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The most important thing I've learned is how to unlearn

Theseus Chan on why unlearning is the key to producing more radical graphic work

Illustration by Kirstin Moore

Singapore designer Theseus Chan is best known globally for his self-published magazine Werk, a tour-de-force of graphic technique that often uses hands-on intervention to personalise each copy. At home he is regarded as the godfather of Singapore graphic design, his influence on a new generation of designers hugely important to his country’s new creative ambitions.

As the first D&AD President from Education, Rebecca Wright has invited voices from across the industry to explore learning. In response, Chan shares a personal account of his journey through unlearning much of what he was taught, and how doing this makes for more exciting, more radical work.

The route to unlearning is completely nonsensical yet full of possibilities. There are no textbooks to abide by, no rules to follow, no webinars to attend; instead, my time is spent daydreaming, scheming for a way to do less. 

The right or wrong way to think and act is irrelevant in creation. What I am after is to surprise myself and get away with it in design. If I can achieve this, I will be putting myself in the best position to create. I will be free from all barriers of a ‘learned mind’. With no rules to follow, I am left to my devices. Boundaries disappear. 

Newness is achievable when there is nothing to compare with. Therefore, I can now justify how imperfection can now be perfect. Dumber can be a blessing, thus smarter. The trick is to make the mind an empty vessel. Obviously, this is absurd, indulgent and impossible, but aiming for this frees you from what you think you *should* do and opens the door to ‘what if’?

“With no rules to follow, I am left to my devices. Boundaries disappear”

My approach: I believe that having next steps, a route forward, is essential. The traditional design process game is all about avoiding getting oneself into a creator's block. My design process is all about mental noodlings, playing around till something comes up that leads to the next steps. This process carries on until something unexpected and new happens. Nothing much is preplanned. Thinking is in the subconscious. Experimentations and accidentals are great learning playgrounds. Often, the process leads to how the eventual design will manifest.

Indeed, the burden of the familiar can be daunting. Experience can get in the way when you’re searching for an approach not done before. Not knowing too much but instead opting for relentless searching, experimenting, has opened so many creative doors to creating bold and radical work. Appreciate learning the fundamentals when you have the chance, and once you have mastered that, question them, subvert them, and come up with something totally at odds with the established way.

“My time is spent daydreaming, scheming for a way to do less”

I have found that creating like a child is the best way to create in so many ways. I liken it to a child learning to read, write and draw – applying that childlike naivety to a grown-up big-dollar world of design and aesthetics. It is a primal design approach methodology. For example, often it is agreed that form and function are important design ethos. That less is more. That design strategies are consequential. I am trying to do the exact opposite of this.

Also, I want to be free from the expectations of achieving something that already has a benchmark. The intention is to push forward to find something not currently imaginable. And then to move from there.

Having a regard or reputation for being a professional designer has never interested me. I am seeking the process of finding a new way that leads to a reservoir of ideas and unadulterated purity in expression – not design rules that one comes to expect of a professional designer.

“I am seeking the process of finding a new way that leads to a reservoir of ideas and unadulterated purity in expression”

My central medium is printed matter. I am most happy to find ways to combine cheap and often discarded materials – including cardboard, newspapers and packaging – to create new book objects. No material is off bounds; no technique is impossible. Once opened and leafed through, these objects change and are sometimes intentionally damaged, proving that creation occurs through destruction and only with the reader's active participation. 

I want to do my own thing. There are no templates to follow. I listen to my heart and think about what I want to say. Most of the time, it's emotional and personal. Free from expectations from anyone, I have my autonomy and freedom. I also have a predisposition to root for the overlooked and the yet to be trendy things. I like the complete opposite of the status quo.

As of 2019, I have reconfigured my studio. It is just my assistant and me. I have to manage much more emotional baggage when working with a bigger team. The intention here is to clear space to devote a bigger mental space to creating.

This is what I have learned. There is liberation to be found in making your own rules.

Read our previous contributions to this series, including D&AD President Rebecca Wright’s thoughts on why learning is an important part of all professional creatives' practice, and Brian Collins, of COLLINS, on why there is no such thing as “time to give back” here.

Join Rebecca Wright in conversation live on the topic of learning in the live D&AD series Still Learning Live here, where you can watch back interviews with past guests, including Lydia Pang and COLLINS’ Taamrat Amaize.

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