Let’s Talk About (Good) Design—And Its State in Malaysia
I assumed I needn’t say much about the whole Kuala Lumpur City logo fiasco when it first surfaced, as I foresaw that many people would make enough noise about it. As expected, and to my delight, the whole Internet and social media went into an absolute fit this past week, but the KL city council still chose to defend it. It’s great that the general public knows bad design when they see it, but why exactly is it bad design? Here are a few more issues that I think might have been overlooked, and what I think about them. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss Malaysian Design as well.
A Few Issues
As agreeably distasteful this “logo” is, it still has its uses—as Banham puts it, typography and public typographic signs reveal cultural stories and factors often considered external to graphic design—in this context: a culture of poor design, ignorance, laziness, and poor decision making by the KL Tourism Bureau and City Hall. Let’s unpack this:
The economics of good design
Let’s make a comparison to city branding worldwide, my favourites being Melbourne and NYC. Let’s just use City of Melbourne’s as the example—brand consultancy Landor was paid $A91,000 (about RM270,000) by the Melbourne City Council for preliminary research, followed by $A148,000 (about RM440,000) for the final design, creative direction, brand guideline and application plan altogether. It was a job well done—brilliantly executed, effective, versatile, strategic. But also bear in mind they took 2–3 years and a large team.
Now here we have this appalling thing that cost RM15,000. That’s roughly AUD$5000, or about US$4000. You simply cannot get quality work for this scale with that price on an international level. Now $A15,000 (RM45,000) might grant you a decent, informed and tasteful branding for a very small company or organisation, so let’s just measure the scale of that alongside branding for an entire city. It doesn’t add up. So it does actually make sense that RM15,000 was the price for this outcome by a company that doesn’t do design, provided they made it appear as if they took at least a month or two to create it. I personally wouldn’t mind if the whole RM300,000 budget was invested into the branding, but spearheaded by a transparent, well-capable and reputable design & brand consultancy. Some people might sneer at how steep that would be, but yes, that is the reality of good design. (We can discuss further if you’d like to understand better about what goes behind a full design process.)
It’s a system that works
Amin Nordin said: “other cities like Amsterdam and New York took years to fine-tune their logos.” If you want to make such a comparison, you ought to make sure they are even of equal standard! When they first launched it, it worked. Rolled out all over the city, every collateral, every street corner, every signage, map, and brochure. The full package at once, and they could do it because they took years to develop it, with extensive research prior to that, doing user testing, and with full approval from the city officials, designers, public testers and all other stakeholders involved, it launched. You just don’t serve uncooked ingredients to a diner and say that it’ll be fine-tuned over the next hour, and explain that this is because the restaurant was reluctant to pay the gas bill—“...the budget this year is very tight…”
Kuala Lumpur Tourism Bureau general manager Noraza Yusof said: “Since KL evolved as a major tin trading centre as the tin mining industry grew in the surrounding areas of Ampang and Petaling, the logical direction for the brand design approach is to link it to tin and the tin mining industry—Kuala Lumpur’s heritage. We wanted the letters to be crafted to appear with a metallic finish—raw tin textures and to tie it all together, it was decided that the key brand attributes be tagged to the Master Brand design—exciting, surprising and enticing,” Here’s how a design process works—you do (a lot of) research on users, values & history, find areas of interest, construct your strategy, create the core concept, and design the appropriate visual system to communicate that. But when a free template is thrown into the mix, none of that happens (Free template use proven by Khairul Aqmal, Vulcan Post Malaysia, and a few others.)
“Noraza said diverse cultures and the juxtaposition of old and new were among the city’s strengths, and the branding focused on those. The colour silver for the word Kuala Lumpur was meant to reflect the city’s tin mining roots, she said. ‘We need to educate people and make them understand the brand first, the logo was only launched a few days ago,’ she said.” No one saw any of that. Consider either the public a little dense, or the branding a failure in communicating. Evidence suggests the latter, with the whole Internet crying foul. You can come up with some tale as a rationale to attempt justifying your work like how we did back in college 15 minutes before submission deadlines (joking lah ok), but still not have it represent what you said. Labelling something does not make it so.
That whole grey tin drop shadow act barely embodies “exciting, surprising, and enticing”. What exactly is this logo trying to say? Where is the “contrast and diversity” in the logo itself? Did these “designers” forget that these concepts could be communicated in a visual language? For example, red is exciting and surprising, orange is enticing. Throw in some confetti or fireworks. Put an orangutan on the KL Twin Towers. I don’t know. There are always better alternatives to typing out three one-worded descriptions like a cheap infomercial ad.
“Diverse cultures and the juxtaposition of old and new”—now let’s take that apart. If they wanted to reflect these qualities literally… The main typeface Cinzel was designed by Natanael Gama in 2013, “inspired by first-century roman inscriptions, and based on classical proportions. However it’s not a simple revivalism; while it conveys all the ancient history of the latin alphabet it also merges a contemporary feel onto it”. It bears similarities to Trajan Pro, both a reference to the engravings on the Trajan Column built between 107~113 AD. That’s right, Roman characteristics. I’m not sure if it speaks “Kuala Lumpur” in any way, considering culture, history, and the modern landscape, or the “feel” if you’d like. Did they consider typographic choice? I doubt it.
The colour silver—we all know the colour silver conveniently came as part of the free template.
Cinzel, Titillium Text, and Matura MT—notice the trend here? All free fonts, either off Google fonts or already licensed as Microsoft fonts. Roboto as the body text, another free font. It surely doesn’t seem like any investment was made in the creation of this “brand”. How convenient that they pieced this together at zero cost, and get to pocket all RM15,000, and perhaps more to come from the branding budget. Now this is not to say one can’t use free fonts provided it’s well considered, but this seems haphazardly deliberate.
Comments: “Amateur work that could be done on a computer in minutes”
Perhaps, but the time taken isn’t really the issue here. Because I could take 5 minutes with a better choice of typeface and still say it looks better. No. The real issue here is that there is no thought nor strategy behind it, besides figuring how to worm into the branding budget without doing any work, resorting to a free template.
According to the Brand Identity Guideline available on the Visit KL website, it was created by WarisanAd. I’ve read through the Brand Identity Guideline found here, a mere 14 pages—surprisingly organised and clean compared to the logo itself—though I can’t help but get the impression that it was a recycled guideline template with the purpose of making it appear like they actually put effort and thought into that logo. Follows every convention of any standard brand guideline, but to dress up and justify something lacking substance.
With no existing portfolio to be found anywhere online, one might wonder whether they have any work of considerable quality. Have a look at the very sparse warisanad.com and decide for yourself. Why assign the branding to a marketing company with no reputation in graphic and communication design? Wouldn’t it have been logical to, at the very least hand it to the designers of the 2008 Visit KL and KL Tourism Bureau logos? Or perhaps Visit Malaysia? Or better yet give the project to some of the big brand consultancy players like Chimera, 3nity, Landor (KL), or a whole range of others. Or perhaps there’s simply something fishy going on just as Bro, don’t like that la bro (Ernest Ng) suggests in his latest comic strip.
Then again, would the tourism bureau know of any reputable design studios? It seems unlikely, but why? My suggestion is that there is sort of a ‘design industry bubble’ of Malaysia. Only designers know other designers, or businesses directly related to them. Why aren’t government arms and initiatives’ branding exercises being tasked to more reputable design agencies? There is possibly still a gap in public perception, knowledge, design literacy, and how they value design as a practice and product. Only designers talk about design, and the general public wouldn’t even have an idea of what’s happening on the design world stage.
The bottom line about the new KL City logo is this—no one is proud of it. KL needs a logo that represents and celebrates the city’s people, history, culture, and lifestyle. A brand that brings people together, and they can say “I’m proud of my city, Kuala Lumpur,” while using this ideal logo as a visual representation of what they’re expressing. A true icon that lasts the years.
We can all complain and make parodies about this logo, but more shit will just keep floating up if the main source of problems isn’t addressed. “This logo is a piece of shit…”, “Piece of crap…”, “Insult to designers…” Then, how about we take the effort to think and explain—what should have been done better? What is the appropriate solution? Can we bring brilliant minds of design together, and collectively create better solutions?
It’s a safe assumption that the current young generation of most self-proclaimed designers and graduates are more concerned with making a name more than solving larger problems. We’re content with posters, t-shirts, one-off logos, complaining about clients, stylistic preferences and latest trends; while national publications need better structures, public service & internet portal UX is down the drain, public transport wayfinding systems need better coordination, design education syllabuses need a rethink, textbooks can be designed for better learning in schools, there’s a need for design that brings communities together, the government needs to place better emphasis on design funding, and design that help the needy & underprivileged—just to name a few. Where’s design that makes people’s lives better, and not just advancing our own interests? We’re easily preoccupied dealing with the superficial and not the substantial. We’re more focused on selling instead of solving. We confuse artistic expression with design responsibility. There’s a feast of opportunities laid out on the big table of design, but we’re content with scraps off the table.
The Value of Communication Design and Collective Malaysian Design Standards
It’s not all doom and gloom. The first step to making things better is to have hope. Here’s what we could do:
Design agencies and professionals
There are plenty of industry professionals in Malaysia reputable on a world stage. Pitch solutions, prove to the design-illiterate what a real design solution is. It’s understandable that there are secure paying projects that need attending to, and we need to put food on the table (and sustain the company), but it’s also worth bringing value by designing for community and society, and especially educating the public about the design process.
Design educators and institutions
Use this as a case study. Analyse and dissect successful branding. Teach your students how to think critically, and how to create AND propose solutions as opposed to merely fulfilling pre-written briefs by lecturers. Research, research, research. Train them to see and decide how systems work. Because if they don’t learn how to think, they may end up pushing pixels for these same sort of white-collar types who have no interest for innovation, except for their own poor tastes and micro-managing; or these students might neglect their design studies altogether later and pursue a different field. And then we’re back to square one. I say this having come from a college design course in Malaysia myself.
As a member of ico-D (International Council of Design) for many years, they’ve participated in many bridging talks with college & university for pre-grads; prepping them for the industry, and engaged in discussions with practitioners and public through their Jack in the Box sessions, and undertaking many more design related agendas. They’ve called for regular, active public discourse about design relevant to this country—now let’s join in on the action. And moving forward, how about creating new venues of output for design students as well? And creating things that the general non-designer public could respond to and engage with. Publish more articles, inviting local designers to write about current issues. And I encourage more local designers who are eligible to register as a member.
Overseas design students
You had the golden opportunity to see Design from a different perspective, how another culture solves problems through Design. Maybe you’ve even had the chance to work a few years after that. Whatever it is, take it, observe it, dismantle it, learn it. While career opportunities may be ripe overseas, consider how you may bring this value home and apply it to our local context. Consider teaching the knowledge and skills you’ve amassed to the next generation of designers.
“I bet I can design a better logo”
Prove it. We need more people solving problems, not just discussing them. Come up with a better solution, tell us why and how it works as a branding system, not just the what-it-looks-like. Collaborate with fellow designers. Let’s create a collection of responses that can’t help but be heard—and I’ll start. The following images are my attempted idea, with the descriptions included. (Disclaimer: there’s only so much you can develop for a concept in such a short period of time, it will NOT be the most refined. I’m in no way saying that I’m doing a better job, I just want to kickstart a public discourse.) Now I’m actually a PJ boy, so I think maybe a KL born and bred designer with a better experience and understanding of the city could attempt this better instead!
Suggestion: Let’s all try to do so, and call to #rebrandKL
The Malaysian design industry is still growing, so is the public perception of it, but it might be a while more before it fully matures. Thankfully, that means we have a lot to look forward to.
I thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far, and it is my hope that you’ve understood a little bit more about design, with my admittedly still limited design knowledge and experience thus far. Please share this post if you think of somebody that might benefit from it. Seasoned designers, do correct me where I may be wrong. Everyone else, if you’d like to, let’s discuss further. For any designers out there with opinions, or have stories to share about how you’ve contributed to or worked towards elevating design standards in Malaysia, I encourage you to share and disseminate it to everyone. Designers, let’s speak up together. There is still work to be done for our country.
In Good Design we trust,
This post was originally written as a public Facebook post.