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Ella Zheng, Partner & Art Director at The Workbench, Offers Amazing Reads for Every Aspiring Designer

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Together with Ryan Len, Ella Zheng co-founded The Workbench back in 2014. They were looking to create things that help their clients find the best design solutions for themselves and their business. Even since the company was founded, Ryan and Ella’s work has received multiple recognition, including from Tokyo Type Directors Club Award, and got published in Asia Pacific Design, The Straits Times, Behance Showcase, and many more.

Ella is an extremely talented designer, also acting as the Art Director for The Workbench. Throughout her career as a designer and illustrator, she has received awards such as Crowbar Awards or the Singapore Good Design Mark.

Being an experienced fashion and graphic designer, Ella has worked with prestigious clients, such as Monocle, Esquire, and Cubes Indesign Magazine. Her ultimate goal is to use her creativity and drive to change the Singapore mindset towards design.

The following book-talk is going to reveal the books, the mangas and the zines that Ella recommends to anyone who wants to become a think-outside-the-box designer.

Estimated reading time for this interview is 14 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Business : I do not own any business related books.

Non Business :

My favourite book has always been manga. As I am an illustrator and Graphic Designer​​​, I enjoy books with more visuals than words. Manga has always inspired me in terms of the way it is illustrated and how the story is told. When you read a book, you are often recommended to read it twice to fully understand what you are reading. Likewise, Manga is the same. They are illustrated lessons filled with details you often miss out the first time and discover at the second or third time. ​Unlike books filled with text, I find it interesting that I interpret the same manga differently at different ages.

My all time favourite series is known as Koucha Ouji. Yamada Nanpei is a master at storytelling​. Her beautiful illustrations are filled with details and little lessons that always brings me joy. They enable me ​to ​experience our everyday world in a magical way by healing my soul on a terrible day.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

Yes​.​ Manga has taught me to ​persevere, try harder and never give up. It has also influenced me with positive energies as the characters in mangas I read are always so motivated to go forth and achieve.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

Books that designers and makers put the most effort into presenting and creating the content. I like books that have a lot of different treatments to the paper or printing (example, silkscreen, gold foil, emboss​ing​)​.​ Especially more so if they are made by hand because that shows how much passion goes into the book. I learn lessons both from the content and how the book is put together, it gives me a new perspective on designing books and appreciating the amount of effort put into them.

There are also little thin handmade booklets often photocopied and bound by staples called zines. I first encountered them in the first year of school. Some are illustrated, collaged, hand printed and all full of wonderful content. Zines are so free form, can be created in so many ways and formats making them easy to produce. They are pretty cheap unlike normal books that are quite expensive to produce. Although they might look very raw but I find them as interesting as everyone even a child can offer their own unique content to the community.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

Introducing: Culture Identities: Design for Museums, Theaters and Cultural Institutions.
Editors: Gestalten & Anna Sinofzik
ISBN: 978-3-89955-474-8

I find Museums and institutions in Singapore are generally very safe in design. This book opens up a whole new world of how western graphic designers are experimenting with new systems of design and the works created are very fascinating. You also get to hear from both the designers and clients view of the design. It inspires me to keep pushing the current standards of Singapore further as the shape of design grows in Singapore.

This book is very inspiring for young designers as it will push them to think out of the box. It will let them understand how the designers and clients think about design (like why it is designed in a certain way) and they can learn tips and lessons from them.

Icinori Series
Lai Loi No. 1 ISBN: 978-2-95530-913-1
Jean & Jean No. 2 ISBN: 978-2-95530-914-8
Dessus Dessous No. 3 ISBN: 978-2-95530-910-0
Count Down No. 4 ISBN: 978-2-95530-911-7

These are a series of letterpress printed books, beautifully designed and illustrated. I treasure this series a lot and they are one of the most beautifully printed books I have in my collection. Letterpress is an old technology with a long history that was very popular for mass printing of publications in the past. In our era, letterpress has been used to create contemporary pieces of art as the printing results are very beautiful and tactile. The colours are printed in layers and by metal plates.

This series is created by icinori, Mayumi Otero & Raphael Urwiller, illustrators and story tellers. Lai Loi and Jean​ &​ Jean​. ​The first 2 volumes of the series show their unique perspective of the laws of Nature (Murphy’s Law, Laws of Attractions, Talion’s Law and many more) through their beautiful illustrations. While Dessus Dessous show the world in reverse with illustrations of Fishes in the sky instead of down in the water or rabbits hunting humans instead of the norm. It’s a world in reverse. Count Down is a book about numbers, ​at​ first glance they look like architecture but soon you will notice they are numbers counting down 5,4,3,2,1.

It is a series that young designers can appreciate how content can be uniquely expressed or presented (how do you want the audience to interpret the content) and learn about the processes of printing (Although printed by machine, it is a method that requires fine tuning to the different materials used – A lot of effort is used to get the calibration of the print correct).

Poster Graphics by Bug News Network
ISBN: 978-4-86100-884-9

Posters are mostly used to present information. This book showcases experimental poster design. The works are very free form, very abstract and shows how information can be presented in a very unique manner.

This book will show how graphic design can translate information in a very fun and expressive manner​ -​ Information can be translated into pictograms and patterns​; ​Texts can be expressive and unique. Loosen up and let your senses take charge.

Then there is the 3 kinds of books I love the most: Vintage books, Children Story Books and Zines in general.

1. Vintage Books

Vintage books are a wonder if you can get your hands on them. I love to shop at the Chinese bookshop​ – ​The Youth Book Co. located in Bras Basah before it closed​ down​. It had vintage books about hairstyling in the 60s, Chinese Font, storybooks, games, sports and more. I like to look at how graphic design was then, be inspired and translate them into my work.

I am sure young designers will find it as fascinating as I do to why certain things were designed that way or printed that way due to limited technology and discovering the trends back then.

2. Children Story Books

Children Story Books have fascinated me from young. I can still remember vividly the books I loved dearly but sadly were given away by my parents. Children story books are always so filled with colours and illustrations, they make me so happy.

Edmond The Moonlit Party
Written by Astrid Desbordes
Illustrations by Marc Boutavant
ISBN: 978-1-59270-174-2

Edmond The Moonlit Party illustrated by Marc Boutavant and written by Astrid Desbordes is one of the favourite children story books I love. Marc brings Astrid’s storytelling beautifully to live with the wonderful illustrations.

Young designers need to learn the beauty of translating content into illustration and even more simply so for children story books. How do you make it simple enough to understand but interesting enough to keep them absorbed? That’s the true challenge.

3. Zines

Zines are very precious to me as they are usually printed in limited quantity and you ​don’t usually find them in ​commercial books stores. Zines are the most creative way a graphic designer or anyone can express their views. There is no rules, it can be bound or it can be a piece of paper folded into a booklet.

Rojak Secondary School
Menstrual Examination 1 -1987
Secondary 10 You Sure Die Paper 1 & Paper 2
By Squelch Zines

This is my favourite zine especially because it was created by a close friend (it reflects his personality a lot). The zine is created in a form of an examination paper with hilarious instructions such as “Do not turn over the page until your other tell you to do so” or “ You are not allowed to go toilet”.

There are MCQ questions and questions that you have ​to ​explain your answers. The familiar maths questions are given a creative or funny twist to them. They might appear rather ridiculous but they also make you think​.​​ There is no right or wrong​ answers​. The best zine and a brilliant way to pass the time.

My favourite question is :

What is the name of the song: “ Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na…”?

(1) Banana
(2) Batman
(3) I Don’t Know
(4) I know

You get the gist of it. Young designers can learn that zines are the best way to let loose and express what you want to say in their own unique way and have fun with it.

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

As I am in the graphic design industry, I am usually working from morning and throughout the wee hours at times. I try to get a bit of reading time in between breaks. It is pure enjoyment for me to hold a physical book. I can enjoy the print, the tactile qualities, the scent of a freshly printed book or musky vintage book and feel the paper texture.

How do you make time for reading?

I try to read a little before I sleep, making reading the last activity of my day. The only time I can also read and relax mostly.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

Yes I usually take notes if it is a word, an expression, a phrase that I am not familiar with or when an idea suddenly pops into my head. My memory is fading from little sleep and old age haha. It also registers more when I write it down.

How do you choose what books to read next?

By looking at what new books are recommended or published by artists, illustrators, designers and publishers I follow on Instagram. Also, whatever catches my eye at a bookstore or art book fair.

There’s a saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, well not in my case. I always judge a book by its cover. I feel it is the graphic designer’s job to make you want to grab that book. The cover has to be interesting to catch your attention and pick it up then let you discover the content.

A few book cover designs Ella loves:
Walk this world – Jenny Broom / Illustrated by Lotta Nieminen
Cabins – Philip Jodidio / Illustrations by Cruschiform
Burma: Painted and Described – Robert Talbot Kelly. Published in London by Adam and Charles Black, 1912
You Me Everything: A Novel – Catherine Issac
Drugs and Human Behaviour – Gordon Claridge, 1970, Pelican

Do you prioritize the books recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

No. I am my own book guru. I have a very different interest from my book loving friends hence I always end up picking my own selection of books. Its an enjoyment to search for a book to add to the collection, usually a tough find in Singapore so I often travel overseas in search for the greater variety.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, I saw a documentary about it and was intrigued. I also took the MACH-IV: Machiavellianism Test and scored a pretty high mark in it so I thought no harm in buying the book to read. The book is known to be controversial as it has principles that might go against religious beliefs. However, many politicians and business owners have taken many lessons away from this book hence I would like to gain some knowledge and insight from the chapters as well.

Links where you can follow Ella Zheng or find out more about her projects:

All books mentioned by Ella Zheng in this interview:

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