If you’ve walked past Habitat by Honestbee, you might have noticed the funky artwork on three of its walls. You may have also seen the animation at jD Sports’ flagship store in ion Orchard.
But do you know who the mastermind behind these beautiful artworks is?
Meet Deon Phua, Kevin Too, Russell Ong and Lydia Yang, also known as Tell Your Children Studios. Established in 2014, the quartet has done illustrative work for clients such as Funan, ASICS, New Balance and even Uniqlo.
I had the opportunity to meet up with these four young talented individuals at their studio in Tanjong Katong to learn more about them, although I was confused—the shopfront looked nothing like a studio. It merely has the words “By Appointment Only” and nothing else. It was only after I caught a glimpse of the designers working on their desktops that I decided to push the doors open and enter.
The studio was kitschy—filled with toys, books and other paraphernalia displayed haphazardly, with painted shoes suspended in mid-air. However, amidst these fascinating vintage items on display, what stood out was their plain white walls—one of the specialities of TYC studios was their mural painting. Why were their office walls white?
Julian Wong: How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?
Lydia Yang: Illustration, murals, key visuals, merchandise.
Kevin Too: I’ll say we conduct experiments. With the word experiment, it means a lot of planning, analysis, and preparing, which is part of what we do, and with experiments you can also think of it as creative experiments. The word is big enough to encompass what we do.
J: How did TYC come together?
L: We were all from Temasek Polytechnic’s Visual Communications course.
Deon Phua: We had this idea during NS because we didn’t want to go to university.
Russell Ong: We were all in the same class at one point, and it was Deon’s idea to start a creative studio outside polytechnic, but we didn’t have concrete plans. This idea happened to sync up with all of us nearing the end of army, and we decided to kickstart this adventure.
J: While the guys were in NS, what were you doing?
L: I worked at various companies. I started a blog shop, which eventually led to an events company job, then I mostly did freelance work after that. I was mainly doing graphic design, and with the events company, I was helping to run the events.
J: Instead of a stable job, or getting more experience first, why did you take a risk to start your studio?
D. I think we were just impatient that way. We had more experienced friends telling us to not rush into things, but I think that drives me to prove myself, that this could work. In retrospect, getting a job after army might have been the safer choice, but if we have done that maybe TYC would have never been born. We could have been comfortable in our own jobs.
R: At the start, it was more of “why not”. We didn’t want to further our studies, and we thought since we have the energy, talent and skills, we could try and see how this thing could work out.
D: I think if you gave us two or three years in the industry, and propose this idea of opening a studio, we wouldn’t have jumped on it at all because it’s just too much effort. Thinking about it, if I were to start another studio now, I wouldn’t be able to do that. We started young, so we had time to grow.
J: Why the name TYC?
R: A lot of people have asked that, to the point that I want to change the answer.
K: I think the name on its own generates a point of curiosity. If we want to create a creative studio, I think it’s pretty dull to name it “something something” studio. I don’t think the definition of the name matters; it’s what we do behind the name or in front of the name.
J: Have you always known you wanted to be in this field?
R: I mean, I definitely knew that I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. I knew I couldn’t do anything else, And stumbled into Visual Communications by chance, which dictated where I was heading. I was also inspired by my brother; like he was the one who got me into drawing at a young age, and it never stopped.
D: I was always inspired by my dad. He used to draw my favourite comics and superhero characters. He isn’t a designer, but he draws really well.
K: I stumbled into it. Growing up in Secondary School, I wanted to be a scientist or lawyer. Unfortunately, my grades were only good enough to get into visual comms. I had no inclination towards art, no conception of art, just because there was no exposure to it. I developed the interest after spending some time in visual comms.
L: I really liked drawing as a kid, and my mom would teach me how to draw, then in primary school, I was always the one decorating the classroom. I always had the creative thing in me. I always used the right brain and not the left brain—I hated studying. In secondary school, I was always doodling on the table and getting distracted, and that led me into visual comms.
J: What was your childhood like growing up, and how has it affected your work?
R: I think I was fortunate to grow up with TV, so I ended up watching a lot of cartoons like Street Sharks, Pokemon and Power Rangers. I guess it has engraved itself in my subconscious, so every time I go back to drawing or something I’m interested in, it always links back one way or another to all these cartoons that I grew up watching.
D: My childhood definitely affected my interest in pop culture. That’s because I grew up watching cartoons, MTV, listening to Blink-182 and all these post-punk stuff. They helped shape my interest in pop culture, street fashion, and subcultures which have influenced my perception of things now. Whether it is brainstorming for my vintage store or anything that I do, my whole perception is very rooted in that subculture.
J: Deon, you have a vintage store?
D: Yeah, I run Deaththreads on the side. That’s where my interest took me also.
J: What is your favourite piece of work that you’ve done so far?
D: The next one.
K: Yes. I think we have learnt not to have a favourite work because it has already been done and we always have to look forward. There is no favourite piece of work that we have done because we have already done it. After we finish it we can look at it and go “cool”, but we move on.
D: There are definitely milestones, like key projects that help propel us to the next level, or things that we have never done before. There were a lot of favourites, but we’re always planning on how to one-up ourselves for the next one.
R: I think it’s also the creative curse where you bored with things very quickly. It’s only a favourite for a moment until you do the next thing. Once it’s done, you move on to the next project. It’s a never-ending process that inspires us.
L: Off the top of my head, I think the Honestbee one was huge for us. It was one of the biggest pieces and one of our milestones.
J: Is there a lot of creative freedom when it comes to painting murals?
R: When it comes to working with corporate clients, most of them have a set look that they have in mind. They always try to make it sound like they give us the creative freedom, but when we provide them with something new and unique, they’ll come to us and say:“We were looking at this work that you have done before. Can you do something similar?” This has happened quite a few times and has changed the way we handle these jobs.
K: When the clients say “creative freedom”, I think they may have a very different idea of it. Let’s say we are speaking to a marketing manager of a brand—he doesn’t have that much autonomy to grant you creative freedom. It’s part of our responsibility as creators and designers to suss out what they mean by creative freedom—they might lack the vocabulary for it.
L: Honestly, there have been various clients that have given us leeway to work on something that is more our style than what they want. We initially thought we had to follow something more corporate, but they got back to us saying “it’s too corporate, and we want you guys to inject your style.”
R: I don’t think we can have full creative freedom if it’s a client. At the end of the day, you still have to follow a brief. Even when they say we can follow our own style, it’s not considered creative freedom. If we had complete freedom, we could do something entirely different. There’s always going to be limits to any project that we take on. It’s just about how much can we push the boundaries.
J: Do you also do fashion design?
L: I wouldn’t say fashion per se, but it’s just another medium to show our creative side.
D: We do work with a lot of fashion brands. With Uniqlo, it was a tote bag. We have also done work for Armani Exchange and Prada.
R: If you are taking these jackets, for example, it’s more of the idea of it being a different medium for us to explore our illustrations. On the side, we delve into our own fashion-related lines—Lydia has her own DHL line, sometimes I do my own experimental t-shirts, and Dion runs deaththreads. So it still comes back to illustration even though it takes on a different outcome. It’s all our interests—we have worked with many streetwear brands, like Chinatown Market and X-Large. We are also looking to convert the front of our studio into a shop—called By Appointment Only.
J: Was it hard finding clients at the start?
L: We had a lot of friends in the industry who helped push us forward because we were very unique—nothing like us existed back then, and we were a fresh breath of air. So we started with small projects, which led to bigger projects.
D: As we grew in momentum, the jobs just kept coming in. Back then, it was hard to find clients, but now, it’s hard to find clients who have the budget to do what we want.
R: The start was a lot easier because we had assistance and help which we were grateful for, but now, challenges are coming as we move forward and try to develop TYC into something bigger and beyond what we started.
K: I think hard is a relative word. What may be hard for us back then may be easy for us now, and the same goes for the future. You always have to be on your toes and be aware of your strengths, weaknesses and everything.
J: Since you do murals, why are the office walls white?
R: We tried to have a mural here, but we got bored with it very quickly. We got jaded after a while, so we instead have objects that we can move around and replace.
D: Everything is white, so we can imagine what could be there, and we are not stuck with one image only.
L: I don’t think it’s cool to be looking at something that you’ve done. It’s better to have inspiration from other people. It feels weird, having your own mural in your own studio.
J: Not even a signboard?
R: We’ve been thinking of getting a signboard for a long time already, but we just forgot about it. But it kind of adds on to the mystery of the place, don’t you think?
J: What is the most significant sacrifice you’ve had to make for each other?
D: For the past few years, we’ve placed the importance of keeping the studio up and running over our ambitions. If we wanted to do something else, and that jeopardises the studio’s efficiency or functionality, the priority is always the studio.
K: I don’t classify anything I’ve done with them in the past five years as a sacrifice—I don’t think it’s anything that grand. But keeping the studio afloat, keeping the vision and integrity, that takes priority.
R: The most significant sacrifice will be time and energy. A lot of times, there is a question of why are we continuing this studio when there are so many alternatives such as having a stable job, and you could make more money doing other things, but this is what we chose, and this is the sacrifice we have to make. The success and longevity of the studio come down to how much we give to it.
L: For me, it’s a little different. The biggest effort for me is learning to deal with working with three guys. I didn’t know all the guy lingo.
J: What does success look like to you?
K: I think going to the economical rice stall and ordering four types of meat, I think that is success. That’s the surface answer because with that you can ascribe specific meanings. You can attribute stability, and not having to think about money as a factor. Having the privilege to do certain things, that’s success.
D: I’m quite torn because you can measure the amount of success by money, like how much the company is making, how much profits. But there’s another way you can measure success in a sense that us being able to come in every day and do what we do and still make a living out of it, it’s considered a success already. I’m still trying to manage my expectations for both. If you have the creative energy surrounded by friends to do what you do, I think that is success.
R: I think success is something very fleeting because once you hit something, you will always want the next thing. At this point in time, success comes in two forms. The financial stability to be in a place of comfort, and to reach a point where I am contented or proud of my achievements through my creative endeavours.
L: If I set out to do something, and I achieve it in the best way that I know I can, then that is success. It’s a constant thing.
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