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Pann Lim

Become – High Profiles
April 29, 2016

Pann Lim is everywhere, yet he isn't.

The nine-time nominee and 2012 winner for Most Influential Creative Director by the Institute of Advertising Singapore has been cited by many to be an influence in their lives. In 2013, Pann was named ‘Designer of the Year’ in Singapore’s President’s Design Award. His company, Kinetic Design and Advertising, has over 500 awards tucked under its 17-year-old belt, 450 of which he was responsible.

The 43-year-old is also the co-founder of Holycrap.sg, a four-person family art collective that has won numerous awards on its own, including President’s Design Awards 2015 for Design of the Year, the British D&AD, Cannes Design Lions, Singapore Creative Circle Awards, New York’s One Show, and Tokyo Type Director's Club (Tokyo TDC). The collective’s oldest member is Pann, and the youngest, his daughter, Aira, turns ten this year. His wife, Claire, and son, Renn, make up the rest of the family team.

Perhaps it is Pann’s larger-than-life reputation—when I first ascend the black wireframe spiral staircase to meet him at the attic of his two-and-a-half-storey Joo Chiat Road office, he seems taller than his 168cm frame.

The first thing you’ll notice about this adman is his warm, wide smile and benign eyes. His inverted half-rim frames give him a perpetual delighted manga character persona, a contrast from his serious, stocky build.

It’s a pity Pann does not smile for photos, something he makes clear when we are setting our interview. It's not that he is a control freak or fussy, far from it—he is all about managing expectations. “I will make clear before the shoot—‘I don’t want to offend you, but I can’t do much during the shoot. I don’t know how to smile, lah.’ I cut away the [potential] problems first. I don't want to do the shoot halfway and then seem uncooperative,” he says matter-of-factly, the upturned corners of his lips almost forming a heart with the edges of his spectacle frame.

Our shoot takes him up and down the shophouse and across neighbouring lanes in the sweltering heatwave of April. Upon return, he is, again, all smiles. “Let’s sit downstairs, because my guys will giggle at me if they hear me,” he says shyly. He lets me pick my seat in Kinetic’s closed anteroom while he settles into the benches set against the racing green brick wall where he sat to celebrate his most recent birthday. We dive straight into honest chatter.

An Honest Conversation with Pann Lim

Co-Founder & Creative Director, Kinetic
Text by Celine Asril
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

CELINE ASRIL: I must ask, where did you get your spectacles from? I can’t stop looking at them.

PANN LIM: [laughs] I have another pair which is originally like that, which I bought in Tokyo. I loved it so much that I had a pair of glasses for the home—so that I wouldn’t wear the first pair so often. Of course, after two to three years, its condition deteriorated. That was when I looked for a frame that would allow me to cut the rounded bottom of the lens off.

CELINE: I did not think it was made that way. You’ve given me an entirely different perspective.

PANN: I bought my current frames off the Internet—I had to trust it was what I wanted. When I asked the optician to cut it, he went, "Really? What if you don't like it?" I told him I’d give him the deposit first, so he didn't have to worry if I didn’t like it. 

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CELINE: You were really sure about what you wanted. Let’s get down to business—you were at DDB and Batey Ads before joining your third job, at Kinetic, a company set up by close friends. What made you take the leap?

PANN: I'm actually happy working anywhere. I wasn't unhappy with where I was working. I don't have an issue working for people or taking instructions. I thought working with a bunch of friends would be fun. And I'm quite obsessed with my work, so even if Kinetic failed I would just get a job somewhere else. I was much younger, and I had nothing to lose.

Problems will be everywhere, everyday. If we don't have the right attitude to solve problems, we can't do anything.

CELINE: Weren’t you afraid of working with friends, that the personal and business aspects would clash?

PANN: As long as we get along, I don't think about these things first. If we start thinking about such matters, then nothing will happen. Problems will be everywhere, everyday. If we don't have the right attitude to solve problems, we can't do anything. So I have no problems about friends working together. The sensitivity of how we make sure we don't step on each other's toes. . . are social skills we must have. If we trust each other wholeheartedly, that sort of problem can be solved by sitting down for a chat.

CELINE: But you still draw a clear line. You don’t bring your FAMzine into work. . . 

PANN: Yes, I make things like these very clear. It's very easy for people to think that I have a group of people who help me with the Rubbish FAMzine. I credit Kinetic on the back page because I am working at Kinetic, but I don't use office time to do it. I do it before I come to work, after I go home, and on the weekends. That is the discipline of doing this project. If I asked someone else for help, it would be too easy and I won't feel good about it anymore. Kinetic is family to me, but a different type.

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CELINE: I noticed Kinetic is running K+ gallery now, but I don’t see your family’s work in there.

PANN: I wouldn't want to put my kids' work in the gallery, even if the opportunity is right, and it fits thematically. Some people might say I use the company to spring board my kids’ work, which will invite unnecessary chatter. Unnecessary chatter is a problem. I count three steps forward and kill the unnecessary chatter—I won't let it happen.

CELINE: Is taking on different roles—like you’ve been known to—part of counting three steps forward? How and why do you do it?

PANN: Running a studio or agency, you want things to be smooth. If I feel it's within my means to change a bit of how I should be, yet at the same time, not lose my essence, I will do it. It's not a problem. I don't mind walking out to buy food when everyone’s working on a pitch. In fact, I should also pay for it. I'm not too calculative about these things—I'm cincai. And if I'm uncomfortable, I'll tell my team. If you have always been honest, the communication channels are not closed. I appreciate when people tell me what's wrong, and I accept their feedback because we can always find a solution to a problem. This method is not foolproof, but at least we are talking. The worst is when I ask, "Is everything okay?" And they answer, "Okay!"

The worst thing you can do is to go out and take someone else's job.

CELINE: Your approach is to always be honest and open?

PANN: Of course. I am always being asked: what is the best way of doing a project? First, you must understand the project and then ask yourself, "What you can bring to the table?" Sometimes clients come and tell us that they don't like a campaign done by another company. I look at it and there is nothing wrong with it, so I ask them honestly, "What's wrong with this?" Sometimes I'll also tell them that I don't think I can do a better job. If it looks like something we can do, then the next thing we'll ask is if they have informed the other agency they are looking for somebody else. If they haven’t, then we won’t take that job. We are living in this community where we are all friends. The worst thing you can do is to go out and take someone else's job. That’s not cool lah, right?

CELINE: Right, but what if you need the job?

PANN: Keep it simple lah. Even if you're dying, and you need the job, you have to weigh: is it worth it? You can always work harder on other projects and make more money. Your business must be as clean as possible. For example, we were invited to be part of this SG50 project called Singapore: Inside Out. Singapore Tourism Board wanted us to represent graphic design in Singapore and be part of a travelling showcase to Beijing, London, New York and lastly, Singapore. Straight up, we told them we were not comfortable to do it, unless they allowed me to bring in 49 other studios into the project. The truth is, how can we represent Singapore graphic design? It's ridiculous. There are so many good people out there who deserve the same kind of recognition. In fact, we didn't have problems getting these 49 collaborators to join us. I think it's because we have been part of the community. . . and if you're not in the community, it would be a little harder.

CELINE: By being in the community, do you mean by being out there?

PANN: I mean keeping a record that is quite straight. To be honest, I don't have time to socialise. I come to work and go home every day. I'm a damn boring guy. I don't do drinks or dinners. l try to make the weekends a no-work weekend, so I try not to come back to work, and I also don't want my guys to come back. Work is important, but it cannot overtake family life. Because at the end of the day, you can have a very bad day at work, but you don't want to go home to another problem, right? Like it or not, there will always be problems at work.

CELINE: But you set time aside to interact with and help students, like when you were a mentor at Noise Singapore, a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic and a founding member of The Design Society.

PANN: Education is different. That is my passion. I'd rather spend time thinking about a module. The good thing is that after going to eight schools, I have taken all the syllabus offered by MOE. I tried everything, and in the end only a few subjects resonated with me: Economics and Art.

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CELINE: Do you think that all your moving around made you the versatile person you are today?

PANN: Of course. Everyone is shaped by their journey in life. I'm not very interested in the destination, but I'm interested in the process. I'm not saying to drop success—we should always aim to be successful in whatever we do, but if that doesn’t happen, then we should treat it as a learning process.

CELINE: What do you think is the basis of Kinetic’s success, then?

PANN: What is the definition of success? We've been around since 1999, that's a good 17 years. Is that considered a success? For Carolyn [Teo] and I, we value the people we work with and what they think of us. I rate working closely together like a family as a success. We have an art director and an account servicing staff who have been with us for 14 years. Most of our people have been with us for a long time.

CELINE: Tell me about the people you work with: who are the ones who influence you?

PANN: Everyone influences me, in different ways. Whoever I work with, no matter how junior, I learn stuff. The cleaning auntie, for example, makes her own kimchi so I ask her, ‘How do you do this?’ It’s not that I'm going to be a chef. You never know what you're going to do one day. Ideas are interesting in that way, because you never know when you will apply them one day. So I just try to absorb as much as I can.

CELINE: Any other particular experiences that you absorbed that left a mark on you?

PANN: Honestly, these things happen all the time to me. When I was growing up, my dad showed me tough love. He was a violin teacher and taught my siblings. My sister was the youngest violin player in the SSO and did that for a living for over forty years. He also taught my brother, and when I saw them learning, it was hardcore—tears were always shed. So when it was my turn to pick, I said I wanted to learn the piano because my dad didn't teach the piano. I still got a shelling every day because he could read my manuscripts very well, and knew what I had done wrong. It was still a traumatic experience. He always scolded, "Zo ho sei." And I didn't understand why. As I grew older, I realised: it's true! Your design can be slipshod, but if you do it properly, it makes a huge difference. Hence, this "do properly" mentality has become a philosophy I live by.

CELINE: Has there been anything you’ve not done properly in your professional life?

PANN: I try to do everything properly. I have a benchmark. In my experience, there are projects that will go south, but you can still make the best of it. At least when the project is completed, no one can say it's good or bad. Projects like that come and go. I don't want the bad kind of chatter.

CELINE: Are you a glass full or glass half empty kind of person?

PANN: Don't know. Never thought of that. I think it's both leh.

I'm the kind who reads an article and thinks: surely there is a back story somewhere. There are always two sides.

CELINE: I think you're both too, actually. It seems to me you can always see the different sides.

PANN: You have to right? Because no matter how thin a piece of paper is, it still has two sides. When people fight, it's because both think they are right and the other party is wrong. I'm the kind who reads an article and thinks: surely there is a back story somewhere. There are always two sides. And because you know there are two sides, you can be more thorough with your work: you will have more depth and objectivity towards making the outcome as fair as possible. It's not possible to be 100 per cent fair, but I'll try my best to be as reasonable as I can.

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CELINE: How do you stay reasonable when it happens to you though? Like in the case of your kids having to take down their artwork at The National Gallery.

PANN: I was disappointed and angry, but I had to be honest with myself: I shouldn't cover up how I was feeling and at the same time I needed to let the kids know that the situation was wrong. My good friends Yah-Leng and Arthur [of Foreign Policy Design Group] invited us—we met sometime in late July, it wasn't a slipshod thing. We took the brief at a meeting with floor plans. I looked at the floor plans and estimated the space needed 17 to 19 pieces. The truth is this: you're invited by respectable friends in the industry who could have invited anyone else who could possibly do a better job than us, but they wanted us to be their opening act. That is something. My brief to the kids was: ‘We must put every single bit of our commitment to this. At no point should we stray and be lazy. We must put up our best efforts.’ The reason I felt so terrible about having to take the paintings down was because no one knew what we went through to make this happen. The kids didn’t go out for three months—every day, as long as there was time, we would work on the art pieces.

CELINE: Your son had his PSLE. . .

PANN: My son also had his PSLE during that time and it was very hard for him to juggle both. And from the press release, the space has always been an exhibition plus workshop space. There was also no way Claire and I could have exchanged for our contractor passes and gone in and put all the artwork up for two days without being seen.

CELINE: Sounds like it could have been major miscommunication. Did the National Gallery offer any alternatives?

PANN: There should have been some sort of mediation, but it was so cold and hard. The National Gallery did offer one alternative–a really jialat one. I had meetings with the CEO, Gallery Director and Director of Business & Corporate Strategic Development Group. I shared with them that this is a very sensitive project because it's all done by kids, and the invitations have already been sent out. We went on 938LIVE and the exhibition was also featured in The Business Times. We’ll have to answer to the guests if they turn up and see a white space. The remark I got was, "Then that is just a misfortune." I think sometimes people in high places don't understand compassion. That Saturday, we were still in the middle of an email exchange, so I continued to put up the exhibition. The Director of Business & Corporate Strategic Development Group came and shouted at me to take all the paintings down. I kept my cool and explained the situation and paintings to him. He said, "Yah lah, I know your kids can draw very well, lah. You want to put all their work up." I said it's not about that. He said, "If it is so important, these two will be up. The rest all take down." We had 19 paintings and he told me to leave three up. He said that if I did not agree, he would cordon the place immediately and remove everything. I told him to give me 2 hours before I make a decision but after 30 minutes, I received a call from a friend who told me the exhibition was already cordoned off and was out of bounds. The exhibition was a site-specific exhibition so 19 artworks were intentionally planned for the space—and to cut it down from 19 to 3 is really disrespectful to the time spent and integrity of the show. Imagine, Colonel Sander’s KFC recipe has 11 herbs and spices: Can you still serve the same product with three herbs and spices?

Claire and I have to be role models to Renn and Aira, and we want them to know that sometimes the right decision might not be an easy or popular one.

CELINE: No, not at all. Do you believe then, that people either have integrity or don’t?

PANN: There are many factors that make or break a project. But I am honest in the way I do things, and make sure that I have integrity. Claire and I have to be role models to Renn and Aira, and we want them to know that sometimes the right decision might not be an easy or popular one.

CELINE: The National Gallery incident must have left a sour feeling.

PANN: Until today my kids are still slightly affected by it. They don't feel like wanting to go to the building sometimes. I will say, “We should go to the National Gallery—there is a new exhibition.” But they react with less enthusiasm. I don't blame them. Even as an adult I should be able to handle this very well, but I sometimes think back about last year's crazy period—because I was juggling work as well—it was mad. But I also learned no matter how prepared you are, some surprises will always come up. And you have to be stellar about it.

CELINE: And you don’t believe in harming relationships as you go along...

PANN: We shouldn't, right? It was beautiful when Yah-Leng and Arthur approached us and said: “Are you okay to do this?” I replied: “What the hell are you talking about? Of course! It's an honour.” I told them I was very sorry when I had to post the incident on Facebook. I knew they would be implicated indirectly, so I wanted to make it known that they fought and negotiated very hard to keep the exhibition intact but to no avail.

CELINE: I think it’s great that you’re able to sweep the differences aside and suggest going to the National Gallery with your children... 

PANN: We can't our hide feelings of disappointment. We should feel disappointed, but for how long? For me, five minutes. Why should we harp on it? Can something be changed? If it can, I will solve it on the spot. If not, there are better things to think about. Like a new idea or...

CELINE: . . . A new module. Are you still lecturing at Temasek Polytechnic?

PANN: I stopped in 2013 because I was then very involved in Holycrap.sg and Noise Singapore. I was juggling too many things. It took me a long time to make the decision, and in the end I got selfish—I could either influence other people’s kids, or my own kids. I felt bad I chose my own kids because I’ve always felt that if you’re an educator, you’ll educate everyone. There is this Chinese saying: “you jiao wu lei” which means you’ll teach everyone. You don’t pick your students. I was giving up students I could possibly influence, and even if it’s just one—he or she can go out to do so many things. That’s all we need. But I think being a Creative is just part of the journey for me. Maybe I’m collecting all my experiences to do another thing. It’s a bit too early to tell, but my end goal could be to become a lecturer.

CELINE: What about starting a school? Is that a possibility?

PANN: I would like to go into teaching for sure, whether it’s part-time or full-time. I’m definitely interested. A school—why not? Though I've never really put serious thought into it.

CELINE: If that does happen, how would you run your school?

PANN: If I have my way, we would chart the students weekly, and monitor them based on whether the student is attentive, a team player in class, and so on. Our education system has always been about results, but it’s not the schools that are interested in the results, it's the parents who are interested. It becomes a vicious cycle, and it is almost impossible to change the way parents think.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap

(Celine is a freelance writer and editor.)