Interview with Pann Lim
Pann Lim is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of creative agency Kinetic Singapore and Rubbish Famzine. He is addicted to design, advertising and communications, and strongly believes that creating work without an idea is a sin. This belief has earned him over 500 industry awards, including the Institute of Advertising’s Creative Director of the Year as well as Singapore’s highest design accolade, the President’s Design Award, and winning Gold Pencils at the New York One Show, Cannes Lions, and a Yellow Pencil at the British D&AD. Recently he has won 2 Graphite pencils at the 2022 D&AD that ranks Kinetic 5th in the world for design agency.
A firm proponent of giving back, Pann plays an active role in nurturing the next generation and sharing his passion for creativity. He is a founding member of The Design Society and a frequent guest at Singapore’s design schools, holding the position of adjunct lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic from 2012 to 2013. He currently sits on no less than three School of Design advisory committees — at Temasek Polytechnic, Lasalle College of the Arts, and at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where he serves as Committee Chairman.
“I like to juxtapose perfection with imperfection, because that is what life is all about: it’s never going to be perfect.”
In an age that seems fascinated with digital escapism, virtual realities and metaverses, your work on Rubbish Magazine strongly affirms the physical quality of printed matter, the charming vibes of hand-made processes, and the value of real life experiences. Does this stem all from its nature as a personal, “family project” or are rather these concepts rooted in your design practice?
When me and my wife, Claire started this family thing, we did not overthink it: we just wanted to do a family diary using the skills that we had. People do write diaries: some in notebooks and some into blogs: all different formats of collecting memories. We were more comfortable with print and we love books. But we wanted to push the concept and create a ‘diary’ that is well designed, filled with photographs and Pantone colors and It must have with the DNA of handmade qualities. That was how it started.
As the world increasingly digitalizes, I came to realize that there is a place for the knowledge and skills associated with printing which are becoming increasingly rare. I should therefore focus on honing these skills, as they are valuable and will likely become more so in the future.
Young creatives may be comfortable in the “virtual space”, but they may not have the same knowledge and understanding of the “printing space” — like going to a printer and doing a press check, how to look at the colors, when is the ink too wet or is it not printed heavy enough… All this knowledge is disappearing, and so I know that it’s important to make sure there is continuation to this knowledge in the craft of printing. But, that said, I’m also a great supporter of virtualization, because I think that we need to possess the best of both worlds.
I have the experience of analog and I’m very curious about digital: so if I can marry both of these different spheres, I can make my design playground bigger. I am enjoying this period, as I possess some knowledge that is disappearing, while also learning new things on digital from my team at work.
What strikes us most in your Rubbish magazine is the co-existence of high quality design, layout and printing with a sort of “amateurish do-it-yourself” feel. Were you looking to intentionally express something that gets lost in the perfect look of contemporary digital projects? And is that spirit something that can be translated in commercial work?
I want Rubbish to look as professional as possible, but I also want it to have the inaccuracy and vulnerability of being human. There are some hand stuck images that are not 100% aligned, or the tape that we use can be slightly off centered...
I like to juxtapose perfection with imperfection, because that is what life is all about: it’s never going to be perfect. Just like, you know, in a family, most of the time we are very happy together, but there will be days when we will argue and won’t see eye to eye. I will always try to blend these two things together, so, when someone holds Rubbish, they will know that this is really done with a bit of human touch. Can perfect and imperfection be translated into a commercial project? It’s possible, depending on the overall idea and whether the client is able to accept it. But these days, you can see that some luxury brands, may use scribbles and hand drawn illustrations paired with their formal brand typefaces for their campaigns. So it creates an interesting perfect/imperfect look. To me it must be all about the idea more than the design styling and direction.
The font choice is one of the most charming and distinctive elements of Holycrap publications, with Souvenir typeface expressing perfectly the warm and cozy spirit of a family magazine. What was your reason for choosing such a vintage typeface?
Souvenir has been around me for so long: it was in the logo of the movie ET and in many things that I collected. It's the logo of “Spam”, that inspired me to use it for Rubbish. We were searching for a typeface that was not too serious, but still had a ‘formal’ look. But less ‘formal’ than Futura or, say, Helvetica. We decided on Souvenir as it could be both cheeky and ‘formal’ — actually is less ‘formal’ than it’s fun. But not fun as, let's say, Cooper black. And this typeface’s DNA fits into our family, because we are always laughing at home, but we are also serious at some point, when me and Claire are educating our kids. And so we chose it, and we used it again and again. We kept using the same font for more than ten years, so much that now it’s become a sort of a signature style and identity. And frankly, I didn’t expect that.
The problem with it is that now, when I work on a new issue of Rubbish, I set the text in Souvenir with the right kerning and leading and then I say to myself: “Oh my God, am I still using Souvenir again? Am I going to close the kerning? Am I going to reduce the leading? Should I change it?” And then I think of U2, and the song With or without you. I always imagine that It must be boring for U2 to keep playing With Or Without You at every concert for almost 4 decades. But the U2 fans at the concert are there to listen to that song and they are definitely not bored by it.
Now when I look at the Souvenir typeface I ask myself. “I’ve used this font a million times, why still use it again?” But I also reminded myself of the big picture. This is the identity of the project, this is how people recognize our work. So I have to keep trying new ways of doing the same thing without being the same... And instead of giving up, I make that into a challenge: "How can I make it better?” “How can I keep it fresh?”
It seems that “I can’t live with or without you” is perfect for your relationship with Souvenir… Are there contemporary typefaces or designers that give you the same vibes?
Do you ever have this thing, where you’re sitting in front of Netflix looking for something to watch, and you go left and right and up and down and in the end you’re still watching nothing? And maybe after an hour you go to bed… This is me trying to answer your question. If you look at typefaces and how many foundries and how many font designers... there’s thousands and thousands, right? And there’s so many good people there, there’s Pangram Pangram, there’s F37... They’re creating very good typefaces, but if you ask me, is every single font by them their best work? Everyone has done many good work, but not every piece of the work is great. In the earlier days, before the Internet became what it is now, Chris Ashworth / David Carson designed Raygun. At the time I was about to graduate from school, and that magazine had the greatest influence on me. Even today, when I look at it, it still gives me a special feeling. It's like that work transcends time, it’s never outdated. And also, when I was growing up in the 80s, I was in love with music, and if you talk about music albums, it’s either Peter Saville or Mark Farrow — who designed all the New Order and Pet Shop Boys albums. You remember those guys because, back then, without Google, you could only remember a few names. And you still remember their work.
“I talk to a lot of young designers these days, but if I ask them 'Who is your design hero?...' I won’t get an answer.”
But now? I can see all sorts of very nice things done all around the world. But can I remember all the names? No, I cannot. There are like hundreds and hundreds of studios doing good stuff, but if you ask me, name one designer… It’s the same syndrome as searching through Netflix. And also: I talk to a lot of young designers these days, but if I ask them "who is your design hero?" I won’t get an answer. Because they search for inspiration online, and they’ll look for, let’s say, "Neon orange", and they’ll find all the work with this neon orange style and inspiration, right? But they won’t know who designed it, they won’t know the details. Actually, I don’t blame them, because it’s hard for them to find out the designer names. You don’t google the name, right? You google "magazine design", "2 colors overprint", this sort of stuff... I personally do find it difficult as well. It’s just the time we’re in. Now is so difficult.
And new technologies will make it even weirder... With AI image generators I could ask a certain style using the author name as reference, without even having to know the author’s work… Yeah, it's crazy... I think we are at a time where the industry is exploding with technology. Creatives will learn and explore the use AI applications, and I think it will generate another kind of aesthetic. But then, I have always been looking from afar at how tastes change over time. I started working in the 90s, and there is a 90s look, a year 2000-look etc. In the last three years it has been all about shapes, maximalist display typefaces where often legibility is not important…
And now I can see that it’s changing again, and everybody is going back to fonts that are a bit more legible. Sans serif typefaces with a bit of high contrast character. We’ll be going back to legibility again, but the shapes will be a bit different from the classic ones. And that’s the fun part about this industry, that we are able to witness trends as they come and go, just like fashion. And then there will be those few trends that will be able to stay and look forever relevant. I believe there’s such a thing, isn't it?
What would you suggest to young designers in search of those relevant design solutions?
In the early 90s, when we were given a brief by our lecturers, we went to the library, because back then there was no Google. At the library we looked for the best books to borrow so we could bring home the best inspiration. Back in those days, competition was tough, because it was a game of who found the best reference. There were some students who went to Europe / USA and they managed to buy a few good books on typography, and those books became their Bible: they would follow the style and had an advantage because of the research and reference. Fast forward to today, where you just Google and everything comes out. Everybody will be able to find all the amazing work around the world.
There comes the problem, right? Everyone has all the proper references. Everyone has them all. In the end, now it’s even a tougher time for someone to stick out. When I meet students, I always tell them: "All your friends are able to see the same things as you are. If you follow the same IG page, everybody is seeing the same thing. What will make you different will be what is in your idea, and your idea will suggest to you the elements, the typeface or the color to choose to best answer the brief that we’re working on…”
“We are able to witness trends as they come and go, just like fashion. And then there will be those few trends that will be able to stay and look forever relevant. I believe there’s such a thing, isn't it?
There are students who are just obsessed with a particular color or a particular typeface, and they just want to use it, no matter what. Which is wrong: sometimes the project really requires another typeface, or another color. I think my advice to students is: don’t be obsessed with trendy things, but study them and use them wisely, making sure they fit into the project.
Today, in this information overload industry, the best way to cut through the clutter are ideas. You must have a reason for your choices. They can’t be just based on "I love this typeface" or "I’m in love with this color". Yes, graphic design is love. But not in this way. It’s tough now, so you really need to be original.
This interview is part of the Type Trends 2023 Lookbook / Vol 5: The counterspaces – Typography in the Age of Black Swans
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