Contractor, architect and the developer.

Paul Hughes commented that designers in the US see graphic design as problem-solving. Generally true (and many schools preached this), except that this understanding of graphic design would collapse when there are no problems to be solved.

Just like the army which has no function at all if there is no war, except for doing the annual Merdeka day parade.

So, what if graphic design if not about problem-solving? Paul proposes a process that should generate opportunities. Not just solving problems but also generating opportunities along the way.

I like this observation. It is something which summarises my approach to doing work, except that I never had the moment to pause and think about what do I really do as a graphic designer.

Now I am motivated and compelled to put down my design journey so far in writing.

1: The contractor.

When I started off as a designer, I didn’t know what I was doing. Or perhaps I was too immature to understand what I was doing. I was enjoying the thrill of producing brochures, leaflets, annual reports, books, corporate profiles etc. It was nice to see works being printed, enjoying the excitement of unwrapping printed samples freshly delivered from the printers, carrying that wonderful smell of printing-ink.

I had creative briefs from clients, but I don’t seem to find those as problems where I am required to produce solutions. “We need a catalogue to showcase our new plastic chairs”. “We want a nice brochure to sell our new property”. To be honest, I have viewed all these creative briefs as mere opportunities for me to explore new grid systems, new art directions, new photography, new paper, new ways to fold a brochure, etc. If the clients wanted brochures, I will produce nice brochures. Everyone will be happy and that would be the end of a story.

I thought I was a good graphic designer. Actually I was more of a good graphic contractor, working like the contractors in the business of renovation — providing the best plaster ceilings as according to specs; laying down the best cement floor, again, as according to specs.

Arguably, contractors do need to be problem solvers too.

2: The architect.

It was after a few years of working with Andersen Consulting (now known as Accenture) and going through their rebranding exercise that I realized graphic design is more than design. This started the phase where I find myself constantly at struggle with what I am doing (the contractor) and what I should be doing.

It revolves around the issues of branding. Leaving aside my viewpoints on branding for future postings, here’s how things changed.

“We need a catalogue to showcase our new plastic chairs.”

Instead of saying, oh, ok, you will get a nice catalogue, I started throwing questions back at clients.

“Is this a one-off collection, or in the future you will still be continuing to produce chairs in a similar design but with some variations? Do you want the chairs to sell on their own merits, or do you first parade the credentials of the manufacturer? How would the chairs be labelled, packaged and displayed? Do you want the brochure to reflect some of those visual aspects? Who would you compare your chairs with — Johor quality or European quality? Whom would you be passing the catalogue to? Oh, your resellers. Tell me more about your resellers’ profiles. Should your brochure exhibit continuity from the past catalogues or do you want something entirely new?”

And so on.

These are essential questions to establish the branding of products/services. I became a believer of looking at branding and brand identities before graphic design kicks in. This approach invited troubles, as generally, it is not the preferred method of working in graphic design.

“Hello, I just want a chair catalogue that we are launching next week. I don’t know how to answer your questions. Can you just give me a nice catalogue?”


Instead of being a contractor, I was trying to play architect. I wanted to build a house which caters for the client’s needs in the future — factoring in the number of rooms and washrooms needed, the positions of windows and doors, the installation of wiring and plumbing systems down to the trees that are supposed to be planted now so that it would grow into beautiful shades for the future.

But the client just needed a room and some wallpaper for his room.

I was fortunate to have a few clients who understood, but generally I became disillusioned about the business known as graphic design.

3: The developer.

I used to be addicted to Simcity.

Simcity starts with a piece of predefined land. The gameplay: Divide the residential, commercial and industrial zones; Make them attractive for humans to move in, then improvise and continue to monitor; Tear down abandoned and ageing buildings (built out of early mistakes); introduce new amenities — parks, cinemas, casinos, whatever to sustain growth. And remember to monitor power grids, water supply and pollution levels.

I’d like to imagine the client being a piece of land. As a designer, I am providing content for the client to continue to grow. Each individual component from the content designed would take on its own branding and identity but would converge to contribute to the overall growth. The content has to be engaging — it should invite end-users to participate repeatedly. The content is not limited to communications media. The content is not static, it has to be constantly updated refreshed and improvised.

Working like this not only allows me to play the developer (the content provider), but allows me the freedom to occasionally play architect (building the framework for the content) and also the contractor (implementing the content).

This process of playing developer makes designing fun.

But is this graphic design? I am not so sure.