The art of branding


We’re both art and design-led, Fictionist Studio founder Joanne Chew says, describing the ethos of the studio. — ART CHEN/The Star

ELEVEN years ago, Joanne Chew cast her ballot for the first time in a Malaysian general election. Chew, a Parsons School of Design alum, had up to that point spent most of her working life in New York and Singapore.

“Prior to 2014, I had not really worked in Malaysia for long enough to make a difference,” she recalls. But the act of voting sparked a desire to further play her part in shaping the future of the country.

“Something triggered in me. I thought to myself that perhaps it was time to contribute to my own country, even if that meant something as small as a beautifully designed business card,” she explains.

A year later, she made good on her word and moved back to Malaysia, setting up Fictionist Studio. Today, the multidisciplinary creative outfit is responsible for some of the most notable design and branding projects seen locally, from branding for top F&B businesses and property developers to book designs and paper art installations.

“It’s quite fun and interesting because you learn so much along the way. We have been involved in real estate, tech start-ups, fashion, plastic recycling and more,” she reflects.

“We’re both art and design-led,” she says, describing the ethos of the studio. “I feel that having this duality allows us to champion originality as best as we can while also showcasing how effectively we can communicate as visual designers. For us, it’s not just about designing beautiful-looking products, they need to have a strategy behind it and tell a story.”

Visual revolution

Since founding Fictionist Studio in 2014, Chew observes that the local landscape and market for creative design has experienced a positive shift.

“Ten to fifteen years ago, everything was very cookie-cutter,” she remarks. Back then, there was little by way of creative risk-taking and experimentation when it came to how businesses branded themselves.

These days, however, she opines that more businesses are recognising the value and potential of good design.

“I think it’s also due to legacy businesses that now have second and third generation leaders who are more well-travelled, cognisant of trends and exposed to art, culture, design, so they then look for agencies or creative practitioners that can provide that edge.”

Thanks to its impressive portfolio of boundary-pushing work, the studio has been able to draw in a diverse range of clients across various sectors who prize compelling and memorable design.

“Those who knock on our door know what we are capable of and are seeking more unconventional, out-of-the-box creative solutions, so we’re often quite aligned from the get-go,” she adds.

The projects that Chew is most proud of, however, are the ones that have posed the toughest challenges. “The final outcomes are often a result of dogged perseverance to see it through and materialise it in the way we envisioned,” she explains.

One such example is the studio’s work with plastic recycling company Heng Hiap Industries. Tasked with rebranding the business’ identity, the designers set out to position it into “the Apple of plastic recycling” with a new logomark, website design, print collaterals and brand strategy.

In her opinion, designing the website was particularly rewarding, as they had a unique opportunity to create a sleek, interactive digital offering for a more traditional company, with inventive UI/UX, graphics and copywriting that better reflected its place as an international player. As a result, the company has reported receiving more inquiries globally since the website’s launch.

“We are used to B2C projects that mainly target consumers, but we hadn’t really done B2B like this,” she describes. “For these kinds of businesses, they don’t really spend that money on marketing, so it is extra work to convince clients that you can still market your product attractively, package it differently and tell their story in a more engaging manner, even when it’s B2B.”

In graphic detail

As Fictionist Studio’s founder and creative director, Chew’s time is largely spent on managing clients and overseeing her team as they execute design work. Projects are characterised by a two-way collaborative process between clients and designers, with Chew acting as the go-between. This way, the designers are given space to tinker and experiment creatively while also welcoming client input.

“In the beginning of a project, I would allow my team members to ideate freely, and after that it’s my duty to present those ideas to the client and see how well they take to them. Then, based on the client’s response and feedback, we pivot and strategise from there.”

For her, providing the team a “playground” to explore and stretch themselves in their artistry constitutes an important factor, even when choosing projects to take on.

“After someone has worked for you for a period of time, you get to know what they are really good at or interested in, and based on that I try to get projects that let them do that, where possible,” she says.

Outside of client-based work, the studio regularly embarks on self-initiated projects such as its yearly Lunar New Year festive packaging creations. Often themed around the year’s zodiac animal, the gift boxes and ang pow packets are striking, whimsical and utilise three-dimensional mechanisms in unexpected ways.

Another proud recent launch is its self-published magazine, Latter. Bound together like a letter, each issue revolves around a theme that explores a facet of the human condition through a series of musings, stories and visual expressions. In it, the studio’s members contribute their own artistic interpretation of the theme, which can take the form of photography, typography or lettering.

“It can get tiring to service clients all the time. We’re designers but we’re also artists, and we need to service our creative selves too. So having these sorts of projects allows us to play, test and fail without being bound by client briefs or expectations.”

Reflecting on the local creative industry’s burgeoning growth in recent years, Chew seems to have an optimistic outlook, noting that the scene is currently brimming with activity.

“I think we are coming into our own a lot more since Covid, and embracing the chaos, the mess and all our multitudes. There are more younger designers opening their own small businesses.”

As for Fictionist Studio, the founder reveals that there is an exciting mix of projects lined up, including a large hospitality project at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia. She also hopes to release the second issue of Latter this year.

Now in its 10th year, the studio has more than proven its versatility and ingenuity through its broad scope of projects.

“It’s always about the idea”, she stresses. “As long as the idea is exciting, and we can execute it in a way that pushes the boundaries, then it doesn’t matter the medium, whether it’s a website, packaging design, installation, or performance art.”

True to its name, Fictionist Studio’s core focus is rooted in crafting narratives that resonate.

“At the heart of it, we are storytellers who are imaginative and intelligent in thought, and robust and rhythmic in action and execution. I believe that no matter the type of creative brief, we are essentially telling stories and creating universes.”

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.


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