Design Conversations: Jackson Tan, Creator of Art-Zoo

Posted on October 06 2017

Photo: Studio W

Hi Jackson, SG50 was a year that saw creatives coming together to spread their ideologies and perspectives of our nation. What has changed since then?
As a whole, we are more aware of our national cultural identity. It did not happen overnight and I’d say SG50 was the tipping point. Singaporeans are always open to new ideas and diverse cultural influences, melding it into our daily lives. The usage of Singlish is a good example of bringing out the authenticity in creative work.

There’s a popular notion that ‘Singapore became international before it was fully national’. The current generation is educated and greatly influenced by international design methodologies and movements. What fascinates me is that our designs are becoming more Singapore culture-inspired.

Our creatives have embraced this emerging identity to look inwards, capturing and expressing what we feel encapsulate our identity.

What about the time before that? How has the design scene shifted since you began your career?
Things have really shifted and transformed drastically. When we first started PHUNK in 1994, just after our graduation from LASALLE, Singapore was described as a cultural desert. We were spotting long grunge rocker hair (the government had just lifted the ban on men having long hair and had relaxed censorship rules to allow overseas pop culture publications such as The Face, i-D, Interview and Rolling Stones).

In the early 90s, design education was promoted by the government from technical, vocational to tertiary level, elevating the industry greatly. We were the first generation of locally educated designers trained to use the Macintosh and digital software. The internet was just starting to become more widespread. Most of the local graphic designers were employed by multi-national advertising agencies to design “below the line” campaigns. These design studios were mainly servicing corporate marketing projects. The younger generation designers started studios to challenge the status quo and injected creative independence and authorship into their works. 

Photo: Studio W

Our scene has grown to acknowledge that design is a multi-disciplinary art form. It’s also more creator-led and influential, both culturally and in the community aspect.

How would you describe your fascination with contemporary art?
I’m actually more into visual sign and symbols from popular culture than contemporary art. My personal fascination is with finding meanings in signs and symbols. As a kid, I was very into drawing superhero comics and cartoons. I was obsessed with Super Friends, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (now Justice League) . I wasn’t very good at drawing the physical body forms of the superheroes. Rather, I was enticed by their logos and how they represented the characters.

I loved that they were simple, powerful, and unique at the same time. I could draw them in three seconds.

I only managed to find the connection with art much later when I discovered and studied the works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Joseph Beuys and Takashi Murakami, who appropriated and referenced visual signs and symbols from popular culture.

You’ve also worked with magazines and famously, organisations like Garage Fonts. Do you think it’s important for Singaporean designers to venture overseas? Which comes first—securing your roots and learning the design culture of your own home, or getting out there?
It’s interesting that you used the word ‘roots’. The idea of a creative person as a growing tree is a good analogy. The stronger your roots, the further you can branch out, which also helps to keep you grounded and humble. We learn a lot about ourselves when working on overseas projects, meeting and collaborating with creative people from various backgrounds. These experiences enrich and inform us of who we are and what we can do.

How is it like juggling your work between BLACK, PHUNK and other projects?
Being in a shared studio space every day makes it easier to shuffle between the studios and projects seamlessly. We get to discuss work for PHUNK and at the same time, share and seek feedback for other studio works and projects. Having a mix of job scopes keeps me balanced and happy. They inform and broaden my perspective to approach matters from different angles and ways.

I liken myself to a musical orchestra conductor in BLACK and member of a punk rock band in PHUNK. They are my yin and yang, control and chaos.

Let’s talk about Art Zoo—it was created as an artistic pop-up playground for children and adults. What gave you the idea of translating that experience in a book?
Art-Zoo was inspired by my personal memories of visiting and drawing the animals at Singapore Zoo. Also, playing with my siblings and cousins at the animal-inspired playgrounds around our maternal grandparent's old public housing flat at Dakota Crescent in Singapore.

Photo: Home & Decor

My childhood memories also include reading Miffy and Mr. Men books, and watching Barbapapa cartoons and Sesame Street on television. Similar to what I’ve been exposed to as a child, Art-Zoo is a fun and immersive world that explores nature through the perspective of art. Through the book, children get to be exposed to the different types of animals and plants while learning the alphabets.

We hope to bring joy, inspire new imagination and create wonderful memories for everyone who visits the Art-Zoo Inflatable Park and through the book (created for children of all ages), watch and sing to the animated videos.

What are some of the most crucial qualities a designer should possess?
Curiosity, imagination, grit, purpose and clarity.

It’s safe to say that you’ve achieved many goals in your career. Ultimately, is there something that you have yet to completely achieve?
Helping other creatives, especially the younger ones to achieve their goals and stay on the course. The pursue of creative, art and design can be a long, difficult and lonely route. It’s good to build on this affinity by sharing our experience and knowledge with others who share the same passion.

All books and more at
More about Art-Zoo here.


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