Saying it without words

By Chew Juliane
New Sunday Times Sunday Style Cover Story
Sunday, 01 July 2001

GRAPHIC designer Koh Lee Meng solves client’s problems by design. His graphic design firm, Koh Design Consultants, set up in 1984, is his vehicle for creative expression.

As a graphic design firm, Koh Design Consultants creates corporate identity programmes and designs packaging, environmental graphics (includes signage), promotional material, annual reports and other corporate literature. The firm’s tagline is aptly: “We communicate by design”.

Graphic designers are visual communicators. (The term “graphic designer” was coined by American book and type designer William Addison Dwiggins in 1922 and achieved widespread usage only after World War II. Prior to that, they were known as commercial artists.) As visual communicators, graphic designers use graphic design alone as a medium of communication, unlike advertising agencies.

Advertising agencies, on the other hand, use anything and everything appropriate to their business: video, the written word, multimedia, photography, illustration, animation and graphic design as well.

Graphic designers do use copy on the occasion, sparingly. If copy is used, the words are well-chosen and few and integrated into the design. Graphic designers play with fonts, colour, layout and pictures.

Another difference is that advertising agencies earn commissions through media placing whereas graphic design firms earn their bread and butter through designing alone.

Moreover, advertising agencies are usually more segmented, employ more people and offer more services.

Koh is happy to be a graphic designer. “I can indulge in all types of projects, from central vacuum systems to apparel. It’s very interesting as you get to learn different things. This opens up a lot of job opportunities for graphic designers.”

Koh, who is in his early 40s, believes that “Money is secondary. Firstly, you need to be sincere. You need to solve the (client’s) problem first. If incidentally, you make money, why not?”

He is of the opinion that it is okay for one to make money, that a graphic designer need not be destitute, and that graphic design should be a professional practice. Koh thinks graphic design colleges should include the professional practice of design as a subject in its course.

He finds that skills like drafting business letters and an understanding of design administration are sorely lacking in graphic design graduates today.

Koh says: “What I learned over 17 years could have been condensed into one to two years in the college.”

To Koh’s credit, his design firm has survived two economic recessions and is still going strong. When he set up his own firm in 1984, it was immediately hit by the start of the mid-80 recession. The lessons learned then? To conserve.

He cut down on the cost of paper by recycling - the back of the paper page would be used for work too.

Instead of using Artliners, which then cost RM1.60 each, he turned to using ballpoint pens, which then cost 20 sen each. And the air-conditioning in the office was switched off for lunch hour between 1 and 2pm and after 5pm if a room was not being used. Through these means, Koh managed to cut cost by about 20 to 30 per cent in those hard times.

But more than cutting cost, it is Koh’s “determination and aspiration” (as he sees it) and the ability to stay positive that has helped his firm survive. The intertwining of graphic design as both a hobby and a vocation to him helped, he adds.

The situation got so bad that Koh recalls not being able to pay wages and not having enough money to put petrol in the car.

“We were living on roti canai,” Koh confides. But having chosen his path, Koh felt he could not retrace his steps, but had to press on. Anyway, he figured that as he was young, he could hack it, and besides, he reckoned hardship is a passing thing.

Travel writer and tourism consultant Andrew Ponnampalam, an associate of Koh for over two decades, describes Koh in his early years as “incredibly focused, untiringly enthusiastic and indefatigably hardworking”.

“The man was simply bursting with energy! I think the quality that set him apart from his creative peers was his unwavering focus and dogged determination. Graphic design was what he believed every developed nation needed. If Malaysia wasn’t ready for it, he would wait... When it was, he’d be there.”

When Koh moved his office - for the second time - to the present premises in 1996, he soon ran smack into the second recession.

However, the 1997 recession did not affect Koh Design Consultants the way the first recession did because the firm had ‘good’ clients this time round. During the earlier recession, Koh’s firm was running up bad debts because of its furniture and construction clients, who were badly hit by the recession.

Koh’s first venture into the working world was in 1980 in an advertising agency. Between 1980 and 1984, Koh worked in two different agencies, rising through the ranks from a visualiser to studio manager and finally, to art director, which is his childhood dream.

When Koh struck out on his own in 1984 in a little room at the back of a shophouse, about 50 per cent of his work came from public relations firms. Now, most of his clients are direct clients.

“When I was small, I dreamt I would become an art director. My art teacher in secondary school, who was also the prefect master, was instrumental in my becoming a graphic designer. I did well in art lessons in school.

“In primary school, I helped paint a wall mural. And in secondary school, I started the art club and became its president. I also became a prefect because of my art teacher’s recommendation.

“Before the Form Five results came out, I had already enrolled in a graphic design course. I went to a local art school, Kuala Lumpur College of Art, and did fine arts there, which included oil painting. I finished the three-year course in two-and-half and immediately went to the United Kingdom to do a three-year diploma in graphic design at Colchester School of Art in Essex. I knew what I wanted in life - graphic design as my vocation. It was also my hobby.”

Koh says a graphic designer needs to be well-versed in related subjects in order to be able to “see out of the box”. A good grasp of general knowledge and wide exposure are helpful.

The current emphasis on IT and computers does not necessarily nurture a good graphic designer, Koh says. “Creative thinking is lacking today.” He thinks it a pity that the appreciation of fine arts as a subject is left out of the curriculum of most graphic design colleges here.

Koh Design Consultant’s current office in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, is a veritable visual treat; it has been designed to be conducive to creativity. The entire office, from the reception area and indoor courtyard to the conference room, library, employees’ partitioned office space and Koh’s room are artistically done up. The indoor courtyard is especially appealing to the senses, with a spiral staircase leading up to the first floor.

Koh explains a graphic designer’s scope of work. “It covers design conceptualising, supervising, colour separation and overseeing printing. He needs to understand photography, printing, papers and typography as well. Design is only 20 to 30 per cent of the work. The other 70 per cent is related to the production process beyond design, such as colour separation, printing and knowledge of papers.”

In the initial stages, a graphic designer has to liaise with clients to understand what they want, then give the design direction, based on clients’ marketing requirements, to the design team so that they can come up with the design. A graphic designer may work with copywriters if copy is needed.

A turning stone in the firm’s history was in the late 1980s when Inter-Pacific Communications (part of Berjaya Group) appointed the firm as its design consultant. Koh worked with the group for about six months. At about the same time, Koh’s firm was also design consultant to a few PR companies, which was also a significant achievement.

In 1999, Koh and William Harald Wong, a well-known peer, went to various parts of India to give a five-day design talk on the theme: Great Design Journeys.

Other notable achievements by Koh Design Consultants include having their design works appear in a number of international publications, such as 100 Years World Trademarks, International Corporate Design Vol 1 (nine entries by Koh Design Consultants were featured) and Vol 2 (five entries), and Trademarks and Symbols of the World (nine entries). A remarkable achievement given Koh Design Consultants’ designs were the only ones picked from Malaysia to appear in these books.

As a college student in UK, Koh won the award for Overall Best Student in Graphic Design for the academic year 1978/79. As a firm, Koh Design Consultants also won prestigious awards. The firm was a finalist in the Conqueror Design Competition for two years, 1986 and 1987, under the Corporate Identity Design category.

In 1989, under the Malaysian Corporate Report Awards organised by the Malaysian Institute of Management, it won the Silver Award and the Graphic Presentation Commendation Award - for designing the Inter-Pacific Annual Report. In 1995, the firm was nominated for the Horseman Award for Design under the Corporate Identity Design category.

Koh is modest about his achievements. He says: “So far, I’ve been very lucky. No matter how hard-working, if you have no luck, you cannot make it.”

He puts it down as 30 per cent hard work, 30 per cent luck, and 40 per cent the right professional relationships, positive thinking and business acumen.

Koh prefers business growth to be “slow and steady” as he thinks the business will be better able to weather economic storms this way. Not only is money secondary to Koh, but he believes in ploughing back into society what he’s gained. He fulfils his social obligations – of contributing back to society - by being a Rotarian.

I ask if he feels he has arrived, that he has achieved his lifelong dreams and ambition. “I’m comfortable now. We’re prudent, not extravagant, although if necessary, we do splurge once in a while. Good housekeeping is necessary,” Koh replies.

Koh goes on to express his business philosophy: “You need to be very honest in your dealings. Otherwise clients will not come back. You must give clients their money’s worth.”

K oh is one of the founding members of Graphic Design Association of Malaysia (wREGA: Pertubuhan Wakaf Reka Grafik Malaysia).

Koh sees his current role in wREGA as providing him with the opportunity to serve society and specifically, the graphic design community.

Through wREGA, Koh feels he has an effective and spot-on channel to impart knowledge to budding, up-and-coming graphic designers.

Knowledge gained through 17 years of practical experience in the industry would be wasted if not shared.

Giving graphic designing the recognition it deserves

By Kang Siew Li
Business Times,
Wednesday, 7 August 1996

Graphic design specialists, caught in a confusion over the notion of graphic design as a profession, continue to struggle to build the kind of name recognised advertising agents have in the country.

One company, Koh Design Consultants, said because graphic design is not recognized as a professional discipline, people take advantage of the work produced by such designers.

Its principal/designer Mr Koh Lee-Meng related to Business Times the difficulties faced by his company in establishing a foothold in May 1984 in Kuala Lumpur.

“At that time, graphic design was not popular and we had to educate our clients about its importance as a marketing tool,” he said, adding that it took a while for the company to create an awareness among its clients.

A company can benefit from graphic design specialists in the form of logos, trademarks or symbols. Such designs represent the corporate or product identity. They become a visual “hook” by which the company is remembered and also communicate an image, message or personality.

More recently, Koh Design Consultants relocated to its wholly-owned premises in Petaling Jaya. “This is like a dream come true….with the shift, I hope to make the company’s presence felt in a much bigger way,” Koh stressed.

Nevertheless, Koh acknowledged that the problems facing graphic design specialists are far from over.

To confuse matters further, advertising agencies have dedicated internal divisions to handle such design work. “That’s why clients sometimes get very confused as to the role of graphic designers.”

Koh said advertising deals more with the media whereas “in our aspect of business, we deal mainly with design.”

“Graphic design is two dimensional and involves work from the concept stage from the concept stage to final production,” he added.

In the 1930s, graphic designers were more popularly known as commercial artists. The term later evolved to the former.

“In those days, graphic designers were merely seen as suppliers or freelancers who helped advertising agencies to produce books and illustrations,” said Koh.

More recently, graphic designers have come to be known as communication designers. “This is becaused by using graphics, charts, symbols and exceptional layout design, for instance, we can project the precise image a company requires at that point in time,” he said.

Koh Design Consultants’ designs work are divided into four areas comprising annual reports, promotional material, signaging, and corporate literature.

One of the biggest projects undertaken by the company related to signaging was Sungei Wang Plaza says Koh.

“We came up with the directional signages and floor plans of the shopping Complex.”

The company has also created symbols or logos representing the corporate identity for companies such as Ban Hin Lee Bank, PATI Sdn Bhd, Agate Duty Free Shop, Pipefab Industries, Bagels Cafeteria, East-West Kopitiam and Federal Territory Highrise and Shopping Association.

“We also work closely with our clients’ internal public relations departments. We help them in the creative aspect as in the case of producing annual reports,” said Koh.

“Our clients are mainly local-based companies. Only 10 per cent are foreign companies,” he added.

Slowly, Koh observed the awareness in graphic design as a profession has been created. “There has been an increase in the number of clients who approach the company solely for design.

Upward path of a graphic designer

By Andrew Ponnampalam
New Straits Times, Appointments Section
Wednesday, 1 March 1995

A GRAPHIC designer? What’s that? This is a common reply from many of the people I spoke to when writing this article. The word “designers” seems to be most commonly associated with fashion designers, who work with fabrics and clothes. Interior designers take up where architects leave off, and industrial designers specialise in machines and equipment; but what exactly do graphic designers do?

To find out, I talked to one of Malaysia’s first specialist graphic designers, who set up his own company nearly 12 years ago. Koh Lee Meng the founder of Koh Design Consultants, is a wiry bundle of energy: quick-moving and fast-talking. His hands sketch and his eyes dart from design to interview even as he speaks.

“Most Malaysian businessmen have little idea as to what a graphic designer actually does! On one hand it only goes to show how lacking in global experience much of the local commercial and industrial fraternity is. On the other hand it proves that there is tremendous scope for growth in our particular profession.”

“There are numerous advertising firms around town masquerading as design firms, and some even have the word “Design’ in their name, but in reality there are just a handful of specialist graphic design firms in Malaysia. Just because an advertising agency concentrates on below-the-line work doesn’t make it a design firm!”

When pressed to elaborate on what actually constitutes a graphic design firm. Koh became pensive. “For a start, we look for a specific type of staff. I don’t hire artists, visualisers, art directors, illustrators and such personnel – I only have graphic designers on my team.”

“Every time I advertise for staff, I get an avalanche of fresh-faced art-school graduates eager to work in a trendy, upmarket environment – but very few actually have genuine aptitude for graphic design work. We do not need arty-farty types, or temperamental prima donnas; neither do we have a place for those untidy bohemian fine-art purveyors – a real graphic designer must have the creative flair of a visualiser and the neat accuracy of a draughtman.”

An effective graphic designer is one who has the imagination and lateral thinking of a creative person, but the practicality and objectives of an engineer – everything a graphic designer creates is meant to be used and understood – not simply admired.

The list of things that graphic designer creates is impressive indeed: logos, typefaces, stationery, packaging, signaging systems, corporate identities, annual reports, corporate literature, page layouts, posters and a wide array of other items and material.

“At Koh Design Consultants, we encapsulate graphic design with our corporate design with our corporate motto “The medium is the message – we communicate by design.’ This simply means that every item designed, whether it is a logo or a poster, must speak for itself”, says Koh at his studio in a quiet cul-de-sac on the fringe of Kuala Lumpur.

“We have consistently won awards for our annual reports and stationery designs because we frown on frivolous flights of fancy – we emphasise imagination and creativity, but always in the context of a practical business environment.”

“My graphic designers handle our direct clients, but because we are a consultancy, they must also work with advertising agencies, public relations firms, and even architects and building managers. Thus every graphic designer should also dress, act and think as a designer, not as an artist.”

It was then that I realized that Koh himself exemplified his belief: he is always immaculately turned out, with trendy but formal business attire, from spotless leather shoes to chic portfolio case. The studio at Koh’s is spick and span, and designers clean up before they leave each night.

On a broader note, I asked Koh about the qualities a young person would need to succeed as a graphic designer in the business world.

Typically, his answer was quick and concise. Remember the 3D’s: Discipline, Dedication, and Desire to succeed. To be an outstanding graphic designer, the innate talents must be honed throughout discipline in life-style, dedication to your craft, and desire to succeed in the a business sense.”

He should know what he is talking about, because this young man had to struggle alone – first to convince his family and friends that attending a local art college was a good idea, then to further his studies in England in order to specialize in his chosen field. Finding that local advertising agencies did not provide the scope for what he wanted to specialize in, he set up his own pioneering specialist graphic design consultancy – only to spend the next decade struggling to educate the corporate world about the strategic importance of graphic design.

Today, there are a handful of professional graphic design firms in Malaysia, and all are on an upward path to success and growth. It is a challenging career, made especially, meaningful because graphic design transcends the complex linguistic and cultural factors on multi-ethnic Malaysia.

And this brings us to be the actual work of a graphic design consultancy. It is totally different from an advertising agency, which uses creativity and pizzazz to communicate marketing objectives. Advertising agencies are in the selling business, and their main business is to help the purchase process – they will use emotion, visual impact, music and a variety of elements to SELL products or services.

A graphic design consultancy, however, uses no words or as few as possible to communicate, "Our designs must speak for themselves”, say Koh. “A corporate logo, a mall sign, an eye- catching package or an annual report cover …..these are things that busy people look at for a brief moment in time, and to be really effective, the design must communicate immediately and effectively.”

When words ARE necessary, the graphic designer ensures that the typeface itself reinforces the message. Although most people do not realise it, typeface design is an exacting craft that conveys lots of things very subtly. “You may say it is subconscious or unconscious, but the fact remains that typeface DOES communicate feelings, emotions, and vital nuances of the written word,” Koh expounded candidly. “A good graphic designer knows how to use typeface to maximum advantage, so that the words themselves become part of the message.”

Graphic designers are most needed for comprehensive exercises like corporate identities, hotel compendiums, packaging and signaging systems. These involve designing things for a wide variety of uses and on a staggering diversity of materials. For example, a corporate identity exercise involves creating a logo and typeface that will accurately embody the character of a company, but will be equally effective on stationery, vehicles, uniforms, light boxes, signboards or even computer forms. Details like materials, culture, sociology, logistics and other factors must be taken into consideration together with aesthetics or design trends.

For aspiring graphic designers, there are several options. Koh completed his first course at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art, then studied in the United Kingdom for several years at the Colchester Institute of Higher Education where he obtained the Best Overall Student award for graphic design upon graduation. In the process, he also obtained the East Anglian Certificate in Design and a diploma member in the prestigious Chartered Society of Designers.

For those who are not so fortunate to get an overseas education in places such as North America or the United Kingdom, there are some excellent choices nearer home. Apart from a couple of outstanding design courses in Singapore, Malaysian students can take up courses in graphic design at local institutions such as MARA, TAR College, Malaysian Institute of Art, Saito Academy of Graphic Design, PJ College of Art or the One Academy of Communication Design. There are also various twinning programmes available with overseas institutions.

One thing is certain: Malaysia does not suffer from a dearth of training facilities for those interested in a career as a graphic design. Given the rapid growth of our economy and the increasing sophistication of our commercial world, the awareness of and need for graphic designers are certainly bound to rise on an upward path now and long into the future.