One Small Voice: Theseus Chan

Published on 7 November 2015

Freedom and openness are essential to design, says award-winning graphic designer Theseus Chan.


I started as a visualizer in an international advertising agency in 1986. Subsequently, I took on the responsibility of art director in three different agencies, one being a local set-up. In 1997, I started my studio WORK after 11 years in this industry.

When it comes to design, what matters most to me is openness. In designing commercial projects, it is important I have a clear purpose that is unprejudiced — an open-minded approach.

Currently, I publish my own magazine WERK, which I started in 2000. WERK embodies my philosophy in artistic expression — the unconstrained freedom to explore unfamiliar territories. This freedom has helped to dictate the outcome of the magazine. I did not have a preconceived idea in the beginning, leaving me free to create, to find something fresh and peculiar. This method of doing things is harder than it sounds, though.

Take my current exhibition, titled ‘STEIDL-WERK No. 23: MASAHO ANOTANI “DEFORMED”’. During the creative process, I hoped to arrive at something completely new by changing my mind as often as time permitted, and experimenting at every stage until the work was formed.

This is where I am after almost 30 years in the industry, and it’s tough because there are times when I am tied down by the burden of experience and familiarity. Keeping away from preconceived ideas and maintaining freedom is by far the most challenging way to work. Inspiration is everywhere and anywhere. The challenge is to be able to find ideas and inspiration in whatever circumstances.

The advantage of being in Singapore is that we have wide access to information, allowing us to experience, connect and interact with other parts of the world. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “Singapore design” as I’d rather treat design as design. We must not limit our thinking to just “Singapore”. At the end of the day, a good piece of design has no geographic reference. If it is brilliant in the design world, then it will be accepted as so, regardless of its country of origin. However, when my work is internationally recognised, in a way, it does showcase to a wider audience that it is designed from Singapore.

Unfortunately, the current state here is a tendency to jump to a conclusion of what is “good” or “bad”, which is a negative mindset to have. With a limited grasp of the concepts in a design, being quick to conclude is not the way to go. We should celebrate what we do not grasp at the moment, for it could be something new that we have not as yet understood.

What looks promising is that with our current education and growth of the arts scene, Singaporeans will have greater opportunities to showcase and develop their talent. However, this is the easier part of the equation. The real challenge lies in taking the road less travelled. To achieve this, we need to step out of societal norms in order to create something not done before. Not everything new can be accepted now because it is about being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. To young Singapore designers: be a rebel with conviction to change the status quo!

Theseus Chan is a transgressive graphic artist and print-matter designer with a keen interest in visual arts, printing and processing technology. Among his many professional accolades, he was conferred the Designer of the Year award at the inaugural Singapore President’s Design Award in 2006. Over the years, Chan has worked on several international projects with Comme des Garçons, Nicholas Kirkwood and, most recently, with German newspaper Die Zeit. In 2012, he became the first Singaporean designer to have a solo exhibition at ggg (Ginza Graphic Gallery, Tokyo). His current exhibition is on until 15 December at Pedder On Scotts, Scotts Square.

Scroll Up