HUI WEN CHIN: What does it take to be a good designer?
LARRY PEH: That’s a big question. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of a designer. We’re experiencing great “disruption” in our industry and a designer’s role has expanded beyond what it used to be. Today, a good designer needs to understand business strategy because it helps him create advertising and design strategies that work. In the past, clients provided the research on their market segment and target audience. But now, we’re expected to take on that business research. A designer also needs to have a deep understanding of the human condition—because at its essence, design aids humans by helping us solve problems and deal with the ever-changing environment.
HUI WEN: It definitely sounds like designers are shouldering a lot of work. How would you describe your work process?
LARRY: Our work system has three steps: discover, analyse and prototype. In the discovery stage, we do a thorough investigation of the client’s business and talk to everyone from the CEO to the cleaning lady. We then analyse our research, which sometimes reveals issues such as unclear brand positioning. For example, our client might say their target audience is high net worth individuals, but their product is actually for the mass market. We can’t be expected to work with a moving target audience. We take this information back to the client to resolve any outstanding issues and eventually design a prototype, proposing a specific solution catering to the client’s true needs.
A designer should leave no stone unturned during the research for each project.
HUI WEN: You describe yourself as being “fussy” about your work. Why is being picky a good thing?
LARRY: A designer should leave no stone unturned during the research for each project. I also like to revisit problems over and over again until we submit our work.
HUI WEN: How long does it take to do justice to a project?
LARRY: It’s hard to peg an exact amount of time because each project is different. For example, if a client’s plan is to sell their business in three years, we don’t need to go too deep into branding work because all they need is a beautiful brand identity. However, with clients like Bynd Artisan who have a long-term vision of their brand, we need six to eight months to really understand what they want in order to execute the plan. The true effect can only be seen two to three years later.
HUI WEN: What do you look out for when you take on a client?
LARRY: First, they need to be passionate about their work. Second, they need to believe in their product. Third, what they do has to be useful to people. And fourth, we need to have respect for each other—the onus should not be solely on me to impress them with my pitch. Since we are going to work together as partners, we should come up with the solution together.
HUI WEN: I am aware you only present one option to your clients. Does your in-depth research give you the confidence to do so?
LARRY: Yes. Some people assume my confidence comes from being cocky, but that’s not true because I have faith in my research. There’s only ever one solution, though sometimes I include two or three slight variations. To illustrate, imagine your client is a family that likes going to the beach, having picnics and flying kites. What kind of car do they need? The answer would be a MPV—it is big enough to fit a family and there is space in the boot to fit a surf board or a picnic basket. You might suggest variations like a BMW, Mercedes or Subaru minivan… but you would never suggest a Ferarri because how would everyone squeeze into that?
HUI WEN: That’s a great concrete example of problem-solving. Since you aim to “help people solve problems”, what has been your most satisfying issue to tackle so far?
LARRY: Once, a client came to me wanting to refresh their brand image. But branding wasn’t their real problem. After doing more research, we found that the client actually wanted to push their team to be more productive. After interviewing the team, we realised they weren’t performing because they were under stress. The office had an open layout so the employees felt like they were being watched constantly. Our solution was a new layout that separated the bosses from their employees. The problem required design thinking and we could not have solved it using design alone. Ultimately, I’m not concerned with the medium as long as I can help people solve problems.
HUI WEN: Sometimes project budgets don’t allow for high-priced solutions like office renovations. Do you have any tricks to working with modest resources?
LARRY: There are no tricks. Being honest with the client about what they can do with their resources is key. Here’s an analogy: $100 gets you a fine dining meal and $2 gets you mixed rice at a hawker centre. You can always work with what you have—don’t dismiss a small budget.
I don’t get creative blocks because I use common sense to solve problems.
HUI WEN: Do you ever experience creative blocks?
LARRY: I don’t get creative blocks because I use common sense to solve problems. However, I do experience language blocks at times—I might have a solution in my head but it’s hard to put it to words for a proposal.
HUI WEN: You like to design using pencil and paper—why do you prefer this method?
LARRY: I like the tactility of manual work. There’s nothing wrong with technology—in fact, technology allows us to craft things like PlayStation games, rendering game graphics with a new level of detail that would be hard to achieve with pencil and paper. With multicore processors and graphics chipsets, photorealism can be achieved, showing everything from nuances in characters’ expressions to sweat dripping down their faces. My favourite designers Charles and Ray Eames once famously said, “Take your pleasure seriously.” They meant that even the simplest pleasures such as games should be designed with great care. And I would think they’d approve of designing video games with technology.
HUI WEN: What other pleasures do you take seriously?
LARRY: I collect vintage toys, especially Japanese kaijus (strange-looking monsters). These toys appeal to me because I always try to find beauty in ugliness. I also take pleasure in my art photography collection. I wanted to be a photographer when I was growing up and I am deeply inspired by the work of Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Fabien Baron.
HUI WEN: Besides collecting vintage toys and photography, you’ve also collected many awards for your work. Which award is your proudest achievement?
LARRY: Winning Designer of the Year at the President’s Design Awards in 2014. It made the people around me happy: my team, my clients and my folks. It’s one of the few awards my parents truly value and winning it made them feel like I had “made it” as a designer.
HUI WEN: You have two children. Would you encourage them to work in design?
LARRY: I have a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. My daughter is the more artistic one but I’d like to keep her options open. She can be whoever she wants to be: a chef, a poet… The one caveat is that she can’t expect me to pay for it. That’s what my parents told me when I was a child. Although I come from a middle-class family and we did okay for ourselves, I knew I could not fall back on my parents to pay for things. As a student, I wanted a Nikon camera but we just couldn't afford it. So, I made do with the cheapest camera on the market and did freelance work to help save money to pay for it. Presently, I won’t pay to sustain my kids’ careers. If they can get a grant or a scholarship to go overseas to study, then they can go ahead and pursue whatever career they want.
HUI WEN: Are you raising your kids in the same way you were brought up?
LARRY: Like my parents, I don’t believe in sparing the rod. I was quite hard on my kids when they were younger. But I’m also different from my parents in that I don’t dismiss my children’s ideas. I take what they say very seriously and I am sensitive to their emotions.
HUI WEN: In the past few months, what is the smallest change you have made that has had the biggest positive result?
LARRY: I have been sleeping earlier. Never underestimate sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, you get tired and angry.
HUI WEN: Besides client work, are there any personal projects you work on in your spare time?
LARRY: Yes, I started a series of social commentary projects for the studio. And this included creating shoes for Singa the Courtesy Lion, which I gave the tongue-in-cheek title, “Courtesy, My Foot”. I did that back in 2009 when no one was celebrating Singapore culture. Now, it's great to have lots of cool Singapore design work by folks like Made for SAM and Supermama.
I’m very proud to be Singaporean—I hate it when people mock Singaporeans.
HUI WEN: Your personal projects have a local focus. How nationalistic are you?
LARRY: I’m very proud to be Singaporean—I hate it when people mock Singaporeans.
HUI WEN: And what makes Singapore design unique?
LARRY: Design in Singapore is still very young so it is not completely refined, yet it does have a distinct, quirky appeal. For example, I love our ugly community centre banners and there’s a strange greenish tinge to everyone’s skin—especially the ones with the ministers saying, “We are with you!” These banners may be hokey-looking, but I grew up with them and they have a special place in my heart. You can’t find such designs anywhere else in the world.
HUI WEN: What’s on your bucket list?
LARRY: I’d like to be able to retire and not worry about three meals every day. Then, I could do free design consultation for schools or charities and really use my skills to help those in need. Hopefully, I’ll reach that goal in 10 to 15 years.
HUI WEN: Finally, what would you like your legacy to be?
LARRY: Like Lao Tze or Confucius, I want my work philosophy to continue to inspire people even after I'm gone.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap