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Designer dreams

Ms Yu Yah-Leng opts out of an engineering course to follow her heart and study art and design

CATS Recruit in The Straits Times - February 26, 2012
By: Grace Chew
Designer dreams

Ask award-winning designer Yu Yah-Leng what her best decision was, and she would probably tell you it was dropping out of her computer engineering course and pursuing her passion for design.

Despite majoring in science at school, Ms Yu enjoyed “the process of creating something from scratch and seeing it to fruition”.

After starting her course at Nanyang Technological University, the then 18-year-old decided that “computer hardware and chips were not my cup of tea” and started looking for alternative degree courses in design.

“In order to convince my parents that computer engineering was a misfit for me, I deliberately flunked my first-year examinations,” she admits.

She then dropped out of school and worked part-time to fund her dream of pursuing an overseas education in art and design.

Her determination led her parents to eventually send her abroad to study graphic design at the Art Institute of Boston.

“That was the turning point for me,” says the 39-year-old. “Although I was enrolled in a small art school, Boston allowed me the opportunity to study subjects of my interest through exchange programmes with Harvard and other renowned tertiary institutions.”

Stimulating environment

After graduation, she worked at an advertising agency in Los Angeles for about a year before moving to New York City where her creative career blossomed.

She worked with several design studios and had opportunities to work with world-renowned brand names like Versace, Bvlgari, Oscar de la Renta and Ferragamo.

But after 9/11 and the dot.com bubble burst, the US economy came to a standstill and she lost her job, like many others.

She and three of her former co-workers then started a digital agency in a shopfront on the Lower East Side where they worked on fashion and lifestyle brand projects.

The reason for staying on was because “New York is the best place for designers and artists. I believed that if one could succeed in NYC, one could succeed anywhere”.

Adapting to new ways

Due to personal reasons, she moved home to Singapore in 2007. She and her husband Arthur Chin founded Foreign Policy Design Group, which focuses on brand strategy and business evaluation apart from design work.

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They have won awards such as the AIGA 365 Design Effectiveness Award 2011 and the 2011 Brand New Awards.

They spent the first two years sussing out the local design industry and getting to know people.

She says: “We had never worked in Singapore and had to start everything from scratch. From finding good printers, suppliers, manufacturers to adjusting to the culture shock of how people communicated and behaved.”

The hardest part was “selling an idea”.

“We had slightly different perspectives because we lived and worked in NYC for many years and it was difficult convincing our clients initially,” she says.

They tended to be very American when they first started running the business but had to evolve to fit Asian society.

She says they still like doing things differently. For example, there are certain qualities they want in an employee that are vastly different from most other design studios, such as people who are open, well-read and receptive to new ideas.

Their first projects catered mostly to new businesses that dared to try new ideas. Their clients now include more established companies looking to re-brand themselves.

She is currently working on branding projects for design hotels and museums including an art tourism development project in Nanjing for which they beat 37 other design agencies in China.

An in-house exchange programme called Design Diplomacy allows her staff to work in a foreign design agency for a period of time and gain exposure abroad.

With just six of them in the group, she plays multiple roles but likes thinking beyond the norm and coming up with creative solutions for her clients.

“Aesthetics are ephemeral and transient. The only thing with longevity is good ideas,” she says.

She is also active on the design education front in Singapore and currently sits on the advisory board of the Temasek Design School.