Back To Speeches

Speech by Mr Robert Tomlin

FRIDAY, 22 MAY 2015 (SESSION 14)

Salutations to honored guests

It is my pleasure to have students from both the School of Design and of Architecture, with their parents, today. You students are the proud  inheritors of a tradition of design which began in 1958, when SP opened Singapore's first school of Architecture. So SP has been a founder institution in design in Singapore,  predating  independence.  

While I  have a lot to say to you students, I also want to say thank you to your parents. Most parents who have steered their children through the school system know that grades matter, homework has to be done, often with a parent's help, and at the end are the O levels with their grades. And now  your child has chosen to do design, gone off to this huge campus, and comes back home with what?

I had the chance to visit the Design school with  Soo Yin and some of her colleagues last week. We dropped in on some classes. You graduates may have forgotten this, but here were all these freshies making paper aero planes, which had to stay in the air for 10 seconds when dropped from a bridge. Then we saw a large class looking at graphics, apparently busy moving letters round a screen. How do you grade a paper plane, or presenting good graphics?  I imagined the conversations these youngsters had with their parents that night. Some parents must have cried into their pillows, thinking their young  were wasting years of education.

You graduates are the lucky ones, whose parents believed in you, in your dream to go into design. If I can quote from your  website, where some parents are interviewed:

Trust their talents; Follow their passion; Silence our own fear; SP is the place to go

I will come back to graphics before I finish, but I wanted to tell all of you about one remarkable designer, who was here in Singapore two months ago.

Who has been to the National Design Centre? How saw the Thomas Heatherwick exhibition? (Show of hands.) Thomas Heatherwick is a British designer who is just completing a building at NTU. While it takes a while to find it, it is unmistakeable when  you see it, all curves in a sea of squares. It is a place where students meet, and it is designed almost like a theatre, so everyone can see each other. Lots of creative use of surfaces, and the beehive look of the facade required customizing the pre cast components. It will be open soon, do take a look.

Heatherwick has designed a new London bus; he designed the British pavilion at the Shanghai Expo; the Olympic torch at the London Olympics; and a folding bridge in London. An amazing and varied portfolio of work. He has been called the Leonardo da Vinci of our time. Certainly he is one of the most versatile designers of this young century.

I am telling you about him because he teaches us just how far design can take you. Like every  good designer, he works out what is the specific customer need. As many of you know, what the customer says he wants, and what he really needs, may be different.  You designers need to step back and look carefully at the brief you are given.

Heatherwick looks at the materials available,  and what are the properties of those materials. In many cases his solutions require innovative use of materials, and as the NTU building demonstrates, he works with suppliers to create a completely new product.

For those of you lucky enough to see the  exhibition at the NDC, you will have seen examples of all of these works, plus his very first project, a garden pavilion. As he said, you have to build something before you graduate, and he begged, borrowed and stole to create this funky self supporting structure.

Now before parents get restless, I am here to make  some key points to your children, and maybe they will help all of us move Singapore closer to being  a world leader in design. If I may do some advertising for our Design Council, all of you should be aware that all the countries  we view as being design leaders believe Singapore has created a framework for design which will help young Singapore designers succeed.

I will elaborate as I cover my three key topics, and I want  to finish with a few quotations from another graduation day speech, from someone you all know.
My three topics:
First, what is Design ,and can my child make a living doing it?
Second, what does it take to be a good designer?
And third, what are the design challenges you will face in the world outside?

If I may, I will answer the first question by quoting a wise Japanese designer, and I used this definition when we opened the  National Design Centre.

“In the past half century, the word design has gained global recognition. It is a key word that will continue to evolve as humankind moves forward. The word embodies a full range of meanings and issues, such as functionality, safety, ecological concerns, the economy and industry, concern for the well-being of others, and communication."

As many of your graduates know, even the countries we all admire for design-  Italy, Denmark, Japan-  use the English word Design to describe this phenomenon.

As with my Heatherwick example, design is a process, or more accurately design thinking is a process, which forces the designer to examine the core need of the client, whether it is a physical space, a cheaper product, a user friendly product, or just something where there is nothing.

My DSG colleagues know I am a great fan of the Index Awards, in  Denmark. The definition  of what they are looking for is: Design to Improve Life. So simple, and over a  Thousand entries are submitted every two years, with 60 shortlisted and five gaining prizes of Euro 100,000 each.

I tell you this because everyone in this room can find a solution which improves life.  But a designer who finds a solution which can improve the life of the sick, the poor, the cold and the hungry is truly improving life. We have seen clockwork fetal monitors to check on the heart beat of unborn children, in countries with no electricity. I remember the two Iranian girls, who devised an iron-on tape with reflecting colours to put on their chadors, showing drivers in unlit streets that they were there. And the Mexican urban planners who created a basic housing shell which poor people could buy, and as they had money they could add rooms and  amenities.

Scalable good design is the ultimate goal of all designers.

Now will you be able to survive, and what can your parents expect you to do to feed yourself?
First, recognize that you have to follow opportunity. If you studied graphic design but someone asks you to design a kettle, go for it. Do not get into a mindset which sets limits on what you can attempt. Some years ago we gave a Presidents Design award to Dyson Vacuum cleaners, for a motor in a new model. You will never see this, but a team had redesigned the motor inside to be smaller, more efficient, and much cheaper. It would never have happened except that one engineer who has worked in electrical engineering was brought into the mechanical engineering team. He knew how to miniaturize. Usually he would sit in his box while the engine boys were in theirs, but the design team combined their skills. It took designers to get them all out of their boxes. You must never limit yourself, and grab every opportunity to do stuff.

Your parents need to know that designers often work as freelance contractors, work weird hours, dress weirdly, and every now and then will be between jobs. There are very few regular jobs in design, and a lot of you aspire to be your own bosses. Over the next few years you will learn  what works for you, with whom do you work best, and how to find the dream of scalable design. Be grateful that Mum puts a square meal in front of you when work is hard to find.

But work there is, and the best of you will be invited to work abroad, some perhaps for the giants in their industry. Who knows, be ready to answer the call, have your portfolio ready.

My next point, how do you succeed, has many possible answers.

I have already stated that you should follow the opportunity. There is currently at NAFA a beautiful exhibition of the work of Sori Yanagi, a Japanese designer who  designed everything from ceramics to road tunnels. Please go to see it. The core values: simplicity, functionality, and affordability, should be part of all of your values. And for a man who started with ceramics, boy did he stretch the envelope.

It is essential that you travel. Singapore is a small place, and to get perspective on it you need to see other cultures, other ways of doing things. When you travel you will appreciate that, contrary to some thinking, Singapore is a wonderful jumping off point for any designer. As a wise man said, Singapore is a house with windows open in all directions, to China, to India, to Japan, to the US. Singaporeans live with incredible diversity, deal with complex daily problems of diet, dress, culture, you name it, which single culture societies do not know.

Happily today you can travel very cheaply. Go to Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, anytime. The more adventurous go to Europe, especially to Italy and Scandinavia, you will find English carries you a long way.

Look at the solutions local designers have found for other countries' problems.

Some of you may want to do further studies, so look at what  both local and foreign schools offer.  DSG has a  scholarship scheme, as do other government agencies, but your parents need to know what such studies cost. It needs high conviction, and, sad to say, top grades.

When you are ready to take your design abroad, say to a trade fair, you will come and talk to the Design Council. We can help fund qualified designers going abroad, picking up about half of your costs. There is nothing that beats being in the Milan Furniture Fair, or a fashion show in Seoul. Almost without exception, the Singapore designers who are world class are known because they took their work to a major international forum.

A word for some of you who are not distinction students. You are all young. For some of you the talent within may still be buried deep. It will emerge when you are out and working, and your own sense of what works and what excites you is better developed. So going back to school later, changing jobs, learning from adversity, all this may uncover talents which you and we cannot see today. The President of the big US university, Johns Hopkins, said: A and B students are great, but look out for the Cs and Ds. They will be hungry, they will change things, they will give back to society.

Last point, what re the challenges you will face in the world ahead of you.

First, we in Singapore face an ageing population, as does Japan, soon China, and already most of Europe. Singapore is well placed to develop new solutions to caring for the aged which leave our parents with their dignity, and do not exhaust caregivers.

Second, the developed world has to learn to make more with less. I quote the new strategy of Unilever:

Our vision is to double the size of our business, reduce our environmental footprint, and increase our positive social impact.

In a few words one of the world's largest consumer goods company is committing to grow, using less inputs, and improving its social impact.

They go well beyond this is their sustainability objectives, and because they buy massive quantities of some raw materials they are changing the way many commodities are grown and  processed, and what the producers get paid for them. Nestle is not far behind.

Think of what this men for the design industry. Foods with harmful ingredients will be reformulated; packaging will be made recyclable or reduced; hygiene products will need less water to work etc..

The wider issue of sustainability takes us to the concept of Cradle to Cradle, where a product is designed such that all of its components can be recycled efficiently, preferably for a higher use.

There is no end to the need for creative redesign of most things in our lives, in a world that is resource constrained.

So if I may end with three  quotations, with attribution, from a graduation day speech made by Steve Jobs, at Stanford University in California. I do not think I need to tell the students who he was, but for the older folks like me he was the founder of Apple, and the man who put smartphones in the hands of your children.

He dropped out from college. But he went to classes which interested him.


Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them.

Second Quote

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love.... Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

Third and last quote

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, and I wish all of  you  the very best in your life after Singapore Poly.

Back To Speeches