His name alone bears the mark of a formidable presence, and rightfully so. But the Godfather of Singapore graphic design will have you know that titles are just, well, titles. If anything, they’re more for our sake than his.
A Godfather invokes awe and reverence, and in Theseus Chan’s case, a term of endearment that has been carefully accorded by his peers and the best in the industry. His creative studio, WORK, and self-published magazine, WERK, have earned him a reputation that most can only dream about: multiple awards from D&AD, New York Art Directors Club and Tokyo Type Directors Club; a seat in the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale; collaborations with Colette, Comme Des Garçons, Gerhard Steidl… just to name a few. We spoke with the eminent designer about breaking the boundaries of our comfort zone, celebrating failure and transmuting divine inspiration into tangible work.
Many people look up to you and ask you questions all the time. Has there ever been a point where you don’t have an answer for their questions?
It all depends on what is asked of me. Obviously with 30+ years of experience, you have quite a big bang to cover on how to find ideas, diffuse situations, or find a solution to some of these problems. In terms of the discipline of design, I could say that you need to be sensitive about certain things like the crafting of your work or specific disciplines like typography. I mean, you can teach those things. But not everything has to have a definitive answer.
Sometimes people ask you not because they want an answer. I think behind their question, they want to see how you feel when you encounter difficult situations and how you would handle that. Obviously there are benefits when someone goes through certain rigors and makes the decision themselves. More often than not I would say, “What do you think? Do you think this is good? Is this good for you? Is this good enough?” I prefer that people make their decisions that way. It’s always easier and more comforting when you ask a senior person and you get approval. Then you feel, “Oh, I’ve done my bit.” But that’s always the shortcut and you don’t actually learn that much. That is only me, you see. What happens if it’s beyond me? Then I only form that limitation for you. So sometimes it depends.
Where do you retreat to in moments of tiredness or doubt?
It’s good to have your own quiet time where you reflect on things and I always feel refreshed when I go for like a two-hour skate. I feel much better because it clears up my head. But, you see, because I’m also a Christian, I have that opportunity to put these worries and burdens that I have into the hands of God. So I think that liberates me from a lot of these so called worldly affairs. Even though you’re a Christian, the impact is not going to be different from anybody who is a non-believer; but because you have that wisdom and perspective, you have a helping hand and you can leave your problems with God. So it’s that question of faith now, right?
I think most people think that everything that they do is of their own effort and ingenuity through their own strength and mind. That’s one way of looking at it; I cannot comment on that. What worked for me is that these are not entirely my efforts.
I’m sharing this with you because it’s the truth for me. I’ve experienced it for myself. It’s difficult to put it in the context where people think they can solve everything by themselves. I think the problem with the industry right now is that everything becomes very self-serving. What do people actually chase for in terms of rewards or recognition? There’s only so much of it and there will never be enough to sedate your cravings or affirmations from people. I think most people think that everything that they do is of their own effort and ingenuity through their own strength and mind. That’s one way of looking at it; I cannot comment on that. What worked for me is that these are not entirely my efforts. I think the inspiration, how I get my work done and to process the work that I do, sometimes I would say it’s divine intervention.
Do you see your knack for design as something that’s God-given?
I think inspiration and everything basically comes from above. Gerhard Steidl actually drew this for me. This is how he structured his office in Germany: on the top, it’s almost like an attic. There’s a library where they have a lot of books and everyone who works with him will go there. He said that ideas come from heaven and if everyone of us is sitting at the library and we’re looking at things and get inspired and all that, once you have that inspiration, there’s the next floor that goes down which is book design. While doing book design, you do all the mechanical things like image creation and then you print and send them out. So that’s Steidl’s analogy. This is a sketch, but he made it into a proper drawing and put it in his office. His office is structured in such a logical way. Once you have the inspiration of ideas, you design your book; when you design your book, you do the mechanics of the book and then you print and ship them out.
So how’s your office designed?
My office is linear. It’s flat because it’s too small. (laughs)
You work with a lot of young designers. What kind of challenges crop up for them?
The younger generation needs to understand that you need time. You need to be patient with yourself and persevere in order to achieve what you want. It’s not like a phone that you can get straightaway. Just like athletics, there are skills that you have to train yourself for. You have to use your brain muscle and train it, and the more you use that, the better it becomes. You have to be able to handle setbacks or things that don’t live up to what you expect them to be. Perseverance is of course important, but I think also learning from the process of it.
How can designers work around their limitations?
I think the creative person must be able to navigate whatever obstacle is in their path. It means to say that rather than say this is what I lack, or this is what I wish I have or made, I’d rather think that this is what I really have — so what can I do with them to make something extraordinary? It’s quite a well-known working philosophy here [at WORK]. You’ve seen that kind of program where the chef goes up to someone’s fridge and whips up something extraordinary? In theory, I work in the same sort of manner with very little things. Sometimes with very little time or resources, and I try to do something extraordinary with it. I’ve always felt that this is the challenge of the creative person. 10 years into my career, someone — a guru guy — came to tell me that I have a very economical sense of working. You don’t need a lot to make something extraordinary. And the more I think about it, I think it’s true because the litmus test would be for someone to make something so extraordinary with very little things. So I guess I would tell myself that and I share that with most people as well.
Do young people these days want instantaneous results?
Yeah, but I think it’s not entirely of their making. I feel that the world sort of demands and recognises only the results of things, especially in Singapore where we are very statistic-centric. We have to have some amount of money so you’ll be known as a successful company or achieve some sort of education status to climb that scholastic ladder. All these are very tangible things, but we don’t actually pay recognition to people who embark on the journey and fail spectacularly. Generally the world only recognises [success], and that in some way forms this impression to people that you’re not considered a success if you’re not like that. That is how the world has painted this picture.
We don’t actually pay recognition to people who embark on the journey and fail spectacularly. Generally the world only recognises [success], and that in some way forms this impression to people that you’re not considered a success if you’re not like that.
I would say that the younger generation is a unique generation. I think by and large, majority of the people here in Singapore have a decent education and standard of living. We’re mostly bilingual and because of our language, we can interface a lot of things and absorb the world around us. This generation has quite a lot of fundamental things that would allow them to get ahead. But the difference is that we’re not there emotionally. That’s the discrepancy. Emotionally, we don’t have that confidence. We always feel that lack, that it’s not good enough. So that is contradictory, I feel.
How can that be cultivated?
I guess it’s how we see and measure ourselves up. Sometimes you see parents being overly anxious and kan cheong with their children. I get that sometimes it’s because they fear that they will fail. But my kind of thinking is that failure is really the genesis of quite a lot of things, and I’ve used failure many times to make new things. What is considered a failure is actually the inverse of something really successful. Maybe it’s our definition and we’re not really supportive of people who fail. It is quite unfortunate that we don’t have the confidence to celebrate that.
What are some of these failures that you speak of?
You know in design, there’s a certain mindset where you need this to be perfect. Yeah, I think there are certain things that have to be that. In the earlier issues of [WERK] magazine, I tried to do it with that mindset as a designer. But later on I encountered a way that totally liberated me from that. It’s almost like it’s given me an entirely new mind in which I approach my work. I realise that there is actually beauty in a lot of things that are not perfect, and therefore I am able to work with things right now that have this notion of imperfection in them.
There are actually no rules to how a lot of these things should be done. It’s because someone has already put this, and then you put your measure. But in order to make new things, I have to break away from that sort of benchmarking and start something from within.
What changed for you?
It was just sort of that thing — inspiration from heaven. Like, why should it be that way? That’s because that’s how the world sees it and how the majority of the people who are practitioners of this see it. I’m starting to view things in that sort of manner and it’s given me a lot more ways to express myself. There are actually no rules to how a lot of these things should be done. It’s because someone has already put this, and then you put your measure. But in order to make new things, I have to break away from that sort of benchmarking and start something from within.
There’s a lot of movement in terms of your creative energy, whereas your personal life feels very calm.
Super normal. It’s not a complex life like some people have. But in my work, I’m always looking for a riot. I think deep in me, there’s always this rebel questioning why it can’t be that way. That’s why I always go for the common man who is striving. I can empathise with them more. Recently there’s this masses and elite thing, I don’t know, I don’t dig it that much actually. If anything, I’m a political folk singer rather than a super sleek rockstar. I love it when I do something for [my clients] that is totally beyond their expectations — something that pushes them to think that this is almost preposterous, ridiculous, impossible. My motivation and aim is to try to get into that space and challenge them. If I can get to that, then I think I have reached a certain degree of success in terms of getting the job done.
Has this always been in you since you were young?
I would think so, yeah. I always wanted to somehow challenge the status quo. Obviously in the Singaporean format, this was totally bad behaviour when I was in school. Totally uncontrollable and mischievous. People will look at it that way, and yeah, who would want a person who is constantly that? But rather than having that as a destructive thing, I feel that this way of thinking can be constructive. You can channel it into artistic roles or design roles. I think these are important characteristics for artistic or creative people.
I think deep in me, there’s always this rebel questioning why it can’t be that way. That’s why I always go for the common man who is striving. I can empathise with them more. If anything, I’m a political folk singer rather than a super sleek rockstar.
You’ve mentioned that your biggest fear is mediocrity. Is it still the same now?
In the context of my work, my greatest fear is that I didn’t do a good job for my clients who have that confidence in me to do it — that I didn’t live up to their expectations. That bothers me a lot, actually. When I mentioned that I wanted to give someone an idea that they would never expect or find almost ridiculous, I know from my gut feeling that this is new and will garner a reaction. Like how some Japanese media put it, I sort of overturned the expectation of design for printed matter and all that. In a commercial context, sometimes you need to know that your clients are ready to be able to accept what you give them and if they’re not ready for it, it’s very difficult to convince them. I know that I’m giving them the best of what I know and have seen. But because they’re not in that space yet, I have to give little baby steps so that you can get [there]. But occasionally we might not even have the time to do that.
And that makes you feel like you did a bad job?
It’s a little bit discouraging, I would say. It’s like, “Oh man, shit, what should I do?” Did I overdo it? How do I make them happy? How do I convince them? Sometimes you tell them to trust you but they can only trust you so much just by word of mouth, right? How do you convince, how do you make it tangible, how do you make it into something that they can understand?
Has it ever come down to a point where you had to scrap the whole idea because they didn’t understand your point of view?
Yeah, of course. If you do that on a repeated routine, it’s very draining. I recently presented something and it was rejected at first. But the other day when I met them again, they said oh yeah, I think the first version is still the best. You see, this is what happens when you try to make the new. When you create new things, it is out of your comfort zone. It’s not something that you’ve seen, experienced, or felt before. So your emotions are going to be mixed when you see it. New things are totally foreign and uncomfortable to you. But when everything settles down and you start to see with different eyes, you’re starting to see that you’ve gone up a notch. So it’s the same thing as embracing the imperfections, the destruction, the things that are not perfectly made, or not having an idea. But you use your process as a form of a journey towards an idea. I do have people or clients who totally trust me on that and I can work very quickly, intuitively and spontaneously. But when you have to labor over explanations, I think that is the part of the job that most creative people loathe.
How do you convince, how do you make it tangible, how do you make it into something that they can understand?
[Persuasion] is a very difficult skill to learn.
It’s very, very difficult and not everybody will want to see it that way with you. If I gave you whatever you more or less expected, you are only most of the time influenced by your own experience and judgment. That is your benchmark because anything beyond that would be out of your comfort zone. So in order for us to progress, you have to take that leap of faith, of doing something totally out of your comfort zone. Even in my own personal work, I’m trying to approach it in a way where I might have to be uncomfortable with it myself. Because if I were to be comfortable, I’m constantly regurgitating my own standards. Then how do I grow personally? That is in some ways a scary thing because I could be a complete lunatic. Where is my benchmark? When do I censor myself? I don’t really have an answer to that, but I think it’s a balance of both things. It’s a bit like that rapture moment where I think I can do that imperfection thing, you know. Then I think that oh yeah, maybe I’ve moved. If not I’m constantly within this realm of my own markers.
What defines someone of your stature?
I think my humility comes through wisdom. I think it is very important to be humble and to know that it is not entirely you. Humility keeps your feet on the ground and it gives you a perspective. That’s why even after all these, whatever names they call, the Godfather or whatever — I only take it with a pinch of salt. It doesn’t get to me. Yeah, it’s nice [when people say your work is good], but I don’t think it balloons my head or makes me feel like hey, I’m a rockstar or something. Maybe I want to be a rockstar, but I want to be a rockstar to be able to reach out to my audience as well. Man is [mostly defined] by his work, right? But I think it’s more important to have your life to define you as opposed to just purely your work. I think the way you lead your life is important for people who look to you. How you live your life, whether it is a life that you live with humility or purpose, and how the people around you are affected — I think those are important.
Photographs and images courtesy of Theseus Chan