"How To Work With Creative Partners "

Creative director CHRIS LEE of Asylum – the firm behind the National Gallery Singapore’s logo – tells Siti Maziah Masramli why mutual respect fuels the best creative projects.

When we did the branding for the National Gallery Singapore, we started with 200 identities. For the final chosen logo, there were some among the Gallery’s management team who loved it, and others who weren’t sure.

I think they were very brave to go with something that was not unanimous. When the logo later met with public uproar, the management team commented that no other logo would have got so much publicity. The publicity was good because it created discourse and an interest in how an identity is made.

Although the logo has its admirers, I’m afraid that some would take this project’s example as a warning not to rock the boat, or take a stand. By being safe, nothing innovative will happen (unless a team happens to get a strong leader with a great vision).

Have a common vision

Asylum prefers working on private sector projects, where we get to meet directly with the CEO or the decision makers to better understand their business. Bringing a point of view from the outside, we can give them solutions they have never thought of. A project needs these two energies in partnership to create something both effective and original.

I’ve found that the best projects happen when clients regard us as consultants, and give us the respect and freedom to let us do what we do best.

On big projects, it’s best to start by going through a visioning exercise. If there are any issues, bring them up. The exercise is really important to turn 10 people, including the designer, into one team with a common vision. Only then can I go in and say, this is my idea based on your vision.

Some clients that are not willing to take charge let the design company take the fall. They say, the agency can’t do what we want, when really, they are not clear what they want. The design company ends up shooting in the dark, and the final outcome is chosen based on how pleasing it looks, not on strategy or vision. 

Having a common vision is not the same as making a design decision by consensus, which is the worst thing. When a decision is made by consensus, the solution or idea is usually watered down to be agreeable in the eyes of the masses. The best way to design anything is to create from a common vision, and make objective decisions – unanimous or not – based on that.

No pitches please

I am also a big advocate of not pitching for projects. Our biggest asset is our intellectual property. Designers are invariably asked for concepts during a pitch. But once we show our hand, a client can say, I like your idea, but my budget is half of your fee – will you take it? That is a very big disadvantage for design companies.

Moreover, even though a client might not steal your idea outright, they can take it and brief another design company to tweak it, or say that’s roughly what they like – which has happened! It’s important to be aware of such things.

There are many other ways that clients can assess design companies. The public sector can ask for three quotes and look at the designers’ portfolios or track records. For a large-scale public sector project, I sent an A4 page of questions. I told the client that if they think I’m asking the right questions, then we are the right agency – and we won the project. I’ve also won another public sector project by requesting for an interview with the client.

During a pitch, clients are often not willing to give time for further interviews, because they would then be talking to everybody. But by cutting themselves off, they short-change themselves – without giving more information, they can’t get a lot of input. A partnership comes when both sides are willing to give. And remember, a good idea may not be one that makes everyone happy.

Chris Lee is the founder and creative director of Asylum. He won the President’s Design Award for Designer of the Year in 2009, and is the founding president of non-profit organisation The Design Society.

    Mar 18, 2015
    Siti Maziah
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