Singapore lays out 30-year vision to nurture design thinkers of the future

By Ming En Liew

Singapore’s Design Education Advisory Committee this week released a report detailing its plans and recommendations for grooming a new generation of design thinkers for a global and resilient workforce.

Singapore’s Design Education Advisory Committee, set up in early 2020, was tasked with furthering design education in the city-state. Image: DesignSingapore Council

“Good design is invisible.” So goes the design industry axiom. When designs work as they should, the experience should be seamless, effortless and instinctive.

Singapore’s Covid-19 vaccination drive might serve as an example of this. The city-state successfully vaccinated nearly 90 per cent of its population in less than a year, an achievement made possible in part by a vaccination platform created by experimental technology agency Open Government Products.

Designed with inclusion in mind, the platform had instructions in Singapore’s four national languages and an easy-to-understand interface that even those less tech-savvy could navigate with ease. It allowed people to book vaccination appointments easily and with minimal fuss.

The platform’s architecture attests to the importance of design in helping the country manage not only the pandemic but also countless other matters. In recognition of design's importance, Singapore created the Design Education Advisory Committee (DEAC) in early 2020.

The DEAC brings together design educators, industry leaders and the government to jointly shape design education in Singapore. It is tasked with two key mandates: to develop design talents with transdisciplinary skill sets and to equip non-design professionals with design sensibilities.
The DEAC’s design education vision comprises six pillars that aim to create a globally recognised Singapore design brand. Image: DesignSingapore Council

DEAC this week released its first-term report announcing a 30-year vision to achieve these goals. The report outlined three key recommendations to further design education in Singapore that were broken down into six pillars, and presented 11 design ideas and action points for the years ahead.

Brand Singapore

The DEAC’s first recommendation is to create a design education system that is globally recognised, but which incorporates Singapore’s distinctive characteristics. When asked to define Singapore’s design philosophy, Dawn Lim, Executive Director of DesignSingapore Council, said: “Practical and pragmatic.”

Low Cheaw Hwei, DEAC’s Chairman, said: “Singapore, as we know, is a design project in itself.”

Much of Singapore’s design philosophy over the years has been built upon the need for creative problem-solving amid a variety of constraints such as a lack of natural resources, perhaps especially land. Low said Singapore’s public housing projects were a clear example of the nation’s design principles.

“I think we have something to offer to the world, because the world has been looking to Singapore to solve a lot of nation-building problems,” he said.

Low said Singapore’s design philosophy had been built over more than three decades of design education, and that with that experience under its belt, DEAC is now able confidently to establish a clear direction on how to approach design education in the city-state.
The DEAC’s design education vision comprises six pillars that aim to create a globally recognised Singapore design brand. Image: DEAC

Reshaping design education

To help Singapore achieve its design education vision, the DEAC spent the first two years of its term working on four problem statements, and it went on to formulate 11 ideas to address those problem statements. In its first term, it developed eight of those ideas into prototypes as a proof-of-concept.

The first problem statement related to how Singapore can develop designers whose skills extend beyond mere design, because, Low said, design today is no longer viewed simply as a discipline, and it is becoming more ubiquitous as a capability beyond creative industries.

Designers will increasingly be expected to work in areas beyond their discipline, and will thus need to be equipped with a wider range of skills to excel in future workplaces. One way in which the DEAC hopes to promote this is through “bootcamps”, at which tertiary students are exposed to skills not typically taught in the formal curriculum.

In June, the DEAC brought together 38 students and 15 faculty members from four tertiary education institutions to participate in a bootcamp entitled “The Design Leadership Challenge”. During the five-day event, students were mentored by entrepreneurs and worked to develop entrepreneurial ideas to address health and wellness issues.
At the DEAC’s bootcamps, students receive mentoring from entrepreneurs and gain the opportunity to acquire new skills. Image: DEAC
At the conclusion of the bootcamp, students explained that they were able to apply their design skills to a wider range of work, and that they had also acquired tools that had helped improve their design.

In an anonymised survey, one student said: “After attending the Design Leadership Challenge, I managed to apply sketching as a form of ideation in my works to better help visualise my projects! I was also able to use tools like user journey mapping and persona making to make understanding my user needs an easier process.”

For the remainder of the year, the DEAC plans to expand the bootcamp initiative to other partners and tertiary education institutions to expose more design students to transdisciplinary skills.

The second problem statement the DEAC identified is the need to demonstrate the impact of design education. To this end, the DEAC proposed a National Design Project open to participation by non-design students that involves a series of design challenges curated by industry leaders. The aim is to expose participants to core design skills and help them gain an improved appreciation of the trade.

Third, the DEAC sought to bridge the industry-academia gap. The committee proposed to do so through a more seamless career pathway, partnering with Nanyang Polytechnic and advertising agency Tribal Worldwide Singapore on a proof-of-concept, allowing design students from the polytechnic to spend the final year of their studies working in the ad agency.

The idea is to give the students exposure to work on projects for real clients, and thus gain a better understanding of the full spectrum of creative work that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience. For instance, the students experience the ins and outs of project management and campaign planning in addition to design work.

“I was exposed to aspects of management in film, production and advertising which I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced in my course,” said Ng Xiang Yun, a final-year student pursuing a Diploma in Motion Graphics Design at Nanyang Polytechnic. She also described her first-hand experience of seeing how videos are produced, from ideation to execution, a process she could not experience through lectures.

Beyond the skills directly related to her course, Ng said the internship had afforded her opportunities to “dive deeper into the concepts of advertising and marketing, something that our course has touched upon, but not as in-depth.”

The final problem statement builds upon the others, and seeks to bring together students, educators and industry to work together on shaping the future of design. Part of this involves student-driven internships, during which students can take the lead in pitching collaboration ideas with interested companies. They can also form teams to solve industry challenges for some of these companies.

Design education for the future

“The future of design is very much the future of our human existence,” Lim said, adding that it’s found in every facet of our lives today – in the phones we use, the places we go, and even in policies that govern the way we work, live and travel.

“And the future of design is very much dependent on future designers,” she said, explaining that the DEAC was created to nurture future designers, equip them with the skills they need to thrive, and to help design a better future as a result.

The DEAC’s first term saw it lay the groundwork for enhancing design education across Singapore’s tertiary education institutions. In its next term, the team plans to look beyond Singapore’s borders, seeking advice from overseas experts on design education to stay in tune with global trends.

On home ground, it will continue to strengthen the foundations of what it has laid out by working more closely with the stakeholders involved.

“The more stakeholders are involved in this, the more effective we will be in nurturing people who will develop Singapore into a global design capital,” Low said.