What does the small design office of the future look like? If you visited my first office — like just about everybody else’s in the ’90s — you’d see half a dozen designers working at individual desks on drafting boards with T-square and triangle, sketching in pencil or marker on tissue, inking logo designs, or pasting repro proofs and photostats of images on illustration board. On the walls and pin-up boards and shelves were samples of the firm’s prized products: print materials.
Of course, over the past two decades, things changed dramatically. Now, most studios are open-plan spaces with long tables shared by several designers, all working on iMacs.
At Foreign Policy Design Group in Singapore (standing l-r), partners Yah-Leng Yu, creative director, and Elita Ong, architect.
But the products today might be more or less the same: logo designs, posters, brochures — marketing materials printed on paper. Although most small design firms have expanded into web design and packaging or signage, the bread-and-butter is most likely branding programs. But there’s a problem: every day, the world thinks it needs us less and less. After all, anyone can visit 99designs or fivrr or download an app like “LogoShop,” click on the samples he or she likes best, chose a few colors, enter their company name, and answer a few questions about what they do. Voilà, in a minute or two a selection of fairly bland, generic, but somewhat decent logos appears — none with much relation to what the business does — but they might be “good enough.” Especially at the price: free or very cheap.
Sure, an app can’t come up with smart, witty ideas. But with the exception of the projects done by the international design firms trusted by blue-chip corporations, free or cheap brand design is becoming more the norm that the exception. Alas, many small graphic design firms have found themselves with significantly lower income and have been forced to downsize.
But not these guys.
The third partner at Foreign Policy is business partner Arthur Chin, here with Yu and Ong.
Foreign Policy Design Group, a 12-person firm in Singapore, has expanded its capabilities well beyond what most small graphic design firms offer. Growing and thriving, they recently moved into spacious new loft-office space. They’re in demand by retail and restaurant clients because architecture is a major part of the mix. When it comes to branding, they provide clients with the whole deal: branding, website, print collateral, point-of-sale items like menus and packaging, and design of exterior signage and interior spaces.
Having designed their own space down to the last functional and aesthetic detail, as well as the interiors of many of their clients, Foreign Policy is the paradigm of the small graphic design firm of the future, today.
The firm’s portfolio of printed matter includes work for museums and banks, photographers and artists, retailers, and restaurants (Singapore being a city where everyone’s favorite pastimes are shopping and eating). The work is strategic, thoughtful, smart, and literate. The production value is uniformly high; they use the best paper and printing tools. In competitive, design-conscious Singapore, clients value innovation and quality as much as designers do. “Our clients want to be fabulous and not restrict the possibilities,” points out Yu, Foreign Policy’s founding partner and creative director.
Foreign Policy also publishes its own monograph series, Critical Mass, an exploration of experimental typography and audience engagement. The content includes opinion pieces on branding, essays on social, environmental and social issues, and interviews with boldface names like leading fashion designers.
The print run of 1,000 copies is sold online and to a connected local audience.
New Space, New Life
Formerly a hardware and lighting fixtures warehouse, the new space occupies the third floor of a building in the up-and-coming “Lavender” neighborhood of Singapore, surrounded by blocks filled with plumbing and electrical parts shops and dotted with interesting restaurants and clubs. “We love it here.The neighborhood is fun and not super-gentrified yet,” Yu says.
A Singapore native, Yu is a graduate of the Art Institute of Boston. She freelanced for several years at top studios in Los Angeles and New York before returning to bring all of that experience to her hometown. Her self-appointed title is “Ambassador of Design,” which sums up her passion for her work and the industry.
Every inch of the new space is designed: the birch-plywood cabinetry, the long work tables and conference table stained a rich lavender-blue. It was designed by Elita Ong, the in-house architect, and built by their downstairs neighbor (and client) Roger & Sons.
Roger & Sons had been a client for more than five years before they let Yu know that the space two floors above them was becoming available. Foreign Policy had designed their logo and the neat-as-a-pin carpentry workshop, which feels more like a gallery of carefully curated objects than a contractor’s shop. Of course, no one but Roger & Songs would be selected to craft their designers’ new space, which has a similar, blonde-wood aesthetic to its own.
Details and Dumplings
The yummy brand identity has a candy-colored, comic-book aesthetic personified by stylized line drawings of dumpling-filled environments and by “Jo,” a plump little-girl icon who climbs on a pig (pork being the main ingredient of many dumplings). She flies from a dumpling parachute, stacks dumplings into a tower, and lounges on a chaise while enjoying beverages from the cocktail menu. All charmingly drawn and animated by Foreign Policy’s staff illustrator-designers.