Though the way Singaporean design studio Fellow describes itself on its website may beat around the bush a bit, the young practice is all about creating approachable work. In just the past year, founders Izyanti Asa’ari and Iffah Dahiyah have steadily built a reputation with projects like interactive exhibitions on lost Southeast Asian films, or a series of booklets showcasing the national library’s arts collection—just two examples of the bright, typographically sensitive designs that Fellow delivers to its mostly arts and cultural clients. Some have labeled Fellow’s designs “cute,” which Izyanti refutes outright. “I don’t wanna be cute!” She and Iffah prefer empathic.
They first met in design school almost a decade ago, and after graduation Iffah started Faculty, a studio specializing in UI and UX design, while Izyanti worked at the type design studio, Relay Room. They teamed up in 2015 when Izyanti started freelancing and needed help designing an exhibition for the Asian Film Archive called Celluloid Void: The Lost Films of Southeast Asia.
The two had so much fun on the project they decided to make a go of it professionally. However, Iffah still wanted to keep Faculty, so Izyanti proposed Fellow as a sister studio; the name hinted at the idea of relationships as the core of their practice. “When you assume a friendship with your design partners and clients, you’re building empathy,” says Izyanti. “That’s the main way we approach design.”
For Iffah, partnering up meant the opportunity to work on other projects besides Faculty’s mainly UI and UX work for the transportation industry. Plus, she adds, “I cannot say no to this person; the kind of projects she brings in is just a pull factor.”
Since then, the two graphic designers have unexpectedly carved a niche for designing arts and culture exhibitions, despite having little prior experience. Their different design methods, one based on “feelings” and the other on “logic”—Izyanti typically conceptualizes the content into stories while Iffah figures out how to translate them into physical systems—have resulted in exhibitions that go beyond displays and tell stories through experiences.
For the recent show, Script & Stage: Theatre in Singapore from the ’50s to ’80s, they warmed up the cool glass interiors of the national library with raw plywood platforms. Alongside texts and printed matter, Fellow created panels that lift up to reveal facts, and also loop audio recordings of the curators discussing the plays. “I don’t mind reading a lot, but I’m well aware that is hardly the case for everybody else,” says Izyanti. “The reason why we do the interaction bits is because we want a spark of joy for visitors to remember.”
Interactivity coupled with bold type and colors is typical of Fellow’s approach to historical exhibitions. The catalogue for the second edition of Celluloid Void is torn open to reveal a distorted collage of black and white photographs, and the brochure for the screening of a 1920s horror film came in neon orange and a gold foil stamp, a look inspired by joss paper the Chinese burn as offerings to the dead.
Izyanti is a budding poet and artist, while Iffah previously worked in a non-profit that translates Southeast Asian craft into design products; so working on arts and culture projects allows Fellow to bring their interests together for client work, and share them with a larger audience. Izyanti feels that creative work for this sector usually “veers between design that only talks to itself… and design that talks to everybody and nobody at the same time.”
Iffah adds, “What helps me sleep at night is whatever work we are trying to do is to help these artists be relatable to an audience, and not just a small community.”