The Designers: Exploring storytelling and flourishing ideas with Foreign Policy’s Sylvester Tan
Our interview series The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the thirty-first entry into our series, we invited Foreign Policy’s Sylvester Tan for a chat about connecting with the Singaporean studio and the joys of getting critical, cultural and conceptual with design.
PT Hi Sylvester, how are you?
ST Hello Poppy! I’ve been doing great, thanks for asking. The Foreign Policy team and I were recently occupied with The Swap Show, which kept us quite busy at the beginning of 2023. Now that things have settled down, I’m looking forward to what the rest of the year has in store. How about you?
PT I’m great, thank you! To kick things off, how would you describe your approach to design?
ST I believe that design is like a mirror to society and culture. I aim to keep my designs culturally informed as much as possible. To do that, I broaden my horizons by reading up on topics outside of just design-related stuff. That way, I stay on top of what’s culturally relevant.
Going for designs that make me feel uncomfortable is also a goal of mine. It’s like a personal challenge to make sure I’m always creating something fresh and different. If a design makes me squirm a bit, I know I’m on the right track!
Working at a design agency is like a never-ending adventure.
PT Why do you think design as a career suits you?
ST Before diving into design, I was pursuing a diploma in Business. Although I was doing alright at it, I was sooooooo bored! I found myself more excited about designing posters and brochures for marketing modules than doing business accounting. I was intrigued with using design to solve biz problems instead.
Thanks to my short attention span, design keeps me on my toes with new and exciting opportunities to work with different industries and people. Working at a design agency is like a never-ending adventure – every project is a unique set of design challenges that require fresh approaches and solutions. Plus, the design process is like a crash course in industries and topics I wouldn’t normally have the chance to learn about!
PT How did you land your job at Foreign Policy? What about them stood out to you compared to other creative studios?
ST I wish there was a more exciting story to tell, but oh well haha! Foreign Policy was always on my radar. I stumbled upon Critical Mass and was immediately smitten. The smart use of typography, the clever name and the curated content all drew me in. I landed an internship position with them during my sophomore year of university with the goal to learn more about graphic design, specifically typography, but I gained so much more than that!
At Foreign Policy, storytelling and having a strong point of view are always at the forefront. Behind every fantastic story are weeks or months of research, discussion and experimentation. No idea is too crazy – we bounce ideas around and reflect on whether they make sense for the business. It’s an amazing working environment where interesting ideas can flourish. There was even this one time we were just chatting and came up with this wild business idea. Before we knew it, Yah-Leng had already bought the domain name for the website! After graduating, I reconnected with Yah-Leng and Arthur and I’ve been here ever since!
PT What skills or qualities do you bring to the team?
ST Striking a balance between creativity and practicality. It’s quite crucial for successful commercial work. Our ideas have to not only sparkle with originality, but also make sense for the business. Otherwise, we may end up with a disaster like proposing a complex keycard packaging design for a hotel that hinders daily operations due to the lengthy assembly process for staff.
PT How did your role and responsibilities change when you transitioned from Junior Designer to Midweight Designer?
ST Design-wise, to be honest, not much has changed. We’re a tight-knit team and everyone pitches in to make the magic happen. Now, as a midweight, I get to lead projects and work directly with clients, which can be challenging at times, but I thoroughly enjoy it!
As a creative, it’s easy to get stuck in a single-minded idea.
PT What is your current workspace setup?
ST Starting my day with an organised desk. But let’s be real, it’s bound to get cluttered as the day goes on. Have you noticed our little office hack? We put our desktops on a Lazy Susan, making it so much easier to spin and share screens with the team :)
PT A lot of your personal projects are very conceptual and research-driven – have you always been interested in the ‘ideas’ side of design?
ST Yeah, research-driven and commercial design both deal with ideas, but they have a different approach. My personal projects are all about finding answers to my questions, and then finding a way to express them through design. The boundaries for the final outcome are much looser because it’s about expression, not just finding a design solution for a company. Sometimes it’s just about getting viewers to think critically after looking at my work, so it can get pretty conceptual.
My project, Degenderism, is a perfect example of this. It all started with a question: what would the world look like without gender being limited to just males and females? And it resulted in an exhibition showcasing gendered products from today, with the aim of sparking thought about whether gender categorisation is really necessary.
PT Where do you go for inspiration?
ST I love to hit up The Brand Identity (no joke!) to get my daily dose of design inspiration and read up on all the latest design articles. And then, I go on the hunt chatting with anyone and everyone – it doesn’t matter if they’re not creatives. I find it super helpful to break out of the creative bubble and expand my perspective. After all, as a creative, it’s easy to get stuck in a single-minded idea. But chatting with people can lead to new, surprising and brilliant ideas that I never would’ve thought of on my own.
PT Your thesis project Getai Kitch is wonderful! Can you tell us about the design process behind it? Why did you decide to create a publication?
ST To give you some context, Getai is a makeshift live stage performance held in Singapore, mainly during the Hungry Ghost Festival. According to tradition, during the festival, it’s believed that the souls of the dead roam the earth. Getai was originally meant to entertain these spirits, but it became a popular form of entertainment among Singaporean Chinese during the late 80s to 90s. You can expect professional singers in over-the-top costumes and a colourful stage design on the makeshift stage. It’s a lively event!
However, over the years, young Singaporeans have started to view Getai as non-progressive and kitschy. This project investigates why this shift in perception happened and how design can be used to cultivate an appreciation for Getai again. The publication was part of the project and presents the process of finding answers through an in-depth documentation of the visual language of Getai, from stage design, poster design to costume design. The final goal was to translate that language into something more relevant for today.
PT What kinds of topics do you enjoy working with?
ST I usually enjoy topics revolving around cultural identity and social class.
PT Who or what would be your dream collaboration?
ST I’m not a die-hard K-POP fan, but designing a K-POP album sounds pretty cool. If you check out some of the K-POP albums now, you’ll be blown away by the effort put into the design. Albums aren’t just a way to distribute music anymore, they’re a super personal connection between idols and fans. I bet the design approach would be different from regular album covers and that would be a fun challenge to work on!
PT What would you like to achieve this year?
ST There’s still so much I want to learn, especially when it comes to typeface design. I’m hoping to dive into it this year as a side project. Maybe I’ll be able to share the final outcome with you next time 😊