Instant noodles are a key ingredient in the decade-long story of communication design studio Anonymous. It kept founders Felix Ng and Germaine Chong alive for a week while they waited for clients to pay their bills. But even before that low point in their early design days, instant noodles imparted a key lesson in design for the fledgling Singapore studio.
On their first-ever trip to Tokyo, Ng and Chong were astonished by the packaging design for some dry instant noodles they saw at a convenience store. Typically these bowls have just one opening for pouring hot water both in and out to cook the noodles, requiring an awkward balance to keep the noodles in. But the Japanese package had a separate perforated opening just for draining out the water.
It seems simple enough, but this was a revelation for Ng. “Very often, what we create as designers is invisible. It’s there. It helps make my life easier, but you don’t even realize it’s there,” he said in a Skype interview. “I want to do work that, in a way, is slightly invisible but has a point to it.” (Inspiration for their studio name, perhaps?)
But unlike instant noodles, achieving that has been far from quick and convenient for the duo, who never went to design school. Ng studied mass communication while Chong was in film school. And the only reason Ng picked up design was to pay his school fees. He originally worked at the records store HMV, where he first met Chong, but after missing too many early morning classes due to the long hours, Ng was kicked out of school. Curiously enough, the school took him back a week later, but they offered him a job designing motion graphics for corporate clients instead. Clueless but hungry to survive, Ng taught himself how to design.
Trying out new things is a recurring theme in the history of Anonymous. Over the last decade they have initiated a string of projects that demonstrate the new wave of design entrepreneurship in Singapore. These range from the publication Bracket, which surveys top designers around the world on issues ranging from education to money, to exhibitions like plusminusten that pay homage to Dieter Rams’ 10 principles for good design, to their now-famous A Design Film Festival, the first event of its kind in Asia, which has since traveled to cities like Portland, Berlin, and Seoul.
Far from a conscious strategy, Ng says these projects have been a “reckless, circumstantial” means of figuring out how to survive as a design studio in Singapore. It hasn’t always worked out. In 2010 they cancelled a craft conference a week before it was scheduled because of poor ticket sales—refusing to compromise on quality by lowering the prices. Summing up the studio’s journey in a 2012 talk titled “Fake it till you make it,” Ng has always been utterly frank about how they operate. For starters, he and Chong only registered as a business after graduation because they needed a corporate banking account to get by a record label for a music video they produced. That was how SILNT (pronounced “silent”), their name before they became Anonymous, was founded in 2005. Ng was 22 then, while Chong was only 19, and their lack of experience in business showed. Cash flow became a major issue in 2008, forcing them to survive on just instant noodles and fishcake for a whole week, inducing a sort of entrepreneurial resilience–as well as a fishcake phobia that still lingers for Ng.
“But I don’t think we really thought about quitting,” Ng said. “We just always try to figure out how to survive, how to find work, how to do work that we want to do, and how to have your art and commerce at the same time. That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out for 10 years.”
The year 2009 was a major turning point for the duo. Even though they were finally doing well financially, they were still unhappy with the work they were taking on to pay the bills. So they founded Anonymous as an outlet for self-initiated projects to “regain our soul and sanity,” Ng said. It caught the attention of paper distributor Antalis Singapore, who sought them out to design its 2010 calendar. Anonymous responded by redesigning the traditional brief of commissioning illustrators and instead, invited designers to create 12 objects with paper for a “Help Save Paper” campaign that showed off the versatility of the medium. Later, for the Singapore Art Museum’s collection of everyday objects by local designers, Ng and Chong again questioned the relevance of a commission to design a pencil case for adults. Observing how many office workers use mugs as pen holders, they proposed a cylindrical adapter that sat on top of mugs and turned them into stationery organizers instead.
Ng looks back at their work in 2010 with pride, particular launching A Design Film Festival, which started out as just a “fun thing.” After two years they lost their venue sponsor in Singapore and sat out the 2012 edition. But when they brought the festival back in 2013, enthusiasm was so strong that ticket sales almost doubled to over 4,000. Last year, it sold 6,500 tickets and entered a partnership with Singapore Airlines to screen its film selection on their inflight entertainment system. The festival now accounts for half of the studio’s revenue. More importantly, the festival has given the duo the opportunity to design an entire experience: from UX (how many pages should people have to click through to buy tickets?), branding, and designing the merch to actual film curation. Last year, it also began using the festival as a platform to explore design issues, inviting writers like Adrian Shaughnessy (and–full disclosure–myself) to reflect upon the theme of “On a Scale of Art to Design” for a publication given out to attendees.
This new direction in Anonymous’ studio output was recognized by The Art Directors Club in New York when Ng was awarded the Young Guns in 2011. A year later, he sat on the graphic design jury of the British D&AD awards. The studio also got to rebrand the Nikon Photo Contest, giving the four-decades old competition a new identity and trophy design. Yet, it wasn’t international recognition that convinced the duo to eventually collapse SILNT into Anonymous in 2013. Ng was simply tired of carrying two name cards and explaining to people the difference between them. Anonymous was also easier to pronounce. These decisions correspond to the studio’s design approach. Ng explains:
“A lot of people regard design as adding. When you add something, when you fabricate something new, then yes, it’s design. But we see it like this: if you can simplify the way something is done, improve the way something is done, then that is design.”
This attitude also describes Ng’s transformation over the past decade. True to his choice of studio names, both of which share the theme of “removal of self,” he’s learned to let go of his ego and control over his designs. He also acknowledges the necessary friction that a good client can bring to the process.
They started as design outsiders and, to some extent, Anonymous still remains critically distant from the industry as a whole. The studio has a history of venting on Twitter about the challenges of operating in Singapore, the frivolity of contemporary design, the lack of hunger in today’s youth, and the increasing automation of graphic design through software. Ng admits to once being frustrated at how difficult it is to run a design business and still consistently produce good work. But Anonymous has found its own way out, and now aims to focus on the festival and its client work in the coming years.
But before our interview ended, Ng couldn’t help but make one last remark about Singapore’s “superficial” design scene. “There are a lot more design studios and more interesting activities. Singapore’s design industry has really blossomed. I think it’s grown a lot, but unfortunately there’s no clear purpose yet. Maybe it’s because everyone is still trying to find their own voice and they don’t really want to come together and do something,” he said. “Maybe, not yet.”