David Blecken
Feb 7, 2017

Theseus Chan: Singapore design pioneer in conversation in Tokyo

One of Singapore's most acclaimed graphic designers shared work highlights and working principles in a session presented in Tokyo by D&AD.

Last week, D&AD hosted its first ‘Pop Up Tokyo’, a design-focused workshop spread over three days. The event concluded with an interview with Theseus Chan, a renowned Singaporean graphic designer and print enthusiast. Here, we highlight some of his experience and observations that we believe are applicable across the commercial creative spectrum.

Jim Sutherland (L) and Theseus Chan in Shibuya, Tokyo

Some may know Chan as the illustrator of the infamous Official Guide to the Sarong Party Girl, a book co-produced back in the 90s with the advertising creative Jim Aitchison, which can be seen as a decidedly alternative contribution to Singapore’s history records. However, this interview, led by UK designer Jim Sutherland, concentrated on Chan’s long-running labour-of-love, Werk Magazine (see gallery), which is published on average once a year and is now up to issue 24. While the publication can hardly be called a commercial endeavour, Chan also operates Work, a studio that has worked with brands such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Shiseido and Comme des Garcons. Here are some key tenets that Chan has applied to his creative process over the years:

Judge a person by their work. Chan counts himself lucky to have worked with the German publisher Gerhard Steidl, who called him up out of the blue and offered to work on a magazine together after Chan had given him a series of work samples months earlier. Steidl didn’t know Chan, but liked the look of his work. In the same way, Chan has surprised young aspiring artists such as Masaho Anotani by readily opening the door to them. His decision to collaborate with someone is based on one thing: “I think the work speaks for itself,” he said. “I look purely at the work. I’m not distracted by whether the person is famous or powerful.”

Explain your thinking and stick to your principles. A central idea of Werk Magazine is that each edition is unique and should become distinct to its owner over time. Once, Chan produced an issue with the artist Keiichi Tanaami. The entire book was illustrated using crayon, graphite and pastel, which left a residue on the reader. Tanaami was initially against the idea for fear of staining people’s clothes, but accepted it when Chan explained the interaction and smudges would result in a book that was entirely the reader’s. “He understood and I think he liked me a bit more after that,” Chan said.

Trust professionals and let them do their thing. Lots of hands invariably touch a commercial project. Some are valid, but many stifle the creative process. Chan tries to free things up by making a point of trying not to interfere with photographers. He prefers to use their work “as it is without art directing too much; to use it as pure as I can”. In an example from the client side, Louis Vuitton showed admirable restraint in a project with Chan and the artist Yayoi Kusama, where its products ended up being hidden by Kusama’s trademark dots. Chan welcomes non-prescriptive clients but tries to avoid taking on work if he feels a “negative vibe” in a meeting. But in taking that approach, one has to be realistic: “That’s why I’m not a rich man,” he said.

Limit your resources. Being the personal project that it is, Werk Magazine is not a big-budget production, but the results are highly original. Similarly, Chan finds restricting his resources can spur more creative commercial work. “The trick to creativity is to use as little things as possible,” he said. “People say ‘if I had this, I’d be better,’ but my methodology is to work with whatever I have. If you can do something with limited things economically then you will be a successful designer. I like to put myself in a very tight box when I work.”

The best work has details that are “off”. For Chan, every interesting piece of art has something about it that “isn’t quite right”. Incongruity can work just as well for brands. In many sectors, people have come to expect a certain formula. By working against that, you stand to grab attention. One piece of work for Hermes, for example, featured animals such as bears, ostriches and dolphins making the rounds of Singapore.

And finally: avoid casting yourself in a certain way. Chan said that after years of experimentation, he is currently struggling to find a new avenue to pursue. His aim, he says, is to put himself in a position “where I might be doing something terrible”. If it feels unfamiliar and difficult, at least the result shouldn’t be boring.

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