Mark Wee, DesignSingapore Council’s executive director, talks about the pandemic as a merciless teacher, the new normal and how the future belongs to those who think creatively, adapt nimbly and learn fast.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

This month, we will not be celebrating Singapore’s independence the usual way. Instead of putting a pause on celebrations, the organisers have been more creative with commemorating the most important day of our nation’s 55th birthday, bringing us all together to celebrate National Day online. In a way, this is just one instance of how we have adjusted to life in a “new normal”.


Across the globe, many have been subject to Covid-19’s wrath. From our informal poll of the local design community, the top three impacts felt were, unsurprisingly, cancelled contracts, the reduced market demand for design work and challenges in business development. However, many also said they have experienced accelerated innovation and digital transformation.

To quote a well-known local creative director, who recently participated in a global webinar with us, “Covid-19 has been a “merciless teacher”. Indeed, it has been dishing out pain while imparting knowledge and even new opportunities for those able to grit their way through this crisis and see it as an opportunity for reinvention.

At the onslaught, designers collaborated with others in a race against time to develop solutions to combat the pandemic. Some even helped local SMEs launch user-friendly digital transactions and experiences that helped them stay afloat. Design firms – like other businesses – need to adapt quickly or die.

We know that some quickly armed themselves with digital tools and redesigned the way they worked to continue to service clients, albeit remotely, during the Circuit Breaker. Others courted clients in new sectors or overseas markets and some diversified into new products and services.

With everyone working from home, it was clear that the firms that were able to transition into a digital mode of engagement had an edge. With digital flattening geographical distance, some firms assembled teams across multiple countries while we at DesignSingapore reached out to our global network of contacts to partner on webinars and workshops.


As we are unlikely to return to pre-Covid-19 days completely, a reasonable assumption would be that work in the future would blend remote digital collaborations and physical meetings for interactions that cannot be done online.

The pandemic, which exposed the vulnerable state of supply chains and business models, has demanded a redesign of our systems and how we interact and engage with one another. With the acceleration of the digitalisation and transformation of industries, too, the way we live, work and play would have to cater to new public health and safety standards.

With large MNCs making unprecedented moves such as allowing staff to permanently work from home, how might designers help families balance the competing needs and ensure the well-being of all who share the same limited space? Or how might they help organisations build a sense of belonging and cultural identity when people are not physically meeting daily?

Designers will have to consider broadening their skill sets to answer to these new demands. While there are many questions and uncertainties ahead, two things are clear: the future belongs to those who learn fast, adapt well to disruption and think creatively, and there is an entire world of new experiences to be designed for.

This is where designers, who are always thinking about the future and are comfortable with the ambiguity of things, have an advantage and can relish the opportunity to rethink the way we live, work and play going forward. They need to look at this new emerging world around us with hope and opportunity, and to visualise and communicate innovative new possibilities to clients.


The DesignSingapore Council has schemes such as the Good Design Research programme, Skills Future Study Awards for Design, design scholarships and the Skills Framework for Design to support designers who wish to do more impactful work or equip themselves with new skills to take their careers further.

I’m happy to announce that the Good Design Research programme, which had its inaugural open call during the Circuit Breaker, attracted some 60 submissions. From these, we have selected seven projects to support until the proof of concept stage. They address global and societal issues such as the future of how we work as a result of Covid-19, the issue of inequality and social cohesion, as well as environmental and business sustainability.

With our support, these Singapore designers will be able to embark on robust design research and experimentation to create unique, human-centred solutions that will make life better for local and even global communities. We are also opening up our Skills Future Study Awards to fund online courses as we are aware of the rich educational content available online from reputable institutions and design organisations.

As we celebrate our nation’s 55th year of independence, we need to remember that Singapore could not have come this far without a designer’s mindset. We did not allow our lack in resources to limit our imagination and tame our boldness to propose and test new ideas for a better future.

In the same spirit, I have full confidence that the design community will emerge stronger by tapping on their entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and natural empathy to understand this emerging world and how it can be designed for the better and not for worse.

My Reading Room

Good design research

Selected submissions include Offcut Factory’s research of waste materials (top) and fashion label Gin Lee’s proposal for on-demand fabric pleating (bottom).
My Reading Room
Mark Wee is Executive Director of DesignSingapore Council