Curiosity for what graphic design could be was the catalyst that first brought Currency together in 2012. Like many young designers, the Singaporean duo were connected by what they saw online. While their contemporaries picked up visual languages like modernist graphic design, Melvin Tan and Darius Ou were attracted to the emerging critical graphic design movement, led by the likes of David Rudnick and Eric Hu. Their shared interests sparked a Facebook conversation between the two students while they studied at different design schools, which eventually evolved into the ad-hoc collaboration of two freelance designers who come together as Currency as and when projects require.

“It’s so much faster to discover your style before you do anything in this day and age,” explains Tan. “You can just follow, follow, follow, reblog, reblog, reblog, then you yourself have your own feed, your own network of what you like.”

What began as an interest in aesthetic rebellion has since matured into the critical search for a visual language that has more depth than the pervasive tide of “privileged” design the duo see as aspiring to mimic high class aesthetics. Currency seeks to create “visually-abrasive” design that is more relatable by referencing popular culture, or what’s trending online.“We try to avoid hipster sensibilities that are too celebrated,” says Tan. “The principle of what we do is to encourage creative rebellion in concepts, or to reference vernacular from the everyday; like the tech we use, type treatments we see on the streets or online games, to make the designs identifiable.”

Jack Tan’s 2015 performance piece Karaoke Court explored ways of resolving conflict, and in its branding, Currency combined the garish colours and starburst patterns found in Singapore’s karaoke bars and getai (local outdoor singing performances for the Hungry Ghost Festival) to create a lurid but distinctive stage backdrop and printed collateral. For the recent graduation show of the School of Art, Design and Media, the duo referenced the colours of Star Wars and created a branding system inspired by the 1977 Voyager space mission, hinting at how they are both events that record a journey.

Currency’s contentious aesthetics turned up again in their recent work for State of Motion, an exhibition-cum-tour of film locations across Singapore organised by the Asian Film Archive. Their teal and orange T-shirt with a peculiar pixellated pattern divided the event guides who wore them.

“We had very mixed reviews,” says Ou,“which is very true of the work we do. If people love it, they love it. If they hate it, they hate it.”

More than stylistic considerations, Currency’s aesthetics are grounded by an awareness of how visuals transmit and function in the world today. When commissioned to design Left—Right, a handy volume of short essays on images produced in and out of Singapore, the duo went beyond publication design to generate content too. Offering a counterpoint to the human interpretation of images, Currency generated an entire section on how machines read images by inputting the book’s pictures into Google and Pinterest’s image search function.

“The best way to put it, is our work tries to ride on different contexts. We design to consider different paradigms and the paradigms that don’t intersect,” says Tan. “We come up with a thing that actually moves in two places. It can trend, but it can also be appropriate to the brief of a client.”

“If it just sits into everything else. It’s just gone.”