What is the current state of design in Malaysia?

In collaboration with ThinkCity and the SDG Center Kuala Lumpur, a special discourse session is held to close last year (Nov 25, 2023) as Kuala Lumpur Design Festival (KLDF) 2023’s Post-Festival Program. The session, titled ‘State of Design in Malaysia’ brings industry pros together to chat about the present challenges in various design fields. How do we go forward from here? Constructive criticism and more in this run-down.


A chill yet reflective discourse, State of Design in Malaysia at the KL library (Perpustakaan Kuala Lumpur) seats key industry leaders and thinkers; Datuk Prof Ian Davies (Design Advocacy), Koh Lee Meng (Visual Communications), Zaihani Mohd Zain (Fashion) and Dato’ AR Dr Hajeedar Abdul Majid (Architecture) come together to exchange thoughts and tribulations from their respective fields.

The discussion compiles oversight, growth and change in the speakers’ respective industries as well as their views on critical aspects in need of development. What pros and cons do we see? What should we pay attention to? What was the road taken, and where did it lead us to? These are among the themes that linger.

Moderated by Kuala Lumpur Design Festival (KLDF)’s Founder-Director, Razif Nasruddin, the intimate session is an eye-opening extension to KLDF 2023, which holds the theme Sustainable – Intelligence.

Here are some of the critical and constructive points included in the discourse:

“Enhance your understanding of design processes” – Zaihani Mohd Zain

Overseeing the industry, fashion critic/stylist Zaihani’s gripe has to do with fashion graduands’ ‘eager to please’ attitude during their period of study. She expresses her concern for students who cut corners to impress others, instead of delving into a deeper understanding of processes and how they work – which may be detrimental to the industry, as said students have a risk of coming out eventually with little to no originality in their creative work. On sustainable fashion, which is a lengthy topic on its own, Zaihani comments: “We are concerned about our planet – which turns us into sustainable, logical, practical people. In my view, upcycling or recycling is not enough.” For the [carbon] footprint to be drastically transformed, we need to look at the bigger picture – why do we practice sustainable measures?

“You have to adapt [to current tools] and adopt new skills” – Koh Lee Meng

With over 30 years of experience as a visual communications designer, Koh Lee Meng shares, “Back when I started, graphic design was something totally different. [VR and] AI has also changed [the landscape].” He has seen the transition from paper to screen in terms of how we design. In order to be relevant in the present, he says, embrace the move – explore the digital resources available; also, those in graphic design and/or multimedia could make use of the UI/UX lens. Everything boils down to strategising visual communications, he shares. Immersive design, according to Koh, is all the rave now. “My observation shifts to motion graphics, virtual reality – but of late, people have looked deeper into typography.” Typography, he says, is a great tool for expressing [yourself] and creating new forms. “Minimalist and inclusive design is also back into view as we analyze the needs [for differently-abled people].”

“Put your [foreign] views into practice” – Datuk Professor Ian Davies

From Datuk Professor Ian Davies’ experience as an interior design expert in Malaysia, he notes, “Everyone is usually waiting for the Government to do something, yet it is your personal responsibility to set a clear focus or target.” The industry veteran, a managing consultant at ArcRadius Consulting who is all for thoughtful furniture design processes, encourages ‘opening your eyes’ to travel opportunities and putting together what you’ve learned abroad in your home country. What we are able to construe from his lines of advice: a great designer is able to match what has been done somewhere else with what’s missing or lacking in our place of residence.

“Understand where you come from” – Dato’ AR Dr Haji Hajeedar Abdul Majid

Reflecting on his years of experience in the architectural field, Dato’ AR Dr Hajeedar is a big advocate in reading about your roots – lineage, culture – everything that makes us, us and projecting our DNA into our work. He muses, “This [the human brain] is the best tool anyone can find, it has a fantastic capacity in absorbing, organizing and utilizing information in your own line of work.” Known for his transformative work in his realm (ie transforming decades-old buildings into their new lives) in uprooting heritage, he leaves a simple-to-do, yet hard-to-follow advice: push through for collaboration. “They [people whose end work is satisfying to observe] are willing to discuss.” In the creative field, he notes, “Once your principal ideas are established, you translate them with your fingers.”  

Photos by thinklab

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