How Creative Director Yu Yah-Leng is helping traditional family businesses stay relevant
Creation Nation Foreign Policy Design Group co-founder and creative director Yu Yah-Leng has high hopes for the future of design in Singapore.
When designer Yu Yah-Leng first moved back to Singapore in 2006 to be closer to family after spending 15 years studying and working in the US, she knew she wanted to set up her own studio rather than work for someone else. “It wasn’t easy, because I had no network of designer friends here. I didn’t even know basic stuff like the printers to go to,” she recalls in her soft-spoken way.
At the time, she had already been running a design agency specialising in websites and interactive interfaces in New York for several years. “I wasn’t interested in very template-based design that didn’t have much creativity.” Instead, she wanted to contribute to the burgeoning growth of independent design studios in Singapore. “I wanted to try and change the way things were being designed in Singapore, and break that stereotypical approach towards everything from wayfinding to packaging.”
After all, as she likes to say, a project is only as good as the client behind it. And the impact of this golden age is still evolving. She has observed more independent design studios here, with younger designers deciding to set up shop for themselves straightaway rather than work for larger agencies. “That’s quite a healthy sign; it shows that there is enough business for everyone, enough interest in good design,” she notes optimistically. “It shows that Singapore is no longer just a hard-edged city interested only in finance and numbers. We now care about aesthetics, about how the softer side of things can help our way of life. That’s quite important.”
As for Foreign Policy, the studio is now turning its attention to helping more traditional businesses as a younger generation of owners take on the challenge of making these family enterprises relevant to a new age. For instance, it’s helping to rebrand carpentry company Roger&Sons, whose second-generation leaders are keen to pivot to a more design-centric, bespoke business model. They recently unveiled a public-facing showroom and event space in Jalan Besar.
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It’s been really interesting to help such businesses transition into a new phase, says Yah-Leng. “These traditional businesses helped to build Singapore, and contributed to the identity of Singapore. I believe we should try to help them evolve, so that the younger generation can be reminded of our roots. It’s important to keep as much of our culture as possible, because culture is identity. And design can help to communicate that in a different way to a new generation, to engage and excite them.”
These are issues that she feels strongly about, and that she probably wouldn’t have thought about if she hadn’t moved back home over a decade ago, Yah-Leng concedes. And there are plenty of new frontiers she hopes to explore this year. A key initiative in the works is a collaborative effort – Foreign Policy has formed a collective consultancy with lifestyle website High Net Worth and Mileage Communications. Named The Consortium, it aims to provide a more complete spectrum of business solutions through consolidated expertise that includes design, public relations and content services.
“It’s important to keep as much of our culture as possible, because culture is identity. And design can help to communicate that in a different way to a new generation, to engage and excite them.” – Yu Yah Leng
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the transformation of the creative class in Singapore. People have become more informed about design, and I see the impact we can make,” says Yah-Leng.
Indeed, the potential profitability that results from creative thinking has been embraced by the public and private sector in recent years, in the form of a methodical framework known as design thinking, so named because it supposedly draws from the problem-solving approach of designers. But Yah‑Leng has a much simpler suggestion for those seeking to nurture some right-brain flair. “You can’t teach design thinking to a primary school student. It’s not a thing. If you want your children to be creative, let them play. Let them make mistakes, and have the freedom to express themselves. To me, that is design thinking.”
A version of this story first appeared in Singapore Tatler.