When the founders of Pupilpeople became parents two years ago, the graphic designers struggled to find quality toys for their baby boy. Disappointed with gimmicky, plasticky gadgets, unsafe and overly-instructive playthings, Sean Kelvin Khoo and Nicole Ong designed their own toys for little Elias instead.
This gave birth to OddBlocks, a set of eight cubes that each unpack into three curious objects. An off-kilter semi-circle, an asymmetrical rectangle and a trapezoid with a chewed-off top are just some of the 24 odd-shaped toys created to help children build from their imagination and discover new shapes and forms.
“A toy is meant to be played with, but a lot of times what we saw in the market was that the product became an educational tool,” explains Khoo. “It’s very Singaporean; everything must [be used to] train my child to be a genius… to be good at maths, good at physics…”
While agreeing that children learnt best through play, the young parents wanted to be less prescriptive in their designs. What started as an open-ended graphic puzzle turned into a three-dimensional product when their studio designer Kong Wen Da roped in industrial designer Jamie Yeo to help. The quartet came up with a sleek plastic prototype in less than half a year, but after testing it with Elias they realized its weight and sharp corners were inappropriate for children. Unlike the “cold” plastic, cork proved a lighter and more environmentally sustainable alternative. The designers were also delighted to discover this made the blocks ideal for printmaking.
Printmaking is just one of several functions that Pupilpeople have found for OddBlocks, and used workshops they conduct under their new initiative Why, O, Why! (w, o, w!), a design school for kids where the eight-year-old studio is developing more products and experiences to nurture creativity in children. For Ong, this is a baby step towards her dream of running a childcare center to address the lack of play and joy in learning among children in Singapore. Growing up, Ong hardly recalls playing, and was creatively stumped the first time she played Lego with Elias. “I was like, ‘Build what? What can I do with it?’” Watching her son have fun building whatever he imagined helped Ong learn that play could establish a sense of discovery. “Is it the children’s fault for not enjoying [what they do] or is it our fault for not exposing them enough to find what they love?” she asks.
This also explains Pupilpeople’s recent shift from client work to design education. Khoo discovered a love for teaching when he signed up to lecture part-time 2011. Three years later, the arrival of a Risograph printer in the studio enabled him to experiment with teaching outside of design school. Inspired by overseas initiatives such as the ad-hoc Parallel School, which focuses on art and design as a process, Khoo, Ong and their designer, Kong, founded Areas of Interest to conduct workshops based on the philosophy of “making as a way of thinking”. In one early class, they challenged participants to design and produce printed matter within the limitations of Risograph technology.
“We wanted to create a platform where people could do things that were not typically what we see as design output, and we were trying to challenge what design is,” he explains.
From this year onwards, Khoo will be conducting his experiments on a large scale as a full-time lecturer at Singapore’s pioneering design college, Temasek Design School. While excited by the possibilities that lie ahead, Khoo refuses to tie himself down to a desired outcome and stresses how discovery will continue to be at the heart of both practising and teaching design.
“Design is a form of play,” he says. “Rather than a didactic way of teaching… trying to make clones of myself, I’m trying to discover each individual student’s unique disposition, their own individuality.”