Twenty-five years ago when the Designers Association of Singapore was formed, the design industry was struggling for recognition. Amongst clients, there was an almost universal belief that their advertising agency could handle logos and annual reports alongside point-of-sale material and TV commercials.

Singaporeans trained overseas in product/industrial design returned to find no job openings and became graphic artists or gave up on design entirely.

Government had its focus in those days in electronics and other light industries. Low-cost manufacturing combined with good quality gave the Republic competitiveness in theworld market.

Design was not seen as an important or serious business.

To its credit, the old Trade Development Board picked up on a proposal by DAS to hold an international design conference in Singapore and even set up a Design Centre in North Bridge Road to display Singapore design. Unfortunately in those days, there was little design to display at the Centre and little interest from the public or industry in the featured local designers.

Dr MiltonTan


Today it is a very different story, thanks to DesignSingapore, which comes under the umbrella of the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts, and its head Dr Milton Tan.

DesignSingapore will come to the completion of its first five-year plan at the end of March 2009. This will signal the introduction of new programmes although successful initiatives like the President’s Design Awards will continue.

Dr Tan had been heading the School of Architecture at the National University of Singapore and was due to take a sabbatical. In fact, he was weeks away from setting off for the USA and MIT.

He recalls that he was burnt out after helping restructure the architectural course, moving it away from the conventional programmes found in most architectural schools at that time. Teaching has been geared to producing a student immediately able to go into an architectural practice. The NUS Architectural School began to broaden its curriculum and students were encouraged not only to design and specify for buildings but added the creation of fittings and even landscaping. They were expected to research more deeply into not only architecture but also related and cultural fields.

By the turn of the millennium, the Government was exploring industries which would serve Singapore best in the coming years and the changing landscape. Dr Tan Chin Nam, then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, has been recently appointed in 2003 to oversee the creative industries and Dr Milton Tan happened to have an invite to a breakfast meeting on this subject at the Tower Club. The result of a brief chat during this occasion was that Dr Milton Tan was seconded from the University and within two months was heading what became DesignSingapore. The new department of MICA was officially formed in August 2003.

Dr Tan’s first task was to write a paper for the Economic Review Committee. This committee was headed by BG Lee Hsien Loong.

According to Dr Milton Tan, Dr Tan Chin Nam felt the Committee was “looking at the same old questions” and the creative industries only made it into the final ERC proposals at the last minute. However, in the end, three promising areas were accepted by the Government: Education, Healthcare and, yes, the Creative Industries.

This latter area comprised of art, media and design. Of the three, design was really the newest category. Obviously, the National Arts Council had already been active. The Film Commission had also been in existence for years and had been integrated into the Media Development Authority.

Dr Tan held the belief that acceptance of design could only come about when it is rooted in the culture of the county. For that reason, DesignSingapore naturally found a home in MICA.

In reviewing the work of DesignSingapore in the past five years, Dr Tan’s vision and guidance becomes clear.

Education and awareness

The Government underestimated the difficulty in convincing industry of the value of design. One of Dr Tan’s first projects was to put together, with the help of NTU and NUS, design case studies to show how design had helped local firms.

Following on from this, his team created a 300-page book on Singapore-based designers and their work. Singapore Edge – Design Culture in Singapore was the first publication from DesignSingapore. This was distributed by the Singapore delegation led by Goh Chok Tong at a London event of the same name. This book impressed Singaporeans as well as foreigners by demonstrating the scope of design work created in the Republic. Dr Tan has continued to track local design companies which win international awards.

In an effort to educate the public and make design appreciation part of the culture on the island, DesignSingapore then launched a brave initiative. In 2006, it unveiled the Ten Touchpoints campaign. For the first time, the public was invited to comment on common objects with which they interacted with daily and comment on the design. This started people thinking about design and how it impacts on their lives daily. People began to complain about the handles in the MRT trains and even the letterboxes.

The campaign attracted an unexpected number of votes – 70,000 in total.

Designers were then invited to provide solutions on some of the ‘touch points’ identified by the public.

Inspiring industry

Design for Enterprises is one of the most recent concepts developed by DesignSingapore partnering with IE Singapore and Spring. Launched in November 2008, the scheme is primarily for SMEs. Design For Enterprises helps firms who are at different stages. Those who have no design experience are introduced to the opportunities via networking sessions, talks and case studies. For companies that can see the need for design assistance in at least part of their business development, the programme offer diagnostic consultancy and even offers grants. The third group are companies who already recognise design as a strategic part of their business.

Dr Tan says design is the core of the business and should be represented at board level.

Team of advisors

Since 2004, DesignSingapore has been tapping into top professionals to get advice on how to develop the design industry in Singapore.

The International Advisory Panel this year included Steve Hayden, Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide; and Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, a pair who gave a brilliant presentation at the World Effies in Singapore in 2008, Christopher Bangle, Director of BMW Group Design; Toyo Itop, top Japanese architect; and Toshiyuki Kita, acclaimed environmental and industrial designer. The Panel is Chaired by Edmund Cheng, Deputy Director, Wing Tai Holdings and Chairman of the National Arts Council.

At the end of last year during their 2-day discussion, the panel members recommended a new programme titled Design Learning. This sits nicely with Dr Tan’s perception of design becoming part of the culture of the society.

The panel recommended that “design learning should be embedded within the core education curricula in Singapore, from pre-school through primary and secondary school and at tertiary level. It also recognised the importance of adult learning.”

“One of the first and most important steps to take is to train the trainers,” said BMW’s Christopher Bangle, “Singapore has access to talent both locally and internationally, and is well-placed to elevate the level of design experience and expertise. This can be achieved by investing in these talents such that they become integral in changing mindsets and shaping the curricula from kindergarten to post-graduate levels”.

The International Advisory Panel also strongly recommended the creation of a design knowledge gallery to act as an incubator and exchange platform for new thinking, ideas and concepts that will be available for all. It is conceived that there will be a physical and virtual collection of presentations, prototypes and technologies and new design thinking. It has been suggested that Singapore’s new university could become a location for this gallery.

The President’s Design Awards

The annual President’s Design Awards, an initiative by DesignSingapore three years ago, has done much to legitimise the craft in the public’s mind as well as industry. This year’s awards are reported elsewhere in this issue of AdAsia. One can sense the organisers feeling their way in terms of what disciplines should or can be recognised. By the 2008 presentations, there was more confidence. Having the President of the Republic putting his name to this annual event was a master stroke.

Financial help

There has been much publicity surrounding the financial aid and investment by Media Development Authority for the feature and documentary filmmakers. However, the design industry has not overlooked. Under the Design Capability Development Programme, there are grants to provide financial support to designers seeking overseas exposure through internships, attachments, workshops and school exchanges. Beyond this, there is assistance for individuals to develop professional skills and design knowledge by attending short-term seminars, course and workshops as well as financial help to bring in renown or established designers or trainers to conduct in-house training for designers.

There is also an Industry Association Development Grant where associations get 50% of the cost of organising an event. The Singapore 4As, for example, were assisted when they sent a few student teams to the International Advertising Festival in Cannes.

The Singapore Design Festival

From 20th-30th November, DesignSingapore will be holding the biennial Singapore Design Festival. Once again, here is an event aimed at heightening awareness. The best of Singapore design will be on display and will include not only the President’s Design Award winners but also the ad industry’s Singapore Creative Circle Award winners. There will be various events which will encourage networking such as conferences, workshops and exhibitions. It is expected that over 100,000 people will be involved.


From our review, it is clear that Dr Milton Tan and his team, with full support from MICA, are doing their utmost to make up for lost time. The design industry, small local groups, international design firms and individual designers can expect to gain from these many initiatives in the coming years. Singapore has the talent, home-grown and imported, and through the efforts of DesignSingapore, we should find more partners in manufacturing and the service sectors not only within the Republic but internationally.