Print, film, video, exhibitions and more: this award-winning designer’s creative spark transcends multiple platforms and helps her remain relevant

Ms Kelley Cheng’s constant motivation to level up her creative design capabilities has earned her a SkillsFuture Fellowship

Designer Kelley Cheng is one of the recipients of the SkillsFuture Fellowships 2020, which recognises professionals who demonstrate a strong commitment to lifelong learning, skills mastery, and contribute to the skills development of others. PHOTO: SKILLSFUTURE SINGAPORE

As a young girl, Ms Kelley Cheng spent hours devouring an impressive range of art forms and nurturing a profound love for magazines, books and more.

She says: "Being the youngest child with two much older siblings, I was often left alone with my mum, who was always busy. So I ransacked the bookshelves of my family; I read everything - my sister's Female and Her World fashion magazines and English literature books, my brother's Japanese comics and martial arts novels (Jin Yong and Gu Long), my mum's Chinese fashion periodicals like Nuyou, and my dad's newspapers.

"I grew up on all these things, becoming a pop culture junkie as I continue to feed this eclectic diet through more magazines, books and music over the years. Many things in life always come from a seed planted eons ago."

She went on to create an impressive portfolio of design projects and carve a career most in the creative industry can only aspire to.

Through all this, the self-styled polymath has no hesitation when it comes to picking up new skills. And this has rewarded her with fresh perspectives to each new creation she undertakes.

"I have never said no to anything that comes my way. I always manage to find a way to do it - either with help from a suitable collaborator, or a visit online to search for my answers," she says.

Ms Cheng's impressive portfolio includes a collaboration with TedXS. PHOTO: KELLEY CHENG

Not afraid to leave her comfort zone

To date, the 48-year-old founder and creative director of publishing and design consultancy The Press Room has worked on projects from exhibition design and wayfinding to producing annual reports, books, magazines, websites and videos.

Along the way, she has bagged many awards, sat on various judging panels for design awards and various advisory panels for government agency projects. She has also been on the Regional Experts Panel for the Hong Kong Design Centre since 2012.

Although an architect by training - she studied at the National University of Singapore (NUS) - she did not see the profession as a career pathway.

"I was in my 20s, young and impulsive. I craved excitement and challenges. Moreover, when I graduated, I knew in my heart that I wanted to start a magazine," she explains.

The cover of ish, a design magazine Ms Cheng founded in 1999. At its peak, it had a distribution of 10,000 copies. PHOTO: KELLEY CHENG

She launched design magazine, ish, in 1999, which was met with resounding success. At its peak, it had a distribution of 10,000 copies worldwide. She then moved to work at publishing company Page One from 2002 to 2009, and also ventured into the food and beverage line by opening bar and gallery Night & Day and a cafe and bar 15 minutes. Both served to promote the work of young artists and musicians.

It was while producing books and magazines at The Press Room that she made the crossover into a new field: exhibition design projects that involved creating multi-sensory elements that would bring a physical space to life.

"To find a way to tell a story visually, I started to dabble in unfamiliar [to me] mediums such as film, projection, digital parallel space, and even augmented reality. These were all very fascinating, I was like a kid in a candy store," she recalls.

Quickly, her desire to learn about their technical aspects grew and she went online to discover the tools and techniques needed to carry out the work.

Ms Cheng at Proportion & Emotion, an exhibition showcasing her illustrious 20-year career - a personal milestone for her. PHOTO: KELLEY CHENG

A milestone moment of her 20-year career was when DesignSingapore Council approached her to hold an exhibition of her works in 2019. She curated 20 projects that showcased the multidisciplinary nature of her work and they were displayed in a month-long exhibition called Proportion and Emotion at the National Design Centre in December 2019.

Exchanging knowledge across generations

Apart from reading extensively and watching a lot of movies to expand her visual vocabulary, Ms Cheng pays it forward as a part-time lecturer at LaSalle College of the Arts and NUS' School of Design and Environment.

This also gives her a break now and then from her practice, where fulfilling design briefs and client requests can sometimes limit her creative boundaries.

Ms Cheng enjoys imparting her skills and knowledge to the younger generation - an experience, she says, is a two-way street.

"Through their eyes and minds, I experience new perspectives and see new things. So I really enjoy teaching as it is an exchange of information and knowledge between generations," she explains, adding that she welcomes interns and fresh graduates to her company each year, to give them the practical experience to build their portfolios.

One of Ms Cheng's favourite projects was for the Singapore Writers' Festival in 2014. PHOTO: KELLEY CHENG

An inspiration to her industry peers

Today, her continuous zest for learning and contribution to the industry have caught the attention of DesignSingapore Council, which nominated her as one of 18 SkillsFuture Fellowships 2020 recipients.

The Award recognises professionals who demonstrate a strong commitment to achieve skills mastery in their field and who contribute to developing the skills of others. Awardees receive $10,000 to further their skills through courses of their choice.

As technologies evolve, she believes it is important for designers to deepen their skills to be experts in their specialisation, or broaden their skills so they have more options.

She intends to use her SkillsFuture Fellowships prize money to pursue filmmaking or take a course in publishing leadership. She adds: "The most important thing about learning is to do it for yourself; whether you use it or not, you will enjoy the journey."

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