A series of accidents led Vanessa Ban into graphic design. After majoring in fashion photography, she realized commercial shoots weren’t really her thing, so the Singaporean signed up for a graphic design degree in Australia, but she changed her mind at the last minute when her mother gave in to her wish to study in London.
With budget for only two years of college, Ban had to give up on her dream of studying at the famed Central Saint Martins, instead ending up at the London College of Communication (LCC) in 2009, which “actually turned out to be a much better accidental choice.”
It was here that the focus of her creative output took shape. She recalls a moment when her tutor, the late Nic Hughes, stopped her habit of sketching for class assignments and suggested she play with the photocopier and typography instead. The result was Tokyo, a fictional book whose clean, silver cover caught the attention of many design blogs and was even featured in the 2011 book, Imprint—Innovative Book and Promo Design.
“It was a very surprising project that I liked a lot in the end,” says Ban. “It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t threatened to break my pencil and make me experiment.”
That encounter also gave birth to the hallmarks of Studio Vanessa Ban, a solo practice established after returning home in 2012 that has steadily built a highly conceptual and typographic repertoire. Consider the 2014 catalogue she created for the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore’s exhibition Sound: Latitudes and Attitudes. For this, Ban distilled sound into a series of abstract blue-and-white graphics. Patterns seemingly inspired by waveforms create section dividers while the cover is stamped with just a bold white circle that subtly suggests a speaker.
This ambiguous approach to design has resonated with the city’s emerging contemporary arts scene, where Ban has focused most of her work. In just four years, she has designed printed matter for emerging artists like Luke Heng and Khairullah Rahim, established galleries including the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and the Institute Contemporary of Art Singapore, and the biennial Singapore International Photography Festival 2014.
More recently, the NUS Museum commissioned her to design Concrete Island, a reader inspired by J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name. For this publication on passwords and the city, Ban created a sleek black-and-white graphic treatment resembling a 3D crossword puzzle. She also worked closely with curator Kenneth Tay to lay out the contributors’ essays and images in appropriate forms. For instance, the introduction is scattered across the book to be decoded, while a chapter featuring artist Geraldine Kang’s photos of construction fences in Singapore is presented as stickers for readers to paste onto pages of orange-lined grids.
Such unconventional designs arise out of “challenging” content and clients, which is what Ban enjoys about working for the arts. It is, she thinks, the opposite to business-driven clients who, “don’t really care about your research, they just want to see your options.”
It helps that Ban is interested in art, which led her studio to find a niche in the industry. While she’s an artist herself with a portfolio of concrete poetry-inspired prints, Ban regards this as separate from her design practice. Unlike art, which is more personal, she feels “a bit more detached” in design, allowing her to work with clients to earn a living.
The one exception is in design education, an area that Ban, as an adjunct lecturer at the The Glasgow School of Art Singapore, feels passionately about. The dedication of her tutors in London compared to Singapore inspired Ban to take up teaching as part of her practice. “The tutors actually pay a lot more attention than you would yourself,” she says. “It kind of makes you reflect… and be serious about stuff.”
This is what she seeks to impart to her students living in a city where she feels design is still not respected as a profession. Free pitching is common amongst Singaporean clients, and one even made the news recently for requesting to have unlimited changes for a project. For Ban, this is the fault of the existing education system, as designers are taught to be a pair of hands with which clients execute Pinterest-inspired ideas. Ban would have been one such designer years ago were it not for a relationship with a tutor who cared—a relationship she hopes to mirror with her own students.