Designer's Insight — James Teo


Interviewed by Yanda Tan

Today we speak to James Teo, founder and creative director of Ampulets from Singapore.

Yanda: Tell us about yourself and what you do.

James: I am a graphic designer with a soft spot for simple, beautiful things.

What do you do first when you get up in the morning?

Cook oatmeal. A good breakfast is a good start to a day. Men can’t think well on an empty stomach.

What daily routines you cannot do without?

Read a little, check facebook and instagram to keep in touch with friends and what’s happening around. Maybe not daily, but a few days in a week, I run. Running is the best time to crack design briefs! 

How would you describe your work in three words?

Considered, inviting, functional.

When did you first get involved in the design?

As a kid, I used help out in a music cassette stall near my parent’s place, and I always marveled at the design of the tape covers. I would stack my own collection up nicely in a six-million-dollar-man plastic “briefcase” and haul it to and fro the shop. Occasionally, I would take them out to admire the album cover design, listen to the music and try to recreate the design or sketch portraits of the singers in my notebook. It’s a habit. These days, I still go to record/CD shops (the very few that are left) and book stores to look at the covers.  

When I started working, my jobs were in marketing and marketing communications. So I was constantly working as a client with design studios and advertising agencies. And after some 8 years, I figured what I really wanted was to be on the other side of the table and re-live my childhood fantasy of making artwork for the album/ book covers!

Do you think personal work and collaboration is important?

Personal work are like personal challenges. It challenges you to dare to materialise something you have in your mind, to test how far your ideas can take you, and your ability to complete it without clients and deadlines breathing down your neck. I think it teaches you to trust your own instinct and judgement.

I love collaborations, especially with the right person or group. Wonderful things can be done when like-minded folks get together . By likeminded I don’t mean thay we all think the same, but more like having the same values and attitude – so that we ultimately know we are going for the same destination even if our methods are different.

If you have a chance to own someone’s work and wish it was yours, what would it be and why?

The entire set of original posters created by Michael Bierut for Yale University since 1998. I have always been a believer of how design should evolve between one designer and one client for a long period of time. Almost like a marriage.

Who do you dream to design for?

My dream project is to design all the signboards in the Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Market. Ha.


What’s your definition of happiness?

Balance. I think it is important for one to have balance in his/ her life – a balance of family, work and leisure. I think happiness is also not about extreme highs and lows, but achieving a certain constant in life. Just like running. For me, a good run is about keeping a steady pace throughout the run.

What makes you guilty?

Spending too much money on books, music, clothes – all the vain things in life.

How do you set your benchmarks?

My wife has always been my sounding board. Being a one-man design studio, her views and feedback on my work is very valuable. And for all work, I must be able to say to myself and clients that I have done my very best to produce quality work. So i don’t really have an external benchmark per se. 

How do you keep educating yourself?

Reading books and magazines. Listening to other people. Attending talks. Looking at art exhibitions. Observing nature, things and people around me.

What place in the world most inspires you and why?

Tokyo and Taipei/Taiwan. Both are cities, but there’s a good balance of old and new. The new makes you curious, but the old gives you comfort. And there’s a balance between the urban and nature – nature is always just a short train ride away. Balance is important.  

What are the three things you are obsessed with at the moment?

Old Vinyls. How clothes are cut. Interesting looking plants. All somewhat vain things!  

What do you do when you get time off?

Spend time with my wife. 

What if you had an extra hour each day, what would you do with it?

Anything but work. Spend it with my wife! 


What do you think about the education in Singapore? And if it were to compare to other countries?

I wish there’s more avenues and support for older folks to learn. There’s a sense that education in Singapore is always instrumental, like for the purpose of getting a job or more money, prepping a young person to join the workforce. I don’t know much about the education system or environment in other countries, but I think there can definitely be a greater belief in the intrinsic and humanistic value of education – the joy of learning for its own sake, of becoming a better person.

Any heroes? What do you admire about them?

Paul Rand – for his guts
Ito Tanaka, Kenya Hara and Naoto Fukusawa – for giving us Muji!
The Observatory – for their commitment. Local heroes.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t count the small things. But, I sometimes I still do. It is a bad habit since young, growing up in a family that is generally quite thrifty and like fussing with small things.

Can taste be taught or nurtured?

It can be, but I do believe that a key part of it is in-born – a certain aesthetic and visual talent and eye?

What about hunger?

Hunger is influenced by environment and the company we keep.

What is one thing you want to see or do before you die?

Someone – my wife.

Is there something that fans or your friends would be surprised to learn about you?

I have claustrophobia. I don’t like feeling trapped. I hate to sit in cars, crowded trains, and airplanes.

Lastly, if you have a chance to change a public space for the better, what would you do to it?

Make it simple and a joy to use or be in, accessible to all.

About James Teo & Ampulets

James Teo (1972-2019) is the founder and creative director of ampulets 安普樂, a graphic and communications design studio and Neighbourgoods. Their work involved developing visual identities, brands, publications and communications design for clients, such as museums, universities and institutions, government and businesses that range from cafes to corporations.

Since February 2019, ampulets has ceased its design services for clients. They now exist solely for independent art and publishing projects, including projects under their label Neighbourgoods.


Yah-Leng Yu