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CLARITY: 20/20 Vision for 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything since handing in my 7,700 word dissertation last january. Not that there hasn’t been anything interesting happening in my life but just that 2019 has been one of my busiest years. From completing my degree (which I successfully finished with 1st class honours), to seeking a job in London that would offer me a right to work visa (which I was unsuccessful with due to the economical strain of Brexit), to packing the last three years of my life in London and shipping it back to Malaysia, to traveling across North America and reuniting with old friends that I haven’t seen in three years, before finally heading home to the tropics and leaving cold weather behind me for the time being.

And although I had an extremely eventful year with many firsts and priceless learning opportunities, there hasn’t really been anything substantial enough that’s encouraged me to finally put my erratic thoughts to paper. At least not until today after attending an event organised by Pow Ideas.

Hanging posters of all previous Pow-Wow events.

I’ve been following Pow Ideas on Instagram for about more than a year now. They’re a Malaysian collective of designers who strive to promote design and the arts among the local Malaysian community. The group has organised an array of events titled Pow-Wow which started as film screenings of the Netflix design documentary Abstract. These screening are often paired with a local designer in relation to the screened episode as a guest speaker who shares their own creative practice and thought process. Such events have truly created a discourse for the Malaysian design industry and attempted to create a stronger sense of community among local creatives. The latest event Pow Down is no exception and may be their most ambitious event to date. Pow Down is a design forum which aims to discover fresh ideas, spark creative conversations and unravel new perspectives on the ever-changing creative landscape. The event featured talks and panel discussions with professionals that have shaped the Malaysian creative industry. Each of the speakers not only spoke about their work, successes and greatest challenges but also shared their interpretations of the word Clarity and how the phrase has influenced their creative practice.

Pow Down 2020: A design forum focusing on the theme of Clarity in design

The forum kick started with community-based collective, Filamen, who consist of tech duo Fariz Hanapiah and Abdul Shakir. Filamen is known for its strikingly beautiful interactive light installations and projection mapping projects which have been featured at events such as Urbanscapes 2019 and Georgetown Festival in Penang. Their work features bold and lively motion graphics projected onto the traditional colonial style buildings that represent Malaysia’s culturally rich history, thus creating a gorgeous blend between the new and old. The duo expressed that they are inspired by the interactivity of digital media and the desire to create inclusive new media experiences for viewers that merge technology, design, and art. Fariz and Shakir both list TeamLab Tokyo as being one of their inspirations and at the same time I see their work being very reminiscent of the works by Turkish artist Refik Anadol who produces light installations using AI algorithms.

Concept sketch of an interactive light installation piece for Georgetown Festival.

Photo of an exhibition by teamLab Planets in Tokyo.

When asked to explain what clarity means for them, the duo stressed that their biggest concern is clarifying that they are not a company but rather choose to be identified as ‘a collective of creative individuals'. This is reflected in the majority of their work where they seek to collaborate with other Malaysian artists, especially those from local colleges, by creating a platform for these other creatives to execute their vision. The group stress on the importance of fostering a transdisciplinary practice, and how collaborating with others from areas different to ones own can generate invaluable learning experiences which lead to creating more groundbreaking work. Fariz also stated in a panel discussion chaired by photographer Nadirah Zakariya:

“Collaboration is still the biggest struggle in the industry. It’s important to share knowledge and get rid of this Malaysian mindset of keeping secrets. Sharing information is what allows the industry to grow.”

Another notable association with clarity during the forum was the clarity of knowing one’s identity and cultural roots. This was especially stressed from the presentation by chef James Won who runs the well regarded fine dining institution Enfin and is Asia’s only member of the exclusive Krug Ambassade Network. Although practicing abroad in some of France and Japan’s finest 3-star Michelin star restaurants, James chose to return to Malaysia in an effort to make a difference in the local dining scene. He takes pride in his Malaysian Chinese Hakka heritage which is expressed in the plethora of dishes he has created that practice farm to table dining, harvesting the best ingredients that the local agriculture industry has to offer. James especially stresses the advice for young creatives regardless of aspiring chefs or designers to “be proud that you’re Malaysian” and that there’s no need to outsource quality resources when Malaysia has several that are of the highest standard. Of course in this context he’s talking about produce and herbs but the same concept can easily be applied when talking about the talent pool of creatives in Malaysia.

James Won of Enfin Fine Dining showcasing his concept sketches for his menu items.

“If I say Sake all of you would be excited, what about Tuak? It’s the same shit.”

Furthermore, James goes on to explain his decision for pursuing his passion for food after the hardships of finishing med school. “It’s a profession that allows you to steal a moment from another person” he says. Knowing that you’ve contributed to creating something others can enjoy and living through that secondhand enjoyment is definitely something I myself as a designer have always felt with my work but have struggled to put into words as eloquent as James Won’s. This is definitely something that other creatives could relate to such as speaker Jack Gan, lead creative of homegrown Malaysian streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar.

Jack’s combined passion for cartoons, storytelling, and streetwear have allowed him to transform Pestle & Mortar into the well beloved and fast-growing South East Asian streetwear brand that it is today. Under Jack’s creative vision, the brand has not only created visually appealing graphic tees but have even created experiences for raising awareness of cultural, societal, environmental, and political issues. An example being the collection of of clothing released during Malaysia’s 14th General Election which aimed to encourage more young people to vote.

Jack emphasises the importance of the storytelling of a design and how it has to be a subject that the public can resonate with. This can be seen from their designs often presenting imagery of nostalgia for many Malaysians. However, going back to James Won’s point on the importance of having clarity with identity, Jack also shares the brands greatest mistake of losing the true essence of Pestle & Mortar by relying too much on trends.

“I think riding on trends was our greatest downfall. It was important to know what our audience really wanted and expressing that with great storytelling. And unfortunately that cost us our flagship store being shut down.”

And empathy really is a big factor in design. Being able to put yourself as a designer into the shoes of your client and understand what they’re really looking for is what differentiates a designer from an artist. And this was something that the last speakers, dynamic duo Adrian Ritzal and Suek Mei of Studio Kanta, preached about during their talk. The multidisciplinary couple integrates branding and spatial design into their work with a focus on elevating a person’s livelihood or wellbeing through good design.

The pair compared their working relationship to a marriage and even summed up the 3 keys for clarity in a design love affair with 3E’s: Empathy, Eloquence, Enchantment. And for them, clarity is all about good communication. It’s the importance of being able to understanding what is desired from a client and being able to present a genuine idea with conviction.

“You need to expand your vocabulary beyond these basic bitch words.”

Adrian Ritzal when asked to elaborate what Clarity meant to him.

Moreover, Suek Mei also draws an importance on finding value within one’s self with designers continuing to be undervalued in Malaysia. The dilemma between deciding to fight for one’s value and settling for a client’s evaluation despite an unreasonably low budget is something every designer faces throughout their career. Suek Mei explains:

“We usually don’t know how to value ourselves so we often find difficulty with figuring how to properly create value for the work we do. You need to understand self worth and be able to convey your ideas with confidence, seduce them with your vision and gain their trust.”

Thus the forum ended on a positive note with this slide which Adrian read out to the crowd.

As someone who has been quite out of touch from the Malaysian creative scene these last three years, it was impressive to see how much the landscape of design has changed from the days before I first left to study in London. Pow Down definitely offered a promising future for many young creatives such as myself with how the creative community is trying to be more present in this new age. However, the changes are slow with the creative community continuing to be rather disjointed. Hopefully with more events like Pow Down, this can help foster a more well connected creative community that is open to the ideas of collaborating, learning from, and sharing with each other.

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