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Foreign Policy Design Group’s Yah-Leng Yu on the importance of Asian representation in design

Recently announced as a jury member for Taiwan's Golden Pin Design Award, the creative director shares about supporting her fellow designers in tough times.

Even if you have the mildest interest in Singapore’s cultural and F&B scenes, chances are that you have interacted with the work of Foreign Policy Design Group. Started by husband-and-wife team Yah-Leng Yu (creative director) and Arthur Chin (brand and business strategist) in 2007, the design studio has worked on the eye-catching collateral and branding of some of the island’s buzziest businesses, including the Gallery & Co store at the National Gallery, F&B establishements such as Park Bench Deli and Super Loco, and bespoke carpenters Roger & Sons.

Even though commercial work and parenting – the couple’s daughter is nearly two years old – keeps her busy, Yu ekes out the time to champion Asian and local design. Recently, she was announced as one of the international jury members for the 2020 Golden Pin Design Award. The Golden Pin Design Award is the longest-running international design award that celebrates products or projects created for Chinese-speaking communities. Speaking to The Peak via video conference, the creative director shares about the importance of Asian representation in the design scene, supporting the next generation of creative talent, and how becoming a parent has changed how she works for the better.

1) Foreign Policy Design Group recently launched the Design Diplomacy account (@designdiplomacy) on Instagram, allowing designers at varying stages in their careers to talk about their work in real time. The Design Diplomacy series, which ran from mid-April to the end of May, focused on Asian design. Why is supporting Asian designers important to you?

Arthur and I were home-bound because of Covid-19, and we felt like since we had some time on our hands, we should do something to rally the design community. Before we launched Design Diplomacy, I had spoken on a similar platform, Live Talk From (@liketalkfrom), which was started by Gianluca Alla, an Italian designer based in London. We had already had the idea of doing something similar, and that further cemented my belief that we should do it. But I wanted to put the spotlight on Asian designers.

A lot of Asian designers are quite shy – many don’t like to talk about their work. They are not confident about speaking and presenting their work, and of course, sometimes there is also the problem of language barriers. So it was a bit challenging, but we wanted to make these sessions a sharing space for Asian designers, partly so that people elsewhere in the world could learn about them and want to find out more about them and their work.

I tried to include young designers as well. Some of these young designers said, “But people don’t know me! Who’s going to come and listen to me?” I would try to persuade them by telling them, “No lah, your work is so good. Ask your friends to come and listen first lah!” I mean, we all need our first platform, right?

  • Dumpling Darlings Foreign Policy Design Group
    Foreign Policy Design Group's branding/identity/space design for Dumpling Darlings.

2) Last year, you were inducted into the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale. What has the experience been like?

I was very humbled to be inducted into the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). It’s an association for top designers around the world. I felt like I had joined a club of my design heroes and I was a bit starstruck. (Laughs.) The AGI was started in France and Switzerland, and in recent years, it has been trying to inject new blood into the organisation. Last year was my first time attending the annual AGI Congress, which was held in Rotterdam.

It was very fun and there were talks by various AGI members, as well as up-and-coming designers based in Rotterdam. It really opened my mind. Graphic design is fun work, but doing this every day can wear you down. For me, there’s a lot of outflow – giving ideas, coaching my team, giving critiques, always giving, giving, giving… So, at the end of the day, I feel empty, like a balloon, and I need to be educated and inspired myself. It’s been really good to be part of that community, and get out there and listen to others.

3) Design that comes out of certain Asian countries is very distinctive. What do you think defines Singapore design? Is there even a need to define it?

I feel like Singapore is not really Asian-Asian even though it’s an Asian country. We are neither here nor there, partly because of our background as a British colony. Our demographic is a mix, and we have various Asian cultural influences, but for many of us, English is our first language. So, we don’t often see intricate typography of Chinese or Tamil or Jawi. What we often see is English typography. This is unlike design from South Korea, Japan, or China, where graphic design often involves new forms of typography of their respective languages.

For me, design is not just about typography; there are also other elements, such as the communication of various ways of life. It’s about the use of certain colours or imagery, and the mood you’re creating, to help our clients express who they are. For example, we did branding design for Super Loco. It’s a Mexican restaurant, so in a very literal sense, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the Singapore identity. But it’s about how Singaporeans are enjoying Mexican food, how we want to enjoy an authentic Mexican experience, not some fake, made-up thing. The graphics and imagery we use help to convey that Mexican street food experience.

It’s about telling the story of how Singaporeans are maturing, and how our tastes have evolved and that we’re very international, and not just Asian. Like with Theseus (Chan), he does design for Club 21 – and his work is about bringing across that idea of cool fashion. It tells the outside world what Singaporeans are wearing and what our tastes are. That’s what I’m trying to express.

  • Foreign Policy Design Group Design Pasar
    Organised by Foreign Policy, Roger & Sons and The General Co, Design Pasar is a festival that celebrates community. The brand visual identity includes stickers with which one can customise their own totes or posters.

4) You’re quite active on the design scene. Do you consciously put yourself out there as a representative of the Asian design community?

As time goes by, as I have been blessed enough to give more talks, I do feel a responsibility, actually. If I am the only Asian or Southeast Asian or Singaporean designer at an entire conference, that’s a responsibility and one that I want to take on.

In 2018, I was a judge at a design award that was held in London. I was judging for the Book Design category. It was not a huge category, but it was big enough. I’m glad I was there, as the only Asian among nine judges. There were a lot of beautiful books submitted from China, and a lot of Arabic, Japanese and Korean books. Sometimes, I felt like I had to fight for these books.

There was one memorable book in particular – a Chinese dictionary. People usually don’t pay much attention to dictionary designs. It was beautiful and well thought out, and easy to use. So I picked that piece of work, but most of the other judges didn’t see the value or innovation in it; they didn’t understand why it was good. Only one jury member asked me about why I picked it, and after I explained, he voted for it too.

It’s hard, but I’m not resentful about it. At the same award, there was a beautifully bound Arabic book, and I wanted to understand and ask questions about it, but I couldn’t really understand what the book was about, despite reading the synopsis. It’s very difficult. So I understand what it’s like from the other judges’ point of view. And that’s why representation is important.

5) How has the pandemic impacted local designers like yourself?

I’m sure everyone is trying their best to cope. Business has definitely slowed down, and some of our peers have paused, while some have cut their budgets. We still get new enquiries for business, so I feel quite blessed. But we also have projects that have been put on hold. It really depends on the clients: Are they more cautious, or do they think that this is a great time to work hard and prepare, so that when everything is ready, they can just go all out? It really depends. We’re pretty small – there are six of us and we have an intern and new designer joining us soon, but we are also being quite cautious right now.

  • Foreign Policy Design Group Roger and Sons
    Foreign Policy Design Group's branding/identity design for bespoke furniture-maker Roger & Sons.

 6) With the pandemic still looming over us, what’s next for the Design Diplomacy sharing platform?

We are starting a new series called The Grad Show & Tell. One of my team mates came up with the idea. He’s a young designer and his juniors were talking about how they would not have a proper graduation this year, and no grad show. My friends who teach also shared that some students were feeling down about their job prospects, which was worsened by the fact that they would not have a grad show where they could show their work to industry people.

So we thought, maybe we could create a platform that serves as a virtual grad show and tell. Every week, we will have one or two students whose work we think is good, to go on Instagram Live, to talk about their work. We have quite a good following right now, and we have had submissions from schools all over, not just Singapore or Malaysia. This will be a way for these graduating students to show the world their work, not just their own cities of Singapore, or KL, or Bangkok or London.

7) You and Arthur became parents about two years ago when you adoped your daughter, Rei. Was having children something that you always wanted? How has being parents changed the way you work?

We wanted to have a child but we were biologically challenged. (Smiles.) We went on a reproductive-assistance journey for quite a few years and eventually, we came to the realisation that having a child with our own DNA was not that important, it was about forming that family unit. We enjoy having her in our lives and being parents, but it has been a bit challenging recently – she just turned 20 months, and she has been quite emotional and temperamental.

I’ve become more efficient and focused: If she’s sleeping and I know she’s going to wake up in two hours, I’d better finish what I have to do in two hours. I have to make decisions faster, but sometimes, it’s not possible. I have to tell myself, I have to let go a bit and I cannot be so perfect all the time.

I’ve also had to embrace the fact that my beautiful designer furniture will be damaged. My wooden coffee table is definitely gone case liao (local slang for utterly beyond repair). She was banging on it with something. Visitors have asked if the table is vintage. I told them, “It’s not vintage, it’s destroyed.” (Laughs.)

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