50 years of design in Singapore

Scintilla Design Singapore Design Centre 50 years exhibition

May, 2019

Whilst in Singapore for business Scintilla took the opportunity to attend an exhibition showcasing 50 years of design in Singapore. Held at the National Design Centre, the exhibition highlighted the major design achievements decade by decade over the past 50 years. 

The National Design Centre (NDC) is the location for the Design Singapore Council (DSC) who are the peak representative body that support and promote design and allied creative industries within Singapore. The vision of the DSC is grand and their aim is to make Singapore an innovation led and lovable city through design by 2025.

Housed in what was an old school, the art deco building has been transformed into a series of spaces that can be used for workshops, research and education. The DSC help organisations use design as a strategy for growth and development and provision of services, they nurture design and innovation skills and strive to develop a ‘design minded workforce for the future economy’ and finally they use design to promote the brand of Singapore by raising design awareness in the community and ‘making emotional connections with people across the world ‘.  

The DSC are not only accessible to organisations, institutions and government but also to the community. The DSC acts as a leader for design to the broader community. This sophisticated approach to the connection of design and community provides greater and more sustainable economic benefits and advantages, particularly for a country with limited material resources. This is a clear differentiator in terms of developing a design mindset as they consider design to be part of the solution to continued growth, economic strength and community connection and wellbeing. This strategic focus for design could provide an exemplar to the Australian design community, where the focus appears to be more inward looking. 

The exhibition is laid out in chronological order and shows examples across multiple design disciplines including product, graphic, architecture, fashion, landscape/urban and furniture. It is not until you see an exhibition such as this that you begin to realise how prolific and how influential a role design has played in the cultural development of this small country. In fact design has played a major role in the establishment of the Singaporean economy. A short precis of the timeline below shows the progress and influence that design has played in the growth of Singapore.

Building a Nation: 1965-1975  

This period shortly after Singapore’s independence was characterised by the notion of nation building. Efforts were directed at the development of domestic needs, housing, establishing civic institutions and public buildings as well as the design and development of infrastructure. The recognition of a national identity through the creation of cultural symbols such as state emblems and architecture. In order to establish and equip a workforce, vocational institutions that taught craft and industrial skills were established. Overall the development of these cultural activities and institutions laid the foundations for the coming years – a design centric approach. 

Scintilla Design Singapore Design Centre leCube showcase

Economic Boom: 1975-1985  

During this time Singapore began to emerge in the global economy as an economic powerhouse. As a result, the local design industry began to form as international organisations saw Singapore as a place for investment and manufacture. Together with the emergence of the design industry and the investment of R&D within these organisations, Singapore’s capacity and awareness for design began to develop i.e. the creation, awareness and expectation of design began to emerge from within the community. Also at this time tourism began to increase and the need for the development of arts, cultural, environmental and fashion that tourists could engage with began to take shape. This period saw the development of local design and architecture practices and their influence on innovation and the understanding of what might be possible in the future.

New Technologies: 1985-1995 

This period saw Singapore grow internationally in both trade and investment. Design was promoted as a tool that could create market competitiveness for both products and brands. Efforts continued to raise the awareness of design to organisations and community and design was beginning to be recognised as a professional practice. A number of independent design associations were formed during this period which also strengthened and raised the consciousness of design. The adoption and utilisation of technology in products led to a sense of modernity, future thinking and progressiveness and enabled Singaporeans to operate at the same level and class as other countries. These behaviours strengthened and placed Singapore at the forefront of technology and its application and use in society.

Scintilla Design Singapore Design Centre 50 years exhibition setron design

Going Global: 1995-2005

The turn of the century saw Singaporean designers move their focus from a domestic market to the international stage working for and developing international brands. With their achievements, they saw a developing confidence in the practice of design as they operated on the world stage. This led to developing different perspectives and allowed alternative interpretations of design to be explored and applied to develop innovative solutions. It was during this time that the DSC was formed and true alignment with design, economy, culture and values contributed to the Singapore’s creative sector.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: 2005-2015 

By this period the design culture in Singapore has flourished. The development of design, its meaning in place, product and culture has allowed Singapore to develop into the sophisticated nation that it is today. This period is now characterised by the integration of entrepreneurship, experimentation and strategy into design practice. There has also been a reflective movement where the practical skills of years ago have been adopted as part of the practice of new and younger designers to enable the reinterpretations of design, the conservation of past skills and the application of design insights and how this informs design for the future of Singapore.