Jackson Tan is a member of the experimental Singaporean art and design collective, PHUNK, as well as the founder of creative agency BLACK, which is also based in Singapore. Through PHUNK, he has worked in Asia and internationally in the contemporary art world, and through BLACK, he has solidified his position as a significant visual communicator in Singapore and the wider Asia region.
Tan and the other members of PHUNK–Alvin Tan, Melvin Chee, and William Chan–are of Chinese descent, and they often address this heritage in their art and design work. “We are either third or fourth generation Singaporeans, [but] our great-grandfathers or our great-great-grandfathers were from China or Greater China,” Tan explains. “Our links to our Chinese background are quite strong.” His own great-grandfather, for example, came to Singapore from Kinmen, which is an island in the Taiwan Strait, the body of water between Taiwan and China.
This dual heritage–that of his Chinese ancestry and his Singaporean present–is evident in the high profile work and international clients his studio, BLACK, takes on. “We get projects where we get a chance to flex both our knowledge of Chinese [culture] as well as English as a language. We become a bridge,” he explains. Due to Singapore’s diverse culture “we have access to people from Malaysia, from Indonesia, even from India,” he continues. “It’s quite a unique position that we’re in right now, culturally, socially, and professionally.”
Some of the projects BLACK has taken on have had a heavy focus on Chinese culture and language: the visual identity for Old Master Q’s 50th anniversary exhibition, or the content, visual direction, and signage for the refurbished Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall 晚晴園, for example. “Certain clients look for us to work with them because they know that we share this love for [Chinese] culture and the history,” he says of these projects. “We have an outsider perspective of looking into Chinese culture. The kind of context or approach that we would bring to a project might be quite different if the story was told from the Taiwanese or from the Chinese side.”
It is often necessary for the team at BLACK to balance the demands of multiple and sometimes even competing audiences and cultural messages in their projects. “We try to find similarities, and then try to make certain aspects universal. At the same time, we try to amplify the differences because that’s where the tension is, that’s the part that makes [a work] really interesting,” Tan says of the method his studio has developed in response to its unique position. Understanding the differences in terms of the cultural sensibility and lifestyle of the people you are designing for is important, he urges. “Obviously, all of us eat, and we all love good food, but, for example, in Taiwan you use chopsticks more than you use a knife and fork. This is a difference, whereas the universal aspect is that everybody loves food.”
Tan has mostly worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan because, he says, “these markets, in terms of [design] sensibility and development, are more mature.” However, a visit to Shanghai in 2014 left him excited about China’s design industry. “There’s a lot of potential [in China],” Tan notes. “If you look at, let’s say, how Apple has been doing in the past ten years, the company has leapt into our hands and our homes, and now they’re penetrating into the Chinese market, too. If consumers are in touch with good design all the time–in their hands, in the fonts that they read and the software that they use–their [design] sensibility will change rapidly.”
For Tan, there is also a challenge for designers in the globalization of companies, products, and design aesthetic and practices. “Asia is growing rapidly, and the internet has made the world smaller. Cultural differences are becoming increasingly blurred,” he explains. “The challenge is how to differentiate ourselves in this environment while still taking advantage of the fact that more and more people understand the same visual language.” On the flip side, Tan believes designers working in their home countries have a distinct advantage over international companies. “The so called ‘design literacy’ of consumers differs from city to city in Asia,” he notes. “If you’re going to design something for a certain market, you have to able to navigate and understand the particular environment.”
About Jackson Tan
Jackson Tan is a Singaporean artist, designer and curator. He is the co-founder of PHUNK, a contemporary art and design collective (1994 – present), and BLACK, a multi-disciplinary creative agency based in Singapore (2002 – present). As the creative director and founder of BLACK, he has collaborated and worked with international brands such as Nike, Nokia, MTV, Daimler Chrysler, The Rolling Stones, Herman Miller, UNIQLO, Levi’s, and Tiger Beer. PHUNK’s artwork has been featured in numerous exhibitions and institutions including the Singapore Art Museum, MOCA Taipei, the Design Museum, the Gwangju Design Biennale, the Venice Biennale, and the Animamix Biennale.
As a solo artist, Tan is completing an artwork as part of his master’s degree program at LASALLE College of the Arts/Goldsmith University of London. In 2004, Jackson Tan curated and designed the landmark exhibition “20/20,” which is an ongoing showcase of Singapore’s finest design talents. In 2008, he was invited by the Center for Creative Communications (CCC) in Japan to curate and present “新潮 New Wave – Singapore’s Contemporary Design Culture.” Tan was named Designer of the Year in 2007 by the President’s Design Award (Singapore), and has been invited to speak, exhibit, curate, mentor, and judge in various international design festivals, conferences, competitions, seminars, and workshops with organisations such as The Art Directors Club (USA), D&AD (UK), and the National Arts Council (Singapore). He designed the brand identity of SG50, which celebrated Singapore’s 50 year’s of independence.