About Exhibition


20 years ago, Kelley Cheng started Singapore’s first independent design magazine, ish. A modern day polymath – editor, writer, curator, spatial design, graphic design, video director, interactive designer, educator, and even F&B and art gallery owner – she has done it all. The founder and creative director of The Press Room, her creations have made its mark on the collective evolution of the nation’s graphic design scene and also cemented her status in the international design jury circuit.

Proportion & Emotion is a specially curated selection of 20 seminal projects and equally memorable milestones that provide a glimpse into the breadth of work spanning graphic to spatial design over
Kelley’s 20-year journey.


In celebration of this milestone, 20 new works have also been produced in close collaboration with Kelley’s peers from the global design community. From Singapore to New York, the young to the young-at-heart, the collaborations are of utmost significance as Proportion & Emotion is not just a retrospective showcase of Kelley’s 20 years, but a celebration of the 20 years of growth across creatives from all generations, and how they have come together and grown alongside one another, as one community.

DesignSingapore Council is proud to co-present Proportion & Emotion: 20 Years in Design with Kelley Cheng 1999 – 2019, as part of the SG Designer Milestone Series line-up at the National Design Centre.



Art as Design & Design as Art

While artists create mostly using intuition, a designer creates using both intuition and logic, as a design is usually commission by a client to serve a specific purpose, hence the need to take into considerations practicality and context is essential. The title of the exhibition “Proportion & Emotion” embodies the two most important components that are the fundamentals of a good design, where by the former is driven by logic and the latter is driven by intuition. Central to Kelley’s practice and philosophy, she believes that art and design are often intertwined and through this exhibition, she hopes to bring across the point that boundaries of art and design can often be blurred, and this combination of art and design produce works that meets a design brief but at the same time, embodies the touch of the creator.

The exhibition is curated to have 2 main parts - one part features 20 highlights of commercial works done in the 20 years and these works embodies the spirit of design as art; while the other part which features 20 new works with collaborators from Singapore and overseas are a showcase of art as design. Ultimately, the show hopes to invite the viewer to think - can art be design and can design be art?

An Introduction by
Kelley Cheng

Art as Design

These 20 artworks are specially created in close collaboration with my friends and peers from the art and design industry both locally and globally. I am very happy that almost everyone I have invited agreed immediately and are enthusiastic with this fun collaboration. The process is that each designer/artist was given a base artwork from myself, numbered 1 to 20, each played or punned with a Chinese phrase or idiom that contained a number that has a personal significance to me in that particular year of the 2 decades. The narrative of each year was shared with the appointed designer/artist, who were all given 100% freedom to respond to the narrative conceptually or simply visually.

As a designer, we often have to consider concept, aesthetics, execution and also, it usually has to serve a specific purpose for the client. Art is typically more free and expressive as you don’t need to create with a specific purpose or audience. In curating this collaboration, I hope to send across the message that if designers are given the same freedom as artists, the outcome can almost always be much more stunning, exciting, surprising and yet it is possible that it can still serve a specific purpose.

Some of the collaborators/friends asked me why Chinese words? And there is indeed a story behind this. As the youngest child with 2 older siblings, I had quite a lonely childhood as I was alone in the house with my mother most of the time, who was always busy with housework. So I used to comb the bookshelves of my sister and brother and spend every afternoon reading. That was also how I fell in love with books and magazines. My brother was a huge 武侠小说 (martial arts novel) fan, so I discovered the fascinating world of martial arts through the works of 金庸 (Jin Yong) 古龙 (Gu Long) and devoured all the series that I could find from his collection. The pugilist characters were like my friends, when i immersed myself for weeks binging on each series. I have fond memories of those lonely but not alone afternoons with my imaginary martial art circles. As a kid, I really wanted to be one of those a pugilist with superb kung fu skills. I realised quite quickly you can’t be a pugilist in the modern world, but the positive values of being a pugilist has remained inside me and perhaps that is why I value strength, honour and loyalty; and even as a designer, it is important. And this saying always stays with me - 要学武, 先学做人 (to learn martial arts, you must first learn to be a good human being). And I would like to impart to all young designers the same philosophy.

This collaboration, in fact, is me playing out my martial arts fantasy again, whereby as pugilsts we will say - 江湖有情 (there is friendship and love in the martial art circles). Thank you to all my collaborators for indulging me!

Design as Art

When I started ish magazine 20 years ago as a clueless youngster, I had no idea what it meant to run a business, all I had was a naive dream to create a non-conventional, non-templated design magazine that feels artistic. Being a fan of Ray Gun magazine, I admired the way David Carson treated every spread as different as a piece of art, so much so that even the text was occasionally unreadable. Even though I was far from his league then, I was armed with youthful enthusiasm and an abundance of idealism, and issue after issue of ish was birthed unrestrainedly and joyfully. Looking back, I wasn’t sure where I found the audacity to do those crazy designs, it must be the power of youth.

Today, I still aspire to be artistic in my design, but i have learnt to do it in a more controlled and strategic way. I have been fortunate to have trusting clients who are willing to try new ideas and take the road less travelled with me. I have learnt that good designs tell stories and I hope that all my designs will tell interesting stories, and I will have interesting stories to tell about them.

To choose 20 works from a 20-year career is as difficult as asking a parent to choose a favourite child, because you love them in different ways. In the end, I decided to pick a spectrum of works to show the diversity of my jill-of-all-trade-ness, and of course some are simply my personal favourites. I really wish I could show more but even just curating these 20 old + 20 new works had been helluva work, so I hope you will all enjoy this show, which I have truly, lovingly put together. And if you catch me walking around here on any given day, feel free to grab me and I will be most happy to tell you the story behind each work.

Kelley ChengDecember 2019


A Foreword by
Dr. Yeo Wei Wei

Who’s Counting?

Counting is one of the first activities we are taught at home and in school. As children, we enumerate the people and objects around us with innocence, brimming with confidence and optimism. As time goes by, our views about life and the world evolve, as do our attitudes towards birthdays and anniversaries.

20 years have passed since Kelley embarked on her adventures in design. She has chosen to commemorate her 20th anniversary via two narratives of counting: the first, a carefully chosen list of 20 projects, highlights in a career with many more star projects than a mere 20; the second, a series of 20 collaborations with international and Singaporean designers and creatives based on the counting of numerals in Mandarin.

When she showed me the sequence of collaborations, each one a creative palimpsestic engagement with her imagistic and linguistic puns on Chinese sayings and idioms, one of my first thoughts was: ‘Kelley likes to count.’

Yet the Kelley I know and admire has also always struck me as being one of the least calculative persons I know.

She is as generous in her actions as her spirit is open and unstinting. ‘A solid human being’ was how I described her recently.

So what exactly is she tallying up in her score of 20 years in design?

I put the question to her in a different way by asking: ‘What does time mean to you?’
Kelley replied with her characteristic blend of candour, humour and groundedness: ‘Every day is like an allowance. When a day is done, it’s like money that’s been used up, which can never be had again.’
For her, each lifetime is a finite balance in the bank: ‘Time is a depository that can be exchanged for things that are good and meaningful, but only if we spend it wisely. If you have only $20,000 in the bank, how would you spend it?’

Looking at what she has worked on over the last 20 years, it is clear that she has worked hard at making the most of every single cent.

The 20 milestone projects in the exhibition showcase an array of diverse disciplines and interests: journalism, publishing, branding, marketing, architecture, creative communal spaces, exhibition design, literature, visual arts, museum wayfinding.

They are embodiments of imagination, risk-taking, openness, hard work, sincerity, and commitment to the highest possible standards.

In short, the very qualities that had led in 1999 to the birth of the first design magazine of its kind in Singapore – ish.

Creating a magazine was Kelley’s childhood dream. She was drawn to art and photography since young. Her father gave her a small Kodak camera when she was in Primary 1 and she took photos of street cats and her sister. She became obsessed with fashion magazines and aspired to be a fashion photographer. Together with her brother, she made her own comic books using the stacks of complimentary organizers her father brought home. When she was 17 she started to draw illustrations and take photographs for Big O. She covered the gigs of local bands. When The Oddfellows made their debut Teenage Head album, they asked Kelley to design the cover. The album was a bestseller.

Her love for magazines grew during her involvement with Big O. It was also during that time that the dream of starting her own magazine began to take more concrete shape. She loved writing, taking pictures, drawing, and she had learnt about design and layout. She had the passion and the skills to make her own magazine. She saw the editors working in their apartment, drinking tea, typing away at their computers. If this was what running one’s own magazine entailed, she thought, I can do it too.

This can-do spirit is at the heart of what makes Kelley tick. She is also indefatigably optimistic.

Her optimism is worth mentioning because it is something that we share in common. And optimism is also much needed when you work in publishing in Singapore.

ish made the name of Kelley Cheng known to me long before I met her in person as the Publications Consultant for publications at the National Gallery Singapore in 2010. I was head of that fledgling unit and Kelley became my mentor.

In her series of 20 collaborations with key designers in Singapore and other parts of the world I sense the camaraderie, mutual respect and shared love for art, design, and words which had made my own past collaborations with her in the conceptualization, branding and design of art books so fun and rewarding.

The process of making art books, and I should add here, saleable art books, is not for the faint-hearted or the frail of will. What I learnt from Kelley was the importance of proportion and emotion, not only as design principles, not only in terms of what is produced at the end of a creative process, but as the guiding principles of that very process itself.

Proportion and emotion must be present in how we engage with our subject matter, whichever field we are in. When they guide our relationships with one another as friends and as colleagues, they remind us of what is important beyond being right; they centre us on the things that truly matter and how we should go about safeguarding those things in humane and honourable ways.

I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in the next 20 years.

May there be 20 and plenty more!

But then again, who’s counting?


Dr. Yeo Wei Wei is the author of These Foolish Things & Other Stories (Ethos Books, 2015). The book cover was designed by The Press Room.

She was Deputy Director of Publications, Resource Centre and International Programmes at National Gallery Singapore when she first met Kelley.

She is also into counting.