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P*DA x TODAY AT APPLE: Jackson Tan on Designing through the Imagination of a Child

The President*s Design Award (P*DA) and Today at Apple bring you a series of complimentary workshops throughout the year. Conducted by P*DA recipients, these workshops will focus on different areas in design. Here’s the low-down on Jackson Tan’s session at Apple Orchard Road on 7th September 2019.

It could have been chaotic, delivering a two-hour-long workshop to a roomful of restless children. However, homegrown designer, artist and curator Jackson Tan held his own as he dazzled his young participants from the very start.

With a Keynote presentation that came in all the colours you could find in a rainbow, the soft-spoken creative kicked off the workshop with a quick and engaging introduction of himself.

There was little mention of the achievements he is so often credited for: Jackson is a co-founder of art collective PHUNK and creative agency BLACK. He’s also had collaborations with big names such as The Rolling Stones, Herman Miller and Nike. Moreover, he’s won prestigious awards such as the P*DA 2007 Designer of the Year.

However, Jackson had a very different job that day – he had to teach children how to design using their imagination

As such, the 45-year-old mostly spoke about his childhood passions and hobbies – which included drawing animals, sketching superheroes, visiting the zoo and playing at the now iconic dragon and dove playgrounds.

“I dreamt of having my very own playground when I was a kid so that I could play with my friends every day,” Jackson quipped with a grin. “And a few years ago, I had the chance.”

The creative revealed how his childhood loves and ambition led to the creation of Art-Zoo in 2017. Featuring cute cartoon animals as characters, the project was first launched as a park filled with larger-than-life inflatables at the i Light Marina Bay festival. A hit with children and parents alike, the bouncy playground has since travelled to cities in China, Taiwan and United Arab Emirates. Art-Zoo has also taken on the form of a colouring book and a storybook.

Besides talking about his childhood, Jackson also used short animation clips to introduce the workshop participants to the main characters in Art-Zoo. The children’s excitement was easy to see. A number of them clapped as the videos began. A girl squealed in delight as a multicoloured bear came onscreen. A boy bobbed his head to the cheery soundtrack, beaming with enthusiasm

Jackson went on to guide the children in creating their own cartoon characters. With his assistant Dahlia Loren demonstrating the process on stage, the participants – sometimes aided by their parents – spent the next hour doodling their way through a series of fun exercises created by BLACK in a Keynote workbook.

The children were first taught how to draw their favourite animals using simple shapes and patterns. These were followed by playful questions about their names, superpowers, emotions, homes, best friends, preferred foods and even sounds! This encouraged them to dream and create personalities for their characters.

Several kids and even a few parents were game enough to share their creations afterwards. A unicorn that munched on magic hay, a tiger that could fly through a forest, a cat whose abode was in the sky, and a giraffe whose favourite meal was a plate of tantalising roast chicken. These were but a few of the wonderfully strange characters that attested to the creative powers of the participants.

Wrapping up the workshop, Jackson encouraged a few children to talk about what they had learnt. A young boy’s enthusiastic reply – while simple – aptly summed up the session: “We can draw the animals in our imagination!”


Q&A with Jackson Tan

How do you think the workshop went?

It was a huge challenge for me and my team because we have never conducted a workshop for a bunch of kids before. I am used to talking to professionals or students, but not kids. I am used to kids coming to Art-Zoo and experiencing it, but not talking to them and trying to get them to do a workshop. We were quite happy they were engaged, so that was a relief!

What strikes you most about working with kids in a workshop?

One thing that strikes me is that kids will always surprise you with the things that they can imagine. We have been working for so many years as creators, artists and curators, and sometimes we become set in a certain way of thinking. Kids are unbounded by rules. They think of things that you can never expect. One really good idea that a kid came up with at the workshop was magic hay ice cream. My team and I loved it. The next time we create an ice cream flavor for Art-Zoo, we are going to try to make magic hay ice cream!

Sometimes, creative work is really putting yourself back into the shoes of a five-year-old. When you channel that five-year-old in you, you will be quite amazed at what you can do, that a thirty- or forty-year-old can’t. One quote that really inspires me is by Pablo Picasso. He once said that, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Speaking of creativity and being a kid, can you share how your childhood interests have influenced your aesthetics?

The work that I do is really about finding meaning through signs and symbols, whether I do it as PHUNK, BLACK or as an individual.

Me and the other guys in PHUNK share a very interesting childhood. We came from lower-income families, and the only way to transport ourselves out of that world was through television. We were the generation that watched a lot of television. We also have childhood memories of going to Har Par Villa. That is why you see a lot of Chinese mythology in our work. A lot of elements in our work are also from television shows, whether it is American comics, Chinese anime or wuxia movies. These inform the sensibility of PHUNK, and of course, the work I do.

As a kid, I loved to draw. I loved drawing superheroes, and my favourite was Batman. My favourite part about drawing superheroes was not the heroes themselves, but their logos. I could draw those in five seconds, and I found them powerful because it was clear what they stood for. This informed the SG50 logo I did. The SG50 logo represents the spirit of Singaporeans overcoming our physical limitations as a small island. That’s the story of Singapore and its unique position captured in one red dot. You can tell a greater story with one small symbol that a kid can draw in five seconds.

And what are you working on right now?

For BLACK, we are curating an interesting exhibition in Taiwan about the history of Taiwanese pop music. We are also creating a new Art-Zoo, with more content for books and animations. I am hoping to build a brand with characters and stories that outlive me as the creator, like what Walt Disney, George Lucas and Jim Henson had done.

The year 2020 would be PHUNK’s 25th anniversary. We are going to have a retrospective exhibition and show some new pieces at the National Design Centre. We are going to tour some of these works and release a book as well!




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