Book Focus: Aesthetics Aside? by Justin Zhuang
THING BOOKS [TB]: Hello, Justin! Can you start by telling us a bit about your latest publication [Aesthetics Aside?]? I read somewhere it was born out of a review on ART kits.
JUSTIN ZHUANG [JZ]: It came from a Straits Times article where the reviewer wrote, “Aesthetics aside, all the kits were found to be very similar…” I thought, “How can you just so quickly diss aesthetics?” It seemed like a nice idea for a book title, and it so happened that I had a backlog of writing over the years in different places, some unpublished essays that didn’t find life anywhere else, so I thought maybe I should compile it and also close a chapter in my career. It’s a useful way to reflect on who I am as a writer and where I want to go next, to learn about myself and my choices.
TB: How did you come into design writing?
JZ: The funny thing is I have never worked in an architecture or design magazine, whereas people who do work there are often never regarded as a design writer. When I was in journalism school, I started working on the school newspaper, the Nanyang Chronicle in NTU. If you’re one of the editors of a section you have to design that section as well, besides writing and editing it. So I had to learn InDesign and all that, which is how I first started designing – out of necessity. I realised I quite enjoyed it: organising things, having to think of what illustration goes with an article, how to place things such that you can communicate a certain message. So I was trying to figure out how to combine my interest in visual communications and writing. Then I came across magazines like Eye and Baseline. At the time they were writing about graphic design, the usual profiles and all that, but they also had sections where they wrote about design culture and history. I thought I could apply my journalism skills to this topic called design, which is nice to look at but I could also show that there’s a deeper meaning behind it.
One of the first stories I wanted to write about was street signs in Singapore. I came across Singapore Architect when it was first re-designed by Kelley Cheng. One of the assignments I had in class was to come up with an article about a cultural phenomenon in Singapore and pitch it to a magazine. I chose to write about typeface design and street signs in Singapore – what and why certain typefaces are used here. I pitched it to Kelley and she was kind enough to publish it. Through it, I also met graphic designers like Chris Lee of Asylum who later introduced me to others in the community.
I didn’t really think of how it could be a career early on. I just thought I could find more stories like that and keep doing it, for as long as I could.
TB: You were saying that [Aesthetics Aside?] is like a personal project for you to kind of recalibrate certain things.
JZ: Yes, and also to compile things that have been published in different places. If I write an interesting story and it goes in one magazine, only a few people see it. It’s also to recalibrate in a sense that, I’ve been doing this for an amount of time, I wanted to look back at what I’ve done, what I’m proud of, and if there are certain themes that I think define myself.
TB: What has come out of that for you?
JZ: One of the clearest things was that I realised I was more interested in everyday designs. I noticed at some point when you tell people you’re a design writer covering the industry of design, most people end up thinking of designer objects like branded furniture, designer chairs, etc. Why is that so? I wanted to show people that design does exist everywhere, it doesn’t have to be this “designer world” that we talk about only. There was already a lot of attention there so maybe we can focus on the things that have a larger impact but are a bit more invisible. Design is not something that is so alien to us; it’s something that we all encounter, and something we can pay more attention to.
TB: I like how the book focuses on the design of the everyday. To say something is well-designed is to refer to its aesthetics and form rather than its function. Would you say it’s more than that?
JZ: The thing is, you can’t so easily divide form and function. Often the function of something does have an impact on how it is formed. Take the ART kits for example, it has to take certain shape and form because of the way the test is done. The reason why it’s shaped this way may not necessarily always be in the hands of the designer. Maybe there are other things to consider like material cost, or how the manufacturer wants to package it. The interesting thing about design is that we think there is always one designer involved when in reality the designer has to contend with many other factors like certain expectations of the customer, or maybe even societal expectations of what a test kit should look like. If my test kit was very colourful I’d question if it’s real. There are many things at play that are invisible and I like to make visible the invisible, because to me once we know all this it’s easier to see patterns and make sense of it.
The other thing I realised is a lot of designers have this idea of ‘Good Design’ and ‘Bad Design’. But I ask: good design for who? Bad design for who? Everyone has a different experience of the design and often the design industry is so hung up on this idea of ‘good design’, ‘form is function’ and all that that you alienate the other experiences of people who are not in design; they are left out of the conversation. I often tell my students that this thing you think is good can also have a bad side to it. The best example is guns. It’s good for killing, but killing is a bad thing. But if you’re talking about how efficient it is at killing then yes, it’s very good. These are the things I like to think about when I think about design.
TB: It seems like because of this idea of ‘good design’, designers are put on a certain pedestal. Maybe it’s because design comes with certain skills that need to be learned, as opposed to art that comes naturally to anyone, like children.
JZ: I think also because design involves mass production, so there is a certain standard, be it safety or quality, to be met. I’m more attracted to design than to art because it’s more accessible in the sense that it’s everywhere. It’s not something I have to go to a museum to see.
Historically, design was once known as commercial art. In fact, a lot of Singapore artists in the 60s and 70s were painters and they also did commercial art, but they won’t tell people about their commercial art. Generally, design has been seen as a ‘less pure’ cousin of art. Maybe the debate between what is art and what is design is, for me, just a reflection of the community or who they’re thinking of at that point in time, so definitions will shift.
TB: How important is the accessibility of (art) books and what does accessibility mean to you?
JZ: As a creator, I want what I’m communicating to be read as widely as possible so accessibility is important not just in terms of our content being readable but also affordable in terms of cost. However, small publishers like us often can only afford low print runs that result in higher unit costs. We also see design as key to communicating the content, which can mean unconventional designs that end up costing more as it is unlike the standardised formats of big time publishers. As a result, our books are expensive and are therefore seen as “inaccessible”—although that is not the point. That’s something I continue to grapple with in this mode of publishing.