Comics and annual reports may sit on opposites ends of the bookshelf, but something kind of wonderful happened when design studio Couple combined them to create George Goes to Japan, a 111-page graphic novel recounting the work of Singapore philanthropy organization Lien Foundation. The medium seemed unconventional to the studio, led by Zann Wan and Kelvin Lok—all the more appropriate for a foundation that believes in “radical philanthropy,” as a method of tackling problems on eldercare, early childhood and water sanitation with “audacious creativity” for social good.
As a follow up to the previous annual report, which was designed to appear as if it were the private journal of the Lien Foundation’s late founder, George Lien Ying Chow, this time Couple again cast him to tell the lessons the foundation learned on how to improve eldercare, childcare, and water sanitation. The report’s design was inspired by all things Japanese, from its origata-style packaging (a traditional Japanese gift wrapping technique involving no scissors, tape, or glue), to a Japanese flag cover made with a translucent red circle and white board from Japanese paper stock. Inside are 28 comic stories that compare the state of nursing homes in Japan to those in Singapore, in order to showcase how the Japanese care for their children and elderly. In Japan, for example, there’s a gym specifically for the elderly located in a shopping center. Peppered throughout the book are haikus and cats (Maneki-neko, Doraemon, etc), and the report even has an ending inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.
One obvious Japanese element you won’t find is manga, a comics style Couple considered unsuitable for the topic. “As we are recounting true stories, the exaggerated expressions and movements of manga fail to convey the weighted views and journey of this Singaporean man,” explains Wan.
Couple worked with illustrator Esther Goh and writing studio In Plain Words (where, full disclosure, I’m a partner)—neither with any experience in creating comics. Goh’s understated line drawings bring George’s journey to life, and the pastel hues lend the story a surrealistic touch, a reflection, perhaps, on how this report blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. According to Couple, however, the “most valuable team member” was the client, led by chief executive officer Lee Poh Wah. Over the years, he’s commissioned his fair share of out-of-the-box annual reports, like a kung fu instruction manual to explain radical philanthropy, or a tombstone-like publication designed to spark an intelligent conversation around death. In this year’s report, one comic even introduces a Japanese penis festival (Kanamara Matsuri) to provide an example of how the country discusses taboo subjects like prostitution and STDs through unexpected ways. No matter what the Lien Foundation has in store for next year, you can bet it won’t be your typical bars-and-graphs annual report.