Two years into running his graphic design studio Liba, Aaron Wong hit rock bottom. “Business was so bad to the point that I started to doubt whether my beliefs made any sense,” he says. “I was looking at a project and wondering, does the aesthetic not fit? Is my way of working not valuable to clients? Or, is it that I’m just not good enough?”
It didn’t help that Wong was working solo for the first time and felt uncertain about practising in Singapore after returning from a two-week summer school in Europe. During the revelatory ISIA Urbino / Werkplaats Typografie course he’d seen a “different synergy” that he felt would be compromised back home. Liba’s financial struggle seemed only to confirm this: Wong’s dogged pursuit of process and having a point of view—key takeaways from his stopover in Europe—were not working out in what he saw as Singapore’s trends-driven, solutions-based market.
It was around this time that Chua Xin Jie entered the picture, a graphic designer sharing studio space with Wong. First they started to collaborate on projects together. Then, they began to date.
Xin Jie says their first collaboration “pissed me off,” and Wong says, “we told each other we’d never collaborate ever again.” They mutually agreed to keep work and love separate. But when Wong received a last-minute commission to brand a kindergarten, he went back to Xin Jie and asked her to help him out.
Over an intense weekend, the pair designed a modular system for The Experiential Learning Centre (TELC) together: the design hinges on a blank “E,” which seems to invite you to color it it, and is a straightforward expression of the center’s core values.
“The clients were three women of different age groups, and each had a different aesthetic preference. Yet all of them totally agreed with our design direction,” says Wong. In fact, the clients loved the design so much that they asked Wong and Xin Jie to flesh out the concept and develop an additional handbook and wayfinding system. It was the confirmation that both needed. “TELC was one of the first projects where we realized that our work process is viable and could be applied on a commercial scale,” says Wong. Eventually, Xin Jie became a partner at Liba.
“Fundamentally, we share the same aspiration and passion for design,” says Xin Jie. “I believe that supersedes everything else and encourages both of us to be better, as designers and as people.”
Three years on and the duo aren’t only recently engaged, but have built a successful practise despite (or perhaps because of) their contrasting personalities. While Wong is a self-confessed hothead, laid-back Xin Jie exudes an air of calm. In most projects he draws up concepts and systems, while she has an eye on translating ideas into visuals, colors, and form. Asked how they have shaped one another, Xin Jie says he encouraged her to speak up more for her work. Wong credits his partner for opening him up to different perspectives, as he was previously very stubborn when it came to his design opinions. “He was a very black and white person before,” says Xin Jie.
Today, Liba balances commercial projects with more edgy design work for independent art and cultural groups like socio-cultural magazine Staple, co-working space Port, and Xin Jie’s jewellery label Thing In Itself. These works suggest an interest in anti-aesthetics—something many have pointed out—but Wong says it isn’t a style they’re pursuing, nor is he a fan of.
Instead, Wong cites the straightforward and functional work of Dutch designers Mevis & Van Deursen, and Karel Martens as influences. Xin Jie says she likes the works of the Memphis group, as well as a host of contemporary graphic design from all around the globe. “We’re exposed to everything, especially in Singapore… so it’s up to us to decide what it is we like,” she says.
As a studio, the duo are interested in graphic design that can evoke emotion in viewers. The result is design that has something a bit “off” about it, be it the choice of a typeface or the use of cartoonish flourishes in an otherwise rigid grid. It’s this jarring spark that Liba is drawn to, and it relishes in bringing together two conflicting elements to create a cohesive whole. It’s a process that you could liken a little to love itself.