From The Straits Times    |

Credit: Natasha Hassan

The works of this 28-year-old freelance graphic designer – who is also the co-founder and art direction lead of buzzy music events collective North East Social Club – are easy to identify. They tend to punch you in the face with riotous colours, anthropomorphic characters (think googly-eyed clouds and disco balls) and a vibey, retro-tinged aesthetic reminiscent of the style of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. What sparked this UX design graduate’s interest in graphic design, particularly for the music world: artist George Condo’s surrealistic cover art for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album.

To date, her hyper-textured body of work – documented on the Instagram account @poogazi – includes illustrations, event posters and collages as well as playing art director for Charlie Lim’s 2018 album Check-Hook (she was behind its filmic design collaterals, single artwork and behind-the-scenes photos). More recently, she came up with the visuals for Thai R&B duo HYBS’s latest track ‘Good Care’, which features dreamy, tattoo-perfect collages of a serpent surrounded by flowers – easily her most high-profile project, considering how the tune has clocked more than three million listens on Spotify as of press time.

For all her maximalist ways, Hassan is big on getting the right message across. “Often, we designers create self-indulgent works that are visually appealing, but the information gets lost and overwhelmed by everything else,” she says. “At the end of the day, a graphic designer must take time to understand the audience and create visual accessibility.” Come September, we’ll see her apply that ethos IRL: She has been put in charge of the art direction of the highly anticipated Sunda Festival – billed as Singapore’s first outdoor camping-meets- music and arts festival. Who else is geared up?

Credit: Natasha Hassan

How did you first get into the field of graphic design? 

I can name a few pinnacle moments in my life – kids’ shows like Art Attack were the foundation that slowly manifested into producing my very own badly drawn comics. I liked drawing hamburgers with limbs for some odd reason. I spent most of my adolescence lingering at music stores browsing through records and CDs, getting excited over sleeve designs and fancy packaging. It led to my younger self remaking cover artwork. Another vital moment is getting hold of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and being completely mesmerised by the cover art by George Condo. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a creative director in music.

Did you have formal training in graphic design, and if so, tell us more about that.

At 16, I was told how UI/UX design could make you a lot of money, so I studied that plus coding in polytechnic. I had that as a foundation, but post-graduation, I gravitated towards more graphic design, and it was only then that I started to cultivate my illustration and animation skills. I was determined to have a career in the music industry, so I joined Bandwagon, a Southeast Asian music editorial company, as a design intern. After that stint, I worked for a media conglomerate, Paramount Networks (working for brands like MTV and Comedy Central) and finally moved on to a major music label, Universal Music Singapore. Lo and behold, after seven to eight years of working in a corporate environment, I decided it was time to take a massive and terrifying leap to become full-time freelance creative while focusing on running North East Social Club.

How would you describe your aesthetic? 

For my illustration style, I love drawing quirky, weird-looking characters in bizarre environments. These characters usually are creatures and natural objects disguised as humans. Once you add googly eyes to everyday things such as clouds, bushes and windows, you add more life into everything. Frankly, as a creative, I don’t want to be pigeonholed into just doing illustration. My design style can vary from old-school rave posters to Choose Your Own Adventure ’80s gamebooks. Safe to say it’s maximalism in general – very textural, bold typography and a vivid colour palette. Minimalism bores the f*** out of me.

Credit: Natasha Hassan

Name a graphic designer or piece of work that resonates with you and why?

Sorry, I can’t just name one! David Rudnick and Hassan Rahim are the first two names that came to my mind. They are fantastic art and creative directors, both self-taught, and they have done an extensive amount of work for musicians, producers and films, for the likes of Jacques Greene, Nicolas Jaar, Oneohtrix Point Never and A24. While their aesthetic and style are utterly dissimilar to mine, I take so much reference from their choice of colours, typefaces, textures and the mixed media they used. However, what sets them apart from other designers is their distinctive way of structuring information while serving accessibility – a highly underrated skill and an important one. What I love the most about them is how they use philosophy, subculture, everyday textures and imagery to form nuances in their work. That said, their career trajectory is also something I strive to be in the near future – or now.

What influences or inspires your work? 

When I first started digital drawing, I didn’t know what kind of style I would foster. I took my time to hone and become comfortable with it; however, I realised how much I like drawing animals disguised as humans. I find myself seeking inspiration from cartoons I have loved and adored since I was young, like The Simpsons and Looney Tunes. Googly eyes bulging out of the character’s face is significant to me. And I take pleasure in watching films with surreal set designs — like Dr. Suess films, Twin Peaks, undeniably Kubrick movies, and anything that prominently shows an eccentric structure, staircases and funky patterned wallpaper. That’s how I get my influence when creating the landscape in my illustration.

Meanwhile, Surrealism is a big factor in my non-illustration works like my collages and prints. I feel the need to free myself from common sense and logic when creating these pieces. The use of mixed media and technology (not AI) excites me because it pushes me to explore and integrate a new form of language in my designs. It’s therapeutic in many ways and has acted as my dream journal.  I am heavily influenced by visual artists like @polygon1993 and Leif Podhajsky – who have used different forms of autonomous systems (such as datamoshing or circuit bending) to create insane distortion and illusionism in their work.”

Credit: Natasha Hassan

Can you give me some examples of how your inspirations have translated into your work?

I have a series of marble paintings that I originally did in 2014 as a school project and decided to repurpose and experiment with them digitally. I manipulated the paintings in a flexible programme sketchbook called Processing. The method itself is known as databending – a process of distorting a media file (in any format) using a software programme – which results in many interesting, unpredictable outcomes. Doing this was extremely liberating for me especially when dealing with existential dread and a need to escape from the corporate world.

What are some misconceptions about graphic design you normally encounter?

One of the biggest common misconceptions about graphic design is that it’s all about aesthetics. Designers can produce self-indulgent works that don’t necessarily serve their intention. Often we create works that are visually appealing, but the information gets lost and is overwhelmed by everything else. At the end of the day, a graphic designer must take time to understand the audience and create visual accessibility. Another misconception I would say is ‘simple design’ equates to less budget or cost less. Believe me, the less complex a design is, the more thought and psychology are put into it. Lastly, this goes to project managers or clients trying to hire creatives: please know that creative skills are not transferable. While you can find someone who is a jack-of-all-trades, it doesn’t mean you can reduce the budget. Different disciplines and skill sets should be charged differently.”

Credit: Natasha Hassan

What would you say are your biggest/proudest achievements to date with your practice?

I don’t think I have a big achievement, but designing for Charlie Lim’s second debut album was important for me. I can’t thank him enough for helping me kickstart my career. That was the first time I truly felt like someone believed in my work and decided to take a chance on me. One of my favourite recent projects is a four-part collage series I did for asiatic.wav/Warner artists. It was incredibly fun, and I only recently found out that one of the singles has more than three million streams on Spotify. So that itself is crazy to me, a great number of people around the world have seen my artwork. And every time I do a poster design and the artist personally messages me to say it’s a banger poster, that is a big achievement for me.

A lot of your graphic design works are centred around the arts and music scene – can you share more on this?

I was already set from a young age to want to be a creative director in the music industry one way or another. Even after quitting the corporate world, it was inevitable for me to abandon my work in music altogether. I’ve built good relationships and trust for the last eight years, and this has expanded even more into non-music-related projects. That said, this strong connection with the industry and scene is years in the making, and I can’t get that anywhere else.

Credit: Natasha Hassan

Has AI and other technological factors affected how you work as a graphic designer?

My initial thoughts upon learning that Photoshop has implemented an AI function was, ‘I am obsolete’. It is depressing in many ways as we spent years acquiring this skill only for a piece of program to do our job within less than a minute – it is absolutely terrifying. It feels like your whole life has been taken away right before your eyes. 

I don’t oppose AI; I’m not necessarily fond of it due to the legalities, copyright issues and the many other things that fall under the grey area. I embrace technology and love exploring generative art, and there’s still an element of physicality. Nonetheless, this side of technology can be daunting. Recently, I have seen many AI art emerging in every corner, especially with the Midjourney stuff. It was entertaining to explore the possibilities of alternate worlds quickly, but it’s getting monotonous. There’s a lack of critical thinking, meaning and empathy in these so-called “artworks.”

In his interview about AI, David Rudnick said, “The idea of being excited about processes that can think in ways we fundamentally can’t lead to communications which can never be fundamentally understood. They can empower, and you can make money off them, but it’s at the expense of the viewer or user….” I couldn’t agree more.

This automation still requires us humans to feed the machine. It can potentially be a tool for us to be more efficient and produce higher quality work, but that itself can backfire as clients will demand more output and want it quicker. As frightening as it is, I’m not too worried about AI taking over my job (at least for now). Sure, they get the job done quickly, but it doesn’t have any depth or emotional thought process, which is a bulk of what makes a good design in the first place.

How would you describe the current state of Singapore’s graphic design scene?

“Singaporeans enjoy criticising creativity here – be it music, design or art. I refuse to do that. I don’t think it’s bad, I believe that we still require a bit of boldness to further push the envelope which I think the younger generation has the energy for. The one thing I will criticise is, however, the tendency to pander to social media, meaning, creating visuals that are trendy. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, but we need to remind ourselves to always try to create to our own groove. Taking references does not mean replicating someone’s style. 

Some names to know that come to mind are JJ Low, Ordinary Rice and Farizi from Curb. These are all emerging creatives who are eager and not afraid to do big things. I find them inspiring.

What are you working on next that you can share with us?

One of the projects I’m currently working on is Sunda Festival, which might be one of the bigger projects I’ve taken on. It has a lot of moving parts and can be very challenging, but I’m thrilled about the final execution. There are three other big ones in the pipeline, but I gotta hush-hush for now. When it’s done, you will know.

A version of this article first appeared in the July 2023 Graphic Design Edition of FEMALE