Theseus Chan

Work Advertising Pte Ltd

It is quiet. In silence, a new issue of Werk is beginning to unfold, springing from the point where the previous issue has ended. Frightening and yet exciting at the same time, there is no road map, no pre-conceived idea of its final outcome.

"Production studies lead to new possibilities, directions and ideas". Traditional thinking, printing and construction methods are subverted to give them new interpretations. The construction of clothes, heavy industrial work and science are sources of inspiration. Introductions and chance encounters, incidence and coincidence converge, bringing together artistic contributors who add to content on pages.

The creation of Werk and the work of its creation is an adventure based purely on "emotions, feelings and fate". This is the world of Theseus Chan, Designer of the Year, President’s Design Awards. He is the founder of WORK, a creative consultancy that is a hybrid of an advertising agency and a design company that has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the design industry. Werk embodies many of the convictions and principles that Theseus holds passionately. It is no wonder that Werk has won awards from New York Art Director’s Club, the Spanish Art Directors and Designer's Club, Communication Arts and the prestigious D&AD.

From the very early age of 5, Theseus displayed his creative bent by drawing and he was already choosing a certain brand of crayon. He says, "I knew it since I was young. It makes me happy. It was the easiest subject in school. It was not something that I aspired to. It was just something I had to have a part in."

In his formative years, he was inspired by all creative types – writers, film makers, musicians, artists, architects, designers of different genres – anyone who did brilliant work was a constant source of inspiration. In particular, he was struck by Japanese fashion designer, Rei Kawakubo. "She is scarily intelligent and creative in all areas of design," says Theseus, "not only in fashion but in art, architecture, interior design, graphic design and marketing. She is highly admirable because she is strong and confident. She also has the spirit to survive and stay resilient in a very difficult industry that demands originality and newness all the time."

It was his passion for originality and newness that led him to start his own company, WORK in 1997. Tired of "cheap talk and low standards that businessmen mistook for creativity" amongst some in the industry, Theseus wanted to 'fight' and make a change for himself. It meant a return to the definition of creativity itself, 'the imaginative ability: the ability to use the imagination to develop new and original ideas or things'.

He set out to design a company in which the ethos is based on innovation, independence and integrity. "Creating from feelings is a very important process for me. Sometimes, we do not see the end when we start designing. Sometimes, the ideas may not be happy. It may be anger. It may reflect frustration. But these emotions can often translate into strong work. But limiting factors like time and resources help shape the final outcome."

"If the work does not evoke reactions like surprise and desirability, then it is not a strong piece of creation."

In making something original and fresh, the audiences' reaction may not be at all positive initially because there is nothing for them to draw a reference from. Madame Kawakubo once said, " Creation is not something that can be calculated."

His impulses proved to be correct: his client list extends to cover local companies such as Tangs, Club21, Fashion Institute of Singapore, Singapore Biennale 2006 and international collaborators like Colette, Adidas Originals and Comme des Garcons.

Alison Harley, Dean of Design at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts says, "Theseus is a highly reflective designer and a perfectionist in his expectations of design and its complete process. His personal and professional qualities represent the best in international design standards. …Theseus has made his quietly confident contribution to this major development for Singapore and offers Singapore the opportunity to promote and export the best of the best, which WORK exemplifies."

Theseus says, "But we must not limit our thinking to just "Singapore". At the end of the day, a good piece of design has no geographic reference. If it is brilliant in the design world, than it will be accepted as so, regardless of its country of origin."

"With technology, bookstores and good airfares we are not far from connecting anywhere to the world. Singapore is famous for our highly advanced infrastructure. To stay inspired in Singapore alone is a challenge, we have to look to other worlds for that. It is just that we do not have enough creative diversities and references at this point."

"Some of the decision-makers, marketers and clients here have yet to fully understand and appreciate design enough to be critics. So logical rationalization is the only way to explain design to them. It is very difficult at times to explain aesthetics and feel in design, in layman's terms." says Theseus of some of the challenges he faces in Singapore, "The quality of craftsmanship is also still very low here. We do not seem to understand that good quality and finishing are highly important factors in design and business. Hence, we need to invest in it."

"When we present our work to audiences in Tokyo, Paris or New York, there isn't a compelling need to explain the work. There are always respect and understanding of the work and its creators. Good quality is a given factor in good design. If less time is spent rationalizing, explaining and coaxing, more time can be focused on searching our feelings, thinking and creating." Theseus aspires for the day when he will have design offices in Tokyo, London, Paris and New York.

"Personally, I will continue to collaborate with other international creative alliances to create strong work through the rapport we have already built up."

‘‘Recognize your strengths. Be aware of what’s going on around the design world. Get connected with other designers around the world. Be discerning enough to filter out what's good and what's not. Be original and create differently from what the good ones are doing with something just as brilliant. Do not compromise on high quality. Stop saying things that are politically correct (it's boring) just stay truthful to your beliefs. Make sure you stay resilient, focused and do not give up.’’

Insights from the Recipient

How has Singapore's design industry evolved over the past decade or, indeed, since you started practising?

There has been a renewal as a new generation is now taking charge. This change also means expectations will be different for them – expectations that are determined by experience and exposure, not just academically. Design is now accepted and acknowledged not only as an important economic differentiator, but also a strong social adhesive for our nation.

Where do you want to see design in Singapore go?

As designers, we are closer to the forefront of design matters. Therefore, domestically, we need to energise, educate, enlighten and elevate Singaporeans and help them realise that a better life can be achieved through design. My personal responsibility and commitment is to produce consistently great work that is recognised in a global arena. This will, collectively with other designers in Singapore, drive home the message that Singapore's design scene can be on par with established design cities of the world.

Where do you want to see design in Singapore go?

If our design can inspire someone to change the world for the better and elevate the lives of people, we will have fulfilled the purpose of design. This alone makes the efforts of the President's Design Award worth its weight in gold.


‘‘Recognize your strengths. Be aware of what’s going on around the design world. Get connected with other designers around the world. Be discerning enough to filter out what's good and what's not. Be original and create differently from what the good ones are doing with something just as brilliant. Do not compromise on high quality. Stop saying things that are politically correct (it's boring) just stay truthful to your beliefs. Make sure you stay resilient, focused and do not give up.’’

Jury Citation

Theseus' diverse portfolio and his prolific career bear testimony to a journey of discovery and selfreflection. His work is experimental and contemporary, yet naturally so, and displays refreshing genuineness borne from a real desire to push the boundaries of creativity. This has been invaluable in inspiring the next generation of young designers. His distinct personal style strikes the balance between international relevance, while capturing the spirit of the Singaporean and Asian identity without being contrived. Unconventional, edgy and irreverent, Theseus challenges our thinking to the extent that we constantly expect him to surprise. And he does not disappoint.


Nominator Citation



Theseus Chan is the agent provocateur of the local design community; a creative leader who blazes new trails and in the process, he has become the prototype for other talented Singaporeans to emulate.

In 1997, tired of being dictated to by big corporate clients of big corporate agencies, Theseus founded WORK: a creative consultancy that's a hybrid of an ad agency and design firm. WORK was born out of Theseus' desire to do things his own way.

WORK does not have a new business department and Theseus does not participate in creative pitches. Despite this fatally uncompetitive practice, WORK has cultivated an elegant list of like-minded clients that include Tangs, Cluh21, Fashion Institute of Singapore and Singapore Biennale 2006.

The tipping point for WORK came in 2000 with the publication of the inaugural issue of WERK, a bi-annual fashion and art magazine. The purpose of WERK magazine is clearly non-financial. Theseus did WERK not to make money, but to make things. For him, the making of every issue of WERK is "like a child creating something and being happy with whatever accident the end result may be."

Accolades for Theseus' love child came in thick and fast. To date, WERK has won awards from the New York Art Director's Club (thrice), the Spanish Art Directors and Designer's Club (multiple categories), Communication Arts (twice) and the prestigious D&AD (thrice). Spreads of WERK magazines have been exhibited twice at the Four Seasons Hotel Gallery.

The doyens of the international design and fashion establishment also took notice. WERK was picked up and featured by influential trend and design publications like Highfashion, Brutus, Ryuko Tsushin, Pen and Grafik. Fashion powerhouses like Colette, Adidas Originals and Comme des Garcons sought collaboration.

The collaboration with Comme des Garcons led to and opened the door for Theseus to run the Comme des Garcons Guerilla Store in Singapore, a major signal from the international creative community that Singapore is not quite as suburban and vacuous as its bland architecture and boring TV seem to suggest.

Though too modest to claim it, Theseus Chan has started a quiet revolution in the Singapore design industry. His work and creative ambition have put the country on the design map of the world and have brought glory to the kampong half a degree north of the equator.