If not for design, Shannon Lim may still be bumming around in life. He never did his homework in school and spent his time skateboarding instead, until he set his mind on becoming a photographer. But in order to get into one of Singapore’s top design schools where photography is also taught, Lim realized he needed good grades.
“It was an epiphany,” he recalls. “I really was a very bad student. I would sleep in class the whole day. For my chemistry paper, I wrote ‘bunsen burner’ for all the questions.” Even though it was a struggle to pass his exams, Lim did well enough to study photography at Temasek Design School. That was when he made his second epiphany in life: that he wanted to be a graphic designer instead.
Hooked on the typographic designs of the late Josef Müljer-Brockmann and the work by contemporary studio Experimental Jetset, Lim began exploring the practice of graphic design. He made a radical shift from lazy to over-achiever, chalking up a string of internships even before graduation two years ago. His first internship was with Somewhere Else, whose founder and former typography tutor helped him learn how much work is really needed to be a professional. The second internship was with Pupilpeople, a studio where Lim found an alternative to his school’s focus on design as a tool to serve commerce.
“I was quite confused about what I wanted to do. Do I want to go for the very traditional branding, or can I go somewhere more exploratory?” he recalls. “Pupilpeople brought me back to the starting point, the reason why I got interested in graphic design in the first place.”
It so happened that Lim was interning at a time when the studio, led by Sean Kelvin Khoo, was taking a break from commercial practice to explore design research instead. When Lim was tasked with researching the topic of “collaboration,” he conceptualized a set of activities to investigate different methods of working together, like asking workshop participants to come up with a 350-word story by writing five each in turn.
This critical approach to design was so invigorating that Lim continued the research for his final-year project at school. Working with creatives from different fields, he tried out eight collaborative processes based on four methods he had developed, including experiments with using verbal and non-verbal communication.
With fashion designer Tiffany Loy, they each took five-minute turns redesigning a shirt. In another experiment where Lim communicated with Saigon-based designer Giang Nguyen only via email, the duo divided up the alphabet to design the typeface WT Bion. Via Facebook chat, Lim and product designer Muhammad Adib verbally exchanged ideas on what products to make out of A3 metal sheets, and then developed them into real items.
“That was a very satisfying project. There was a whole spectrum of different things that I wanted to try,” he says. “I myself did not know if they would work, and I felt most of the things that came out were not great, but decent.”
Since graduating in 2014, Lim has been serving his two years of mandatory service in the Singapore army, something of a rite of passage for all male citizens. But even as he looks forward to finishing his service—a countdown counter features prominently on his personal portfolio site, thisisveryrude—Lim has continued pursuing freelance work and experimenting with design in the spirit of being “rude”. This four-letter word was a label given to him by friends for his bluntness, and he adopted it because of how the word looks aesthetically and its lesser known definition as something that is roughly made or done. It’s a reminder to Lim to always stay open and to be in a stage of “work-in-progress” and never be satisfied with his work.
Recently, he started his own label, “uhm,” inspired by the phrase’s expression of ambiguity and doubt to explore making and DIY culture. Besides silkscreening tote bags, he also publishes leaflets with his writings about design, something he thinks is lacking in the Singapore design scene. Earlier this year, uhm and Singapore design label Supermama co-curated a showcase of works by local, independent makers who often have to create with limited resources. Called MAKE DO 01, the show came off despite a tight timeline and budget; Lim cleverly built a display using the generic white boxes that Supermama uses to pack its own products in.
Even as it has become increasingly challenging to design while in service, Lim says an insatiable urge to make and create has kept him soldiering on. His mind is set on becoming a graphic designer when he comes out to the workforce in just over a year.
“Making and thinking, those are the two key things,” says Lim. “I don’t find anything more enjoyable.”