Design — Jackson Tan, Black

“I was inspired by my childhood memories of going to the zoo and playing in animal-themed playgrounds,” says Jackson Tan, as he jumps on one of his newest creations, a giant cartoon coral reef inflatable. It’s part of Art Zoo, an immersive artistic installation commissioned by the government for the i Light Marina Bay, an annual festival featuring sustainable light-based art works and installations around Singapore’s southern waterfront.

To say this homegrown multidisciplinary designer has helped shaped Singapore’s visual identity is not an understatement. Three years ago, Tan created the “SG50” logo that could be seen everywhere on the island as the nation celebrated its 50-year jubilee. The clean design features “SG50” set against a red dot, a cheeky moniker for the tiny island-state that is Singapore.

While Tan chose the Gotham typeface for the logo, it was fonts with names like Acid Queen that gave him his start in the design industry. The year was 1994, the internet was new and it opened a whole new world to the young aspiring designer. Inspired by magazines like Andy Warhol’s Interview and David Carson’s Ray Gun, Tan and his friends experimented with their own fonts, sending their creations to the typeface-design studio co-founded by Carson, GarageFonts, which licensed them. “We didn’t have real clients, we just loved designing,” he remembers.

In 2003, he founded his own creative agency, Black. Over the years, Tan has witnessed the growing sophistication of his country’s design scene. “Previous generations thought of design as a service, but now we’re thinking of design beyond commercial purposes and as a force that shapes culture and identity,” he says, crediting the establishment of DesignSingapore, a government organization that awards grants to design-led initiatives and companies, for this change. “Singaporeans are confident to tell the stories of Singapore to the rest of the world.”

He’s also come to appreciate the cultural and ethnic diversity that sets Singapore apart as a design hub and as a place to launch a design business in Asia. Alongside the three main races in Singapore — Chinese, Malays and Indians — nearly one in three people in the country was born elsewhere. “What’s unique about Singaporeans, one that I didn’t realize until recently, is that we can plug into any single culture, anywhere,” he says, adding that many businesses have their regional headquarters in the city. “It’s a good place to launch projects that reach diverse audiences.” After a successful rollout last year, Tan introduced Art Zoo to Taiwan, much to the delight of kids and adults alike.

In brief:
Singapore’s diverse blend of cultures, global outlook and position as regional business hub provide the conditions for design businesses to thrive in Asia.

Industry diary:
Singapore Design Week
Held in March annually

Thought leaders from the design, business and public policy worlds gather to spark ideas to address the key issues facing society.

After DesignSingapore was set up, Singapore started to focus on design as more than a support for manufacturing. There is now more funding for projects that use design as a force that shapes culture and identity.