A late-blooming desire to study design had taken a hold of Chris Lee, but he had no art portfolio to prove to the skeptical course manager at Temasek Polytechnic that he had what it takes to enter the course. Nonetheless, Chris was very interested in design at that point in time. The electronics engineering course dropout had to think fast. He realised he did have a portfolio of sorts. It consisted of Valentine's Day cards with lettering cut from magazines and other such handcrafted gifts he had given his then girlfriend. It was not of the same depth and breadth as the work of a proper art student, but it would suffice for a period of time. Eventually, he got into the course of his desire.
When he graduated, he started working at Bartle Bogle Hegarty for a while, before deciding to establish his own design consultancy firm, Asylum. The network that he had built helped him along the way, and many agencies went up to Asylum to seek their expertise.
Asylum Creative is an agency comprised of a design studio, retail shop, workshop and record label. Since its inception in 1999, Asylum has been involved in a number of cross-disciplinary projects working with such clients as Levis, Motorola, Sony etc. Asylum’s work span across the borders of Singapore. In recent years they have been making waves in the international design scene, racking up awards such as the D&AD awards, being mentioned by ICON(UK) Magazine as “probably the best design agency in Singapore today”.
To say that Chris Lee is a truly visionary entrepereneur is an understatement. This was the interview which I enjoyed the most, especially because Chris had a lot of stories to share. Chris is an unassuming individual, despite winning numerous awards and I think that speaks a lot about his humility. His ambitions in wanting to push Asylum to be one of the best firm in the world is truly commendable, and he has inspired me a lot during the process of the interview.
- What is the nature of your business?
Asylum in a nutshell is a design consultancy business. What we do is we help companies build brands, so part of our business involves both branding and design.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I think I didn’t decide to become an entrepreneur. What happened was that I was working in a advertising industry, and my last job was the head of design at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, or BBH in short. I was running the Asia Pacific design department. At that point in time, I felt that it was really quite corporate, mundane and boring in terms of the design work in Singapore.
On the other hand, I observed that in Europe and some other countries where the design scene was very lively and vibrant. And I asked myself: why cant we be like that? Why is our work here so boring and so “corporate”? And that was also when I realized that there were many interesting clients that would not have such a big budget to go to big agencies so I felt that there was an opportunity for me to create the kind of design work would be interesting. Then, i started the company because I felt that there would be something eventually that we could do to change the design scene in Singapore.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I guess I am trained in design and I am passionate about design to begin with. There are businessmen, when they start their businesses, its because they see opportunities. For me, it was slightly different. Design is a profession and you choose to be a designer. That was why I entered the design industry.
- From what I understand, what you studied in your early years had no relevance to your field of work?
In my initial years, yes. In Singapore, I guess you are forced to do certain subjects that fit into a certain path that you need to take. In school, you are either a science, engineer or commerce student. Back then, I had to pick one, and so i picked engineering. I went to electronic engineering for about two years and I absolutely hated every moment of it. When i realized i really hated it, i asked myself whether should i stay on and try to graduate or should I change my course of study. When I graduated I was really quite lost not knowing what i want to do. At that time, I had a few options and design was one of them. Then i went to the army, and completed two and a half years of service.
When I completed my army training then, I was more focused in finding out what i really like in life. And that was the point when I said once I quit engineering for good, I could do whatever I want. I think it would have been worst if I graduated as an engineer and realize i need to spend the rest of my life as an engineer so i think it was a good thing that i got out. I think its never too late to switch – even if you are at your fifties or forties. As long as you work on something that you have no passion for, you will never be good. Once you find something that you’re passionate about, you’ll be really good at it.
- So in 1999 when you founded Asylum, how did you put together all the resources needed to start your business?
I think it is quite easy to start a design consultancy business. You dont have a factory, you dont need to do any manufacturing. What we need to do is to use our brains and our computer. For me, I wanted it to be a proper set up so i rented an office instead of working from home. I brought two persons on board my team the minute I started the company. So then, the question is how do we find clients? As I was already quite connected in the advertising industry, when we started our firm, many agencies were giving us a lot of design work because they knew that we focused and specialized on design. So when we started, we had our clients, office and people and within a short period of time we were already profitable.
- I believe you kept the team particularly lean. Is there a particular reason for that?
I think small is beautiful in a lot of ways. As a design consultancy firm, I am very focused on not becoming a giant firm. Maybe 8 years ago I was saying we should not be more than 10 people, but because today we are doing branding and interior design, and because interior design requires a lot of manpower, so we now have sixteen people. I think i will put a cap of 20.
And I think its a deliberate choice to be lean because we get to choose the clients that we want to work with. When you are too big, you have to take on any projects just to provide a count but for me, its important to be able to select the type of clients that we want to work for so that the work is always good and also to allow us to remain niche.
- In your starting years, when you first established your business, are there any interesting stories that you remember fondly?
I think the early days its interesting how when you are young, we were really trying to prove to the world what you can do creatively. As such, sometimes there are projects that would be very creative but then it did not work for the client, so the client or the project suffered in the end. But today, we are a lot more mature and a lot more responsible so everything that we propose to our client has to work both for the client and for us creatively. That to me, is a successful project.
If you do something that is very creative but it does not sell for the client or does not value-add to their business then the project is a failure. So we learnt along the way that it’s not just about creativity. It’s about creativity that works for the brand of the client. So these are the things we learn .
As to whether there were any particular stories, i think there were one or two projects that were memorable. There was a project that we did and even though the fee for the design was very small, I think it was like eight thousand dollars, but because the client was going to print half a million of the art work that we designed, it was a large sum of money that they will be spending.
My team made a mistake when we finished the art work, so there was a mistake and the client threatened to sue us. Only then, we realized that for eight thousand dollars we almost became bankrupt and so I panicked. I thought to myself, how can our fee be so small but our responsibility was so big? So those were one of those things that I learnt along the way, and to be careful is one of them.
- Would you say that your company’s vision and mission – has it been the same throughout. Or based on your experience has it changed over the years.
I think the vision has always been the same, we had always wanted to be a multi disciplinary studio. I believe you shouldnt just concentrate on one discipline from the beginning. But obviously, we didnt have the skill sets and the professionals in the house so we had to grow that along the way to what we have today which also includes architecture and interior design. We also have digital and graphic design in one studio. So although we have that vision, only now are we able to execute the vision.
Also, I think as we grew in the beginning I did not have an idea of whether do we want to be the best in Singapore. But as we grew, we asked : Why Singapore only? So now, we want to be the best in the world, and currently, 50% of our work is done outside of Singapore. I think its important that we are known internationally rather than just being a good Singapore agency. So as we grew, we became more ambitious.
- I saw on your website this quote that I thought is very relevant- it goes like” Marrying art and commerce with the aim of excelling in both. So its something i believe we’ve been practising from day one till now?
Yes, I think its important, because graphic design is art and commerce. If you dont have commerce then you are an artist. When you understand that design is art and commerce, then you know that you have to be good at both before you can be successful.
- Would it be a challenge to communicate this point across to your employees, because as you mentioned earlier, sometimes you may want to do creative work which may not be suitable for the client?
I tihnk our employees are already excellent deisgners, whether they are able to see that the creative vision is suitable for the product or the client comes with experience. I do a lot of guidance in that sense because i look at the work and I look at the client, so I know whether is it a match or is it way off. So we do a lot of moderation within ourselves. When we present to our clients they are already very comfortable because they know we are pushing creativity but we are pushing in a way that will be successful for him. And he know who his clients are, what his products is. Therefore he would already have confidence in us.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
We face challenges everyday, and I think one example is how do you price yourself? That is one big challenge because we dont how to price ourself especially when you are new to this. A client may ask why your services are so cheap? So through trial and error, we managed to find our pricing that we are comfortable with. Of course today we are quite established, so we should be at the top of our pricing, at least top-middle so theres a spectrum for other design companies to play with.
Also, how do you write a contract with a client? These are the things that we didnt know. Initially, we just pulled a quote but when things go wrong, and if the client wants to pull out the project, how do you safeguard your own interest?
Intellectual property as well, if your client take your idea and gets someone else to execute what happens then? So these are the things that we really have to learn from day one and for me, because I am a designer, I also have to learn how to look at P&L statements. As a business owner, you have to know all these details, if you dont know, nobody can help you. So I have to learn in my own ways. Im not a good numbers person but I need to learn how to look at the P&L, how do we look at projection and targets etc.
- I think just now when you mentioned this particular incident where there was an issue with the legal interest, was it an incident that happened that made you realized the importance of drafting a formal legal contract?
Yes, we always have issues with clients who take the idea and then you dont hear from them and then suddenly you see something similar being executed. So that also resulted in Asylum forming a policy that we do not pitch for projects. You commission the project, we work on it. This is because intellectual property is our biggest skill set, and if you give it away for free, then basically what we worth?
Once you pitch for the project, you have to show the creative work. Of course the client will say that he/she likes your work but he/she only has half the budget for it. When it comes down to that, you have no choice but to say yes. But for me, from day 1, I will know whats your budget. From there, I will decide whether I want to take on the project or not.
- I think this is a problem that most entrepreneurs face, meaning at a certain juncture in your career then you decide that things are going wrong and basically everything is falling out of place, then you wan to give up. Have you ever had that experience before or close to having that experience?
I think i am lucky in that I do not have partners. I do have a group of management team that are on a profit sharing system but I started the company myself. A lot of companies fall apart because of partnership – the vision becomes different etc. So I dont have that issue, but that means its harder on myself, I have to look at everything – profitablity , client, whether the work is creative or not. I have to look at every aspect.
Do i feel like quitting, obviously I love what I do, so I don’t. However, there were times where almost everyday i have 10 meetings, and during all these meetings, they were all about the issues and problems we were facing. At that juncture I ask myself, why is everything so tough? Subsequently, I decided to go for a break. So in 2011, I went to New York city for six months. I left, and then I came back again, feeling refreshed and recharged.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date?
I think as a company, we have a really good reputation in the industry. By that, I mean not just in Singapore but internationally as well, so we do not have to pitch for projects. I think not many companies can say that they do not have to pitch for projects. Most companies have to pitch their work alongside other companies, but 90% of our work is pure commission. Our client come to us because of our reputation, and they have the confidence to give us the project. So we are in a very luxurious space. For clients that come to us, we only take in about 70% of the work. 30% of the work we will reject for various reasons, such as it being unsuitable for our company. So we have a screening process for our clients before we decide to take on the project, and I think that is also a something that we are quite proud of.
Of course we have won many awards internationally but one of the proudest is the President Design Award in Singapore because that to me is something that the president gives out. Hence, its different from the industry awards. When you win design industry awards such as D&AD, my parents would not know. But as for the president design award, you get to go ISTANA, you get to dress up so even for people who are not designers, they see it as something really important. I think that has become one of our biggest achievement, and we have won it for two years. One was for designer for the year, and one for project designer of the year. Other than that, we have won some other awards as well.
- From what i understand, you deal a lot with creative work so what is the company culture that you promote?
I think our company has become very international in the last few years so we have a Dutch, we have a Spanish, a Korean, and a mix of nationalities. This also allows everyone to learn from each other about the different cultures, and I think thats very important for the office.
Also we try to hang out for drinks as a company once a month, and we try to do a trip every year. Last year, I brought everyone to Kyoto, so everyone goes there to enjoy and also to see the different design scene.
Right now, we also have this event going on which is a presentation competition within the company. Everybody must think of a creative subject, anything from cooking to making flower arrangements. You do some research, and then you do a 5-10 minute presentation to the company. We will grade everyone’s presentation and the winner will win a air ticket to a place we have yet decided. So we have all these kind of activities to make it fun to work here. I think design cannot be just a job, its a lifestyle. You have to live it.
- How do you see for Asylum growing in the next 5 years, do you plan to take Asylum to certain places that you’ve never gone before, and cross certain borders?
In recent years, we have done a few brand experiential project, like the Johnnie Walker house. We did this in Shanghai, Beijing, Korea and Seoul. This is the kind of project that I want to do - international projects that are multi-disciplinary. I think in the next 5 years, we hope to be doing a flagship store in Brazil. We just did a Ramen store in Los Angelos.
I think we have a very strong point of view so there’s nothing stopping us from doing projects out of Singapore. We have a few projects in Shanghai now, 2 restaurants in Shanghai that we’re designing, a hotel in Bali, a hotel in KL so I think these are the kind of projects that will continue to keep us excited and to keep us going.
- For yourself or your company as a whole, when you think of the concept of business ethics, what do you think constitutes a good and ethical business?
I feel that when it comes to design, you are here to enhance people’s lives. Whatever we do, I always feel that at the end of it you want to improve people’s lives, so we work on projects we feel can contribute to their well-being. So we did a hotel, a restaurant, and when we were doing the project you really look at how people can go there and enjoy that space and feel that space. So its not just purely commercial work.
On top of that, part of our company portfolio involves work done with charities. Every year, we will visit at least one or two charities. Recently we went to Boys Town, and when we saw the environment, we knew we wanted to redesign the space and experience so that the kids feel a lot happier, a lot more excited. So these are projects that we engage in every year to give back to community. These are the things that we do to balance our soul and stomach. Additionally, we also do some arts project at least two or three times a year, and they are non-profit in nature. This is our way of contributing to the design scene.
- How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers, if you outsource any portion of your service at all?
I think everything is quite professional. With our clients, we keep a very professional stance in most of our projects so we do not wine and dine with clients much. They like the project we do, we understand the product, they engage us. At the end of the project, we use the product. If its a hotel, we go back again. If its a restaurant, we go back again. Its a relationship that you build with your clients. Our clients really appreciate what you do for them and there’s mutual respect and i think thats really important.
The same goes for our suppliers, such as our contractors. Mutual respect is number one. You go to them because they do a great job, so you should leave the professionals to do what they do, and we don’t try to take over their role.
- Earlier you mentioned about giving back to the community. On top of this, do you think Asylum has made a positive impact to the community you serve, not just the less privileged but also your target audience and the community at large?
I think a lot of things that we do, we try to have this element of surprise and delight. If you have come across Asylum design, yogurt for example, you will ask yourself how can yogurt become like that? I think we add a lot of surprise and a lot of insight to a lot of projects so when people go there they always feel very happy and positive at the end.
Unknowingly, it inspired a lot of people along the way, and I refer to the people who have come across our project. I get unsolicited email complimenting me about our projects and that puts a smile on my face. And we do get a lot of these emails from the public, and i think these are also the things that keep us going.
And even the National Gallery logo that we did, that was a big controversy. I get snail mails, email on people congratulating me saying this is the most amazing thing that has happened in Singapore, and then there are people hitting me on the face saying you guys are lazy.
This project made me alive again, because there are a lot of logos you do but nobody really cares about them, but we were able to something that became a topic of discussion. And its a museum, which I feel should be publicly debated. Hence, I was very happy and proud that we didnt pick something that was really safe. We picked something that was confrontational.
- Yes, i actually followed the whole saga and I must say that it’s quite interesting. Even in your blog you shared your perspective - Is it that Asylum is lazy or is it that Asylum adopts a certain principle when you designed this. And I guess that made people rethink their stand, because sometimes when people comment on what you’ve done, its like a knee jerk reaction. But after a while when you set them thinking, they will gradually understand that when Asylum did it, they had a certain vision in mind which most people could not see initially. Would you like to share more on the incident?
The thing about design is that everybody think that are designers. Who is unable to choose some colours? But I think you need a certain education to be able to see what we see and for the logo especially. We did 200 versions, and through a series of iterations we narrowed that down to 6 versions, and this was the one i was uncomfortable from the beginning.
But in the end why did i push for it rather that something that’s quite nondescript? While I was uncomfortable with this logo, I felt that its necessary, for a museum to be progressive. I also asked myself 10 years from now, will I be proud of this artwork. So there’s a few checklists that i went through, and after that, I thought, just do it man.
- Can you share some of any significant events that has shaped your business philosophy? This could be external events.
I think for us from day 1, in our industry, we are very afraid of doing something thats similar because you can be known as plagiarizing or copying. Graphic design, logo for example, you cannot copy a logo because its very obvious. But I think what has changed our working ethos, maybe about 5 years ago was when I felt that Singapore market’s was too small.
At the start, we are always concentrating our efforts in Singapore. About 5-6 years ago I realize we should enter other markets, not just Asia but also outside Asia. At that time, a lot of western brand consultancy firms were coming to Singapore. At that time, I think if you say that you are a Singapore design company, it means nothing because all these companies are here. So if you want to do something, you should aim to be be the best in the world so that your market becomes a lot bigger. And that also explains why our team composition has changed. We became more internationalized as a company, our profile is more international and we look for international projects.
- So the change in composition of your workforce, was it intentional or was it something that naturally happened?
I think its a bit of both, because lets say 15 years ago when i wanted to hire someone internationally, no creative individuals will want to work in Singapore because its very boring. Singapore is very business, safe, but as a creative person Singapore isnt attractive to them. Maybe in the last 3 years, Singapore has become quite attractive now, so its easy to entice people to come here for a while. Also i think as a company as we mature, we have projects that are more international so it gives us the opportunities to hire these people. So the timing is just right and the opportunity is there and everything comes together. From day 1 i felt that as a creative company its good to be multi-cultural.
- Maybe on that point, working with a team of various nationalities, there are bound to be certain problems along the way. At the same time, there are benefits that come with it. Can you just name some of these observations you have made?
Alcohol smooths a lot of thing. When you drink, everything will be good. Positive points, i think its good for local designers as they learn about various cultures. Design to me is about culture, if you dont understand culture you wont be able to understand design. Even if you were to look at a design book everyday, you cannot design. You have to understand life to understand design. So that has opened up the mind of individuals in our studio.
So how do we bridge culture? Locals like to eat certain type of food, but westerners like to eat certain type of food. These are small things you cant avoid, but these are small issues that they can deal with.
- To round things up, I’d like to find out more about entrepreneurship from you. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I tihnk the desire to want to change is important for an entrepreneur. Obviously you do have a vision of something that you can create or you want to create – that is also a key factor of being an entrepreneur. A lot of entrepreneurs are people who are restless, who share a vision.
I feel there are some entrepreneurs who start out with the aim of making money so they are businessmen. However, I think those entrepreneurs are not as visionary as people who share a vision to want to change the world. For example, entrepreneurs who ask the question : what I could create that could change people’s life for the better. These are the kind of entpreneurs that I respect a lot more, because being an entrepreneur is not just about making money, it is about changing life, its about sharing your vision with the world. Obviously a great example is Apple, everyone knows Steve Jobs – he has a vision and how that changed the world. He had this line that said the craziest people who think they can change the world are the ones they do, so I think these are the thing I felt really strong about.
- What advice would you give to young people who want to start their own business?
I think my advice would be to just do it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs act first, because they have that urgency. I feel that when you have a vision, and you want to do it, just do it. There will be many problems that surfaces along the way, but you will be able to solve it. But if you keep thinking and all the negatvitiy sets in, you will be afraid to venture. To me, if you have a great idea, just go and do it.
I think what is lacking in most people, something that stops that from becoming entrepreneurs is that their risk appetite is very low. People get comfortable easily, they take on a comfortable job. People do not want to rock the boat, but I think that if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to take the risk and bite the bullet.