiration is as simple as the logo looks: It is modelled after Singapore's depiction as a red dot on the world map. Tan wanted an uncomplicated design that was memorable and could still be "easily drawn by a kid in five seconds".

Since it was launched last year, the red SG50 logo has been found everywhere on all kinds of things from posters to snacks and toys. And not only is it the shorthand for Singapore's 50th birthday celebration, it has also become a meme - many celebrating their 50th birthday customised their own red dot, dropping the "SG" and replacing it with their own initials.

Much of Tan's 2015 has centred around Singapore-themed projects. In August, Black launched its collaboration with American bag and accessories company LeSportsac. They created a print featuring iconic landmarks and designed like the Kaki Lima (it means Five Foot Way in Malay).

The SG50 logo. PHOTO: SG50

He is also the curator of SG Heart Map, a year-long crowdsourced project for which Singaporeans shared personal memories of local places and spaces.

This has been a stellar year for him even though he has had a 21-year career filled with highlights.

Before he started his award-winning agency, he had made his name as part of Phunk, a contemporary art and design collective.

After graduating from Lasalle College of the Arts in 1994, Tan and three friends studying graphic design - Melvin Chee, whom he has known since primary school; Alvin Tan and William Chan - tried to start a band. But almost as soon as they embarked on their dream of becoming rock stars, they gave it up.

Tan says: "We tried to sing and went into the studio to try performing, but we realised we sucked. We knew that our real instrument was the Mac."

They started exploring becoming artists on the classic Apple computer, first creating a streetwear label. They named themselves Phunk and learnt how to silkscreen their own graphics on T-shirts. They did not sell one T-shirt, but the name stuck.

"It was the 1990s and 'ph' was in then. After that, it just became uncool. Lesson learnt - never follow trends," Tan says with a laugh.

While in national service, the Phunk foursome taught themselves how to design their own typefaces, using a pirated version of Fontographer, a digital fonts program.

They sent their designs to magazines and designers they liked and hit the jackpot when Garage Fonts, the office of well-known American graphic designer and art director David Carson, asked to license their fonts.

Till today, Phunk still gets some royalties from these display fonts, with pop culture-inspired names such as Acid Queen, Bloody Valentine and Special K.

After national service, they took on different jobs but met "almost every day" to discuss Phunk projects. Influenced by popular style bibles such as Interview magazine, Phunk decided to have a go at creating a local version, called Trigger, along with a multimedia company.

They went all out for the first issue of Trigger, which was launched in 1998 at Zouk with the nightspot decked out to look like a supermarket.

With that, Tan says Phunk kickstarted the themed nights that Zouk has become famous for.

Mr Andrew Ing, 48, who was the marketing manager at Zouk from 1993 to 2001, remembers that party as being "groundbreaking".

"If you talked about visual graphics or design in Singapore, Phunk was always one of the first names mentioned. They became the forefront of designers in their era and they just went on to become bigger and better," says Mr Ing, now the chief operating officer at The Lo & Behold Group, which owns restaurants and bars.

While Phunk worked on Trigger for just two editions - the magazine continued for a few years more - Mr Ing says the collective left an impression on the design scene.

Their Zouk gigs caught the attention of music channel MTV and Phunk were signed on to design interstitials, which featured quirky concepts and colourful graphics.

Then followed a string of big-name clients such as Levis, Casio G-Shock and Uniqlo.

In 2004, British magazine Creative Review magazine called Phunk the "champion of Singapore's graphic scene". Three years later, they picked up the Designer of the Year award at the President's Design Award. In 2011, Phunk designed merchandise for English rock band The Rolling Stones' tour that year.

Singaporeans and tourists who go to Promenade MRT station will see Phunk's work - Dreams In A Social Cosmic Odyssey, where giant drips of disco balls are suspended from the ceiling.

Phunk have also exhibited their art and graphics all over the world.

Tan's career as an award-winning creative is rooted in his childhood. Growing up as a latchkey kid - his parents were often working or out doing their own thing - he often went with his paternal grandmother to watch all kinds of movies, from Chinese dramas to Bollywood and sci-fi flicks such as Star Wars.

He was also an avid comic book fan, who often drew characters and logos in exercise books.

Tan, who is a St Joseph's Institution alumnus, says: "I was one of those kids who slept at 2am and didn't go to school if I didn't want to. While other children had their parents take them to the cinema, I would sometimes go on my own."

The family lived in a shophouse in Tan Quee Lan Street in Bugis. His father was a dispatch clerk, who died in 2006 from colon cancer. His mother, 58, who once worked as a waitress, now lives with Tan's sister, who is four years younger than him. He also has a brother who is two years younger than him.

Tan, who is married to former Taiwanese air stewardess Talia Huang, 29, whom he met at the Kaohsiung Design Festival in 2008, lives in a condominium in East Coast.

While he has come a long way from the teenager who once struggled to pay his school fees at Lasalle and had to work as a bartender for income, his professional life is not without hiccups.

Even as Phunk was doing well - the four men pursued their own interests while working on the collective on the side - Tan had some tough times.

He had set up advertising agency Brazen in 2001 with three partners, including Mr Chee and Mr Alvin Tan. They worked out of a four-storey house in River Valley and expanded fast, growing to 20 people in two years.

But the bubble burst when the Sept 11 attacks in the United States and the Sars outbreak here happened. Brazen lost its business and had to close in 2012.

Tan says: "It was painful to have to let people go, especially since they were my first employees. I was not prepared to manage so many people. I was too young and reckless at that time."

He picked himself up quickly enough and started Black the following year with a partner, Mr Patrick Gan. They started in Mohammed Sultan Road and moved recently to a 2,400 sq ft studio space in Alexandra Road.

The creative agency has snagged many big-name clients such as the National Arts Council, Herman Miller and music company Swee Lee. At last year's The Gong Show, a creative industry awards ceremony, Black won multiple awards, including Agency of the Year and Independent Agency of the Year.

Mr Alvin Tan, 40, who is a creative consultant and co-founder and creative director of eyewear brand Mystic Vintage, calls his old friend an "ambitious person".

"Jackson is a good leader who manages people well. As a friend, he's a kindred spirit. We've known each other for more than 20 years now, so he's more like a brother to me."

Indeed, even as Jackson Tan works on growing Black, Phunk, which now focus on producing original artworks and creative collaboration projects, is never far from his mind.

In a manner of speaking, the quartet are still a rock band. The Phunk soul brothers share the Alexandra Road studio running their own businesses, with a space set aside for Phunk's work.

Tan says: "Our core is always still Phunk, even as our own studios are extensions of our individual aspirations. It's like four brothers who grew up and are starting to have our own families. Phunk will always only be the four of us."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline Jackson Tan: The man behind SG50. Subscribe