Designer's Insight — Theseus Chan
Interview by Shannon Elizabeth Wee
Photography by Jacqueline Chang and Jovian Lim
This is an excerpt from The Design Society Paper Issue Nº0, you can also buy this here.
Many of us know him for his reputation as the Godfather of Design, recognised by countless international design awards as one of the mostin uential individuals in our creative scene. But how much do we actually know about Theseus Chan’s WORK ? This was the question on our minds when we sat down for an afternoon chat at WORK—to find out more about the studio, where it’s been, how it has achieved its success, and what makes it work.
A lot of coverage we’ve seen over the years on you has concentrated on WERK magazine, your career and the creative topics of your projects. We don’t know the story of how you set up WORK, the studio, which is still thriving today—accumulating its body of work and list of impressive clients, yet staying relevant and inspiring the new generation of creative businesses.
Thank you. I knew that if we were to be consistent with the work to ensure that it was good, it would speak for itself and someone would discover it eventually. We started in 1997, 19 years ago. From the beginning, I wasn’t interested in publicity—for example, we did not update our first website for many years after Benjy Choo set it up for us—but don’t get me wrong; I’m not averse to it either. Understandably, people would be curious to know what we get up to here. I wouldn’t mind sharing if someone asked; there are no secrets.
Let’s rewind to 19 years ago—what are your memories of WORK’s beginnings in 1997?
We started with just the three of us. My brother-in-law, Wee Khin, handled the business, and Heman Chong was the first official designer to join us. He had just graduated from art school and I thought his work was very good. Later on, a copywriter called Kevin Pang joined us as well. I still have that name card with our four names on it.
Initially when we first started, I had it all in my head that the company would be formed with all these people—someone to do trafficking, another to handle clients; a typical agency formation—but I quickly realised that I could not afford that. Hence, everyone ended up multitasking. This culture became our modus operandi and has continued till today.
Our first office was a refurbished Chinatown shophouse on Pagoda Street. It was just an empty shell on the third floor. We filled it with red coffee shop plastic chairs and foldaway tables initially. We’d have suppliers coming in to collect files who were a bit nervous, wondering if we would be able to pay them.
For one of our first projects, we were lucky to be involved in a project with the architects of Eco-Id. It was in collaboration with G.S. Gill to develop the Reebok Concept Shop at Suntec City. Calvin and Boon Yang completed the architecture and space design, while the four of us worked on the packaging, video programming, and graphics. There was also a series of TV interstitial programs for i-Weekly magazine and 8 Days magazine, followed by a short film with Eric Khoo for Singtel.
What other projects did you work on in the early days of WORK?
I should share something that I’ve never really spoken about. I started as a Visualiser [Editor’s note: a Visualiser is a concept artist in agencies who assists art directors in coming up with ideas and storyboards to present to clients] in my agency days, before I set up WORK. I’m not sure if this job scope still exists. From the very start of my career, I had always wanted to do things differently. At that time, design was considered advertising’s poor cousin. Design departments were typically handling below-the-line work, something no respectable Art Director wanted to touch. As a Visualiser, I was given a chance to do something—the Classified Ads. That was interesting for me because the Classified Ads were considered the most lowly, underdog assignment, similar to retail ads. The bottom of the bottom of below-the-line work. No decent creative would touch it. It was a fun exercise because I gave myself the challenge to change the way Classified Ads were typically designed. I tried my best to work within those constraints: exploring the long columns, the limited word-counts...
Fast forward to the early days of WORK—aside from the Reebok project, we were also introduced to TANGS. During that time, retail ads were considered second-rate work to do, too. You would only want to work on corporate accounts, the Army, the Air Force, beer commercials, or banks. When we were introduced to TANGS, I was excited at the prospect of exploring another way to tackle print adverts for sales. That was the beginning of our relationship with TANGS.
Are there any similarities with how you run your studio today, compared to back then?
There’s a certain way I want things to be done that hasn’t changed since then, which is to uphold a high standard of quality in everything that we embark on. I have always expected a high degree of pride from us when it comes to work—to have passion, precision, and professionalism in the way we conduct ourselves daily; the way we approach things and think; and in how disciplined we are. Naturally, I look for this from suppliers and partners too. I can be extremely particular about the way boxes are packed, let alone taped up. I want it to be precisely 45 degrees, so printers might think I’m mad, but it is normal to me. That describes the bedrock of how I have wanted things to be done from day one and it hasn’t changed since then.
Some might find this challenging and quickly conclude it as standards that are too difficult to attain, but I feel this is the only way we can improve collectively as a community.
WORKING AT WORK
With such high expectations, what is the environment like at WORK?
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone here that we all feel motivated to do the very best that we can. There’s a serious responsibility to the work that we each undertake at the studio.
We purposefully do not foster a type of environment that breeds self-doubt and big egos. The creative world tends to fuel a lot of insecurity and create unhealthy competitiveness. I strongly believe that if you’re good at what you do, there’s no need to feel insecure. Insecurity manifests in different ways, and most of the time it’s unhealthy. Everyone here should feel good and confident coming to work.
With your busy travelling schedule, how do you keep an eye on the quality of work that the studio churns out?
We have weekly progress meetings to keep everyone updated on the status of work at hand. I still keep my eye on every project that comes in. That’s my job and I, too, want to do my job well. Whatever applies to them, applies to me too. We’re all sitting at the same table made from the same material. No one here is any more special than the other, regardless of experience, age, gender, or ability.
Have all the accolades you’ve accumulated ever affected the work?
The awards and recognition I’ve gotten are good for the studio, no doubt, but they’re not the most important things to me. They are just the by-product of the work that we’ve done, and perhaps, some small proof that we have done some things right.
“To stay relevant, you have to be consistent in what you do.”
I do think it is necessary to have some sort of profile about yourself, the company, and the work that you do so that people have confidence when they deal with you. It helps when your industry peers regard you as someone who is consistent and with integrity. That is absolutely very healthy, but there’s a line, I feel, that needs to be drawn when it comes to intense self-promotion. Having said this, the most important thing is to work relentlessly and to continue creating things not yet done before. It can be physically and mentally exhausting, but it is fulfilling.
Since you don’t believe in sitting on a pedestal, is it safe to assume that you guys are quite a close- knit team?
Yes, but psychologically, they would still look at me as their “leader”. Over here, we strive to make everyone a leader, yet maintain good teamwork to its biggest advantage. I don’t want to be a boss; I want to be a leader. I work like a leader and here at WORK, everyone is expected to take charge and be a leader on their own as well. Even when we use terminology, we use the word “collective”. Obviously for the bad things, I’ll take the bullet and say I did it. For the good ones, we’ll say we did it as a collective.
How then would you describe the experience someone would take away after working here?
The rewards for the co-workers who work here would be the experience of having gone through the strict quality of work processes and high standards here. Many who have left have expressed that they’ve learnt more than just high quality of work; their experience here has also changed their mindsets and attitudes as well.
MAKING IT WORK
What are your sentiments about the creative industry in Singapore, having been part of it for over 19 years? Do you see a shift in the general perspective of design being the “poorer cousin” of advertising back then compared to what it is today? And how do you feel WORK exists within those intersections?
A lot of businesses and entrepreneurs are starting brands and outfits, enough to go around to give all of us the opportunity to get involved in one way or another. My impression is that the smaller design companies seem to be more in touch with the market, compared to the bigger multinational agencies. Smaller, more independent outfits are more responsive to the fast-moving tides and trends. Maybe the bigger ones have too many layers, clamouring for too many awards. I can’t imagine how someone thrives in an environment where you’re forced to lay a golden egg at will.
On the same note, design is making such big leaps in the industry that even the ways of advertising have changed because of it. Brands are now designed rather than advertised. We discovered our momentum from viewing and thinking separately from the others. From this, we have found our place in the grid.
At WORK, we’re lucky to never need to do pitches, and we try to not let competitiveness get to us. I strongly believe that the industry needs to work together as a community. It benefits everyone and the greater good. If all of us consistently put out good work, over time the world will slowly recognise a society that has the real ability toachieve high standards of work. One individual can kick the door open, but we need a lot more people to keep the standards up.
To stay relevant, you have to be consistent in what you do. The most important thing in a creative business is to obviously have creativity in the work that you do. Good work begets work. But if you don’t have nancial stability or freedom, you might become desperate and compromise, perhaps taking on jobs only to get you a bit of money. I realised that these two parts of my business were integral: creativity and business. One cannot be without the other. You need both thin.
Would you say then that WORK has found its financial stability and freedom?
I think, more important outside of nancial success is good work, which always goes a long way. This is because creativity is a means to business in such an interconnected way that one cannot be without the other. Financial stability ensures that a company can expand on its creative freedom with its two feet strongly planted on con dent grounds. It ensures that its people can continually create.
I don’t think we have a lot of money. There are probably many other agencies that make more. However, I do think that we’re happier. We don’t feel a sense of meaninglessness; everything we do here is real, no speculative work. And we’re democratic: a bigger project does not get more attention over the lesser-paying ones. Everything gets equal attention. We don’t believe in segregation between jobs. There isn’t a mindset that since this is “bread and butter” work, we cannot tackle it in a creative way. Or if a project is “artistic work”, only then can we stretch the boundaries. They are both the same to us.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY
How do you balance your creative integrity with the needs of your client’s?
Generally, I’ve never had my arms up in the air. It’s about giving the brief what it needs, and then a little more. Sometimes you can be very artistic, but that’s not appropriate for the project. There are some jobs that don’t require that sort of progressiveness in design thinking.
For example, with WERK magazine, the aims and perimeters for a project like that are different than from a client’s commissioned job. Our objective for WERK is to search and explore what defines and defies typical notions of what a magazine should be, and to create something refreshingly new.
On the flip side, a branding job for a client has different needs. Hopefully the outcome is still with a bit of a unique twist, but more importantly, the target group needs to be able to understand it. With this clarity in mind about the two types of creative works, we always place the needs of our clients’ assignments as first priority.
Do you ever have difficulty selling an idea to your clients?
The people who appoint you have to also regard you with mutual respect and believe you can actually enhance their business. The best way is to always give your best and do the best work you can for them, and be really honest about your point of view. It’s your responsibility to work around what your client desires and do the best you can even if you do not completely agree with them. Just because we don’t see eye-to-eye does not make it an excuse to “whack it out”. We don’t use words like that at the studio—“just churn it out”—there is no such vocabulary here.
Even in situations where clients might not agree with our ideas, I don’t consider rejection to be a bad thing. Some ideas might seem great to us as creatives, but if the client does not understand it, it challenges us to try another execution. I never take rejections as something personal, as it could spin of to a better idea. More often, we do discover a path that actually works out better. A negative comment is not necessarily bad. If you understand this, you’d never feel like you have to be miserable.
Putting creative work in words can be difficult at times. There are times when it’s hard to express a particular emotion, but approaching it with rational, carefully thought-through articulation will help. Start from the objective, the strategy, and the creative idea, concluding with the proposed execution that best supports the key points.
Is that your secret to having all of this energy and passion for what you do, after all these years?
You could say that. I don’t feel jaded at all, which I think has contributed to my willingness to better understand the people I deal with on a daily basis. I’ve learned to understand how my clients think, which helps me to see what’s important to them without judging.
KNOCKING OFF WORK
After years in the business, how does it feel to tackle new projects whenever a brief comes in?
Honestly, it’s still a struggle for me with every project that comes in. I still struggle to find a new way of tackling the brief, I still struggle to find a better way to do something, I still struggle to up the ante of design.
To a lot of young creatives, you’re considered their design hero. What would be some important business advice that you’d share with them?
I might probably tell them that creative freedom and nancial freedom go hand in hand.
“I never take rejections as something personal, as it could spin off to a better idea.”
It seems like you’ve somehow accumulated all of your life’s experiences to unknowingly create a bag of “entrepreneurial” skill sets which you’ve developed over the years.
One of the more tangible things I’ve learned is something I remember telling myself from young— that one should not be greedy. You should refrain from biting o more than you can chew, and neither should you ever feel poor for not having something. Being contented with what little that you have is important to me, which also ties back to the creative process. I can work with very little. I don’t need a lot before I can create. I am able to work with a blank piece of paper and make something out of it. I believe this applies to business as well. It’s always good to have this or that, but the hugest talent of a creative person is to be able to do something out of nothing, and being able to do work outside of the most ideal conditions. When you are able to achieve that, a strong sense of purposefulness will help you think harder and deeper. This applies to business. There’s always a way out, as it is with creative solutions.
To add on, I find that this also works for me—keep your life simple, so that you can focus all of your energy into creating the best work possible. Keep yourself t, healthy, and positive, so that you can do your job to the best of your ability. Have strong values of resilience, integrity, honour, honesty and love. Understand that our job as designers is to createandinspire.
So your number one business advice is to work with very little.
Yes, and to be as pure as possible when running your company. You have to be really purposeful and clear.
When you do face setbacks, how do you pick yourself up again?
I think of setbacks like break-ups. You feel miserable for a while but you have to manage your expectations and remind yourself that it isn’t necessarily a door closing. A door closes for another to open. It comes back to what I shared about the rejection of your creative ideas—some things happen in order for you to see a way to discover something better.
For many years, WORK’s portfolio has been quite a mystery. You have just released a selected compilation of your portfolio online. What incited that change?
Yes, my co-workers thought it was necessary and we have just launched our new website. The Instagram account was partly set up to show a slice of the work that goes on here before we had a website of our portfolio up.
You have been in this industry for so many years. Has retirement ever crossed your mind?
Retirement is not something I’ve even thought about. This is my life. This is what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. There’s no separation between accomplishing goals and retiring. Family or work, they’re all part of my life, I don’t segregate them. Obviously I’ll try to keep at it until I am no longer able to, be it health or old age.
It’s interesting that within our chat this afternoon, our perspective of you being a creative powerhouse has now expanded to a man who seems to understand himself very well. Is this how you’d like to be remembered as, beyond the work you’ve done?
If there’s anything I can say about myself, it’s probably that I know my place in the world well. I’ve accepted that there are things I cannot do, and yet I know there are things I can do very well. This spurs me constantly on to do the things that I enjoy and can do well, in hopes of making the best out of those attributes and abilities. This keeps me happy, beyond all the work or awards accumulated... knowing my place and doing it well.
About Theseus Chan
Theseus Chan is a Singaporean graphic artist and printed matter designer with a keen interest in the visual arts, materials, printing and processing technology. His publication, WERK Magazine has garnered international acclaim for pushing publication design. He was conferred Designer of the Year at the inaugural President’s Design Award Singapore in 2006 and in 2015, he became the only Singaporean to be elected as member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). Some of his collaborators include Comme des Garçons, Gerhard Steidl and Keiichi Tanaami.