September, 2020
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Joseph Foo belongs to an early generation of graphic designers in Malaysia who has paved the way for younger guns. His branding studio, 3nity, places focus on social responsibility—an angle born out of starting personal, non-profit initiatives that go against the churn-and-burn modus operandi. Quite fittingly, Joseph, with his Yoda-like demeanour, is also a respected teacher at the local design school. He is a changemaker who harnesses his creativity for good and through action, influences others around him to do the same.

My grandmother didn’t talk much but she asked me a question one day.

“What is it that you do?”

I found it very difficult to explain my work to her. Unlike the rest of my family—my mother is a teacher; my father is a pastor who takes care of the spiritual needs of people and my brothers work in medicine or engineering—my contribution to society was not obvious. All I could tell her was that I did commercial art.

In my first job as a graphic designer, my fellow art directors and I used to tease each other that we are like flower arrangers, we put text and images together and churn out posters and publications, one after another. If you’re fast, you can go home early. If you had computer skills (desktop publishing was at its infancy then), it was extremely useful.

In 1996, I started 3nity with two partners. Even after running the studio for awhile and winning major awards, I still felt like a flower arranger. When my grandmother passed away in 1999, I went on a solo trip to Spain. Travelling alone for a month made me realise that I needed to either quit what I’m doing or do something so I can answer her question. I thought as a creative, I could create meaningful content that inspires people.

When I returned to Malaysia, we started Art4Soul as a platform to use art and design to do things that are good for the soul. At the house of a friend, we brainstormed about starting small, cultural projects that were self-funded or sponsored by people we knew. A lot of these involvements went beyond our formal trainings, requiring different thinking and skillsets.

One of our early projects was initiated after a friend, a theologist, lamented about gay people not being accepted into religious institutions. Under Art4Soul, we published a book, God Loves Gays in 2004, followed by organising a series of dialogue sessions in Malaysia and Singapore. We continued publishing books for him for a couple of years. This was before the LGBTQ+ movement gained traction in Southeast Asia. (I was so involved in advocating for the cause that strangers thought I was gay and they would come up to me and tell me that they “understand how much of a struggle it is, especially since I have a wife and kids”.)

We also ran 3x to promote simple ideas through partnerships with like-minded creatives around the world. For instance, 70% full was a project that we started by collaborating with friends running restaurants in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai to encourage healthy eating. People can opt to eat 70% of their food and give 30% to people in need.

During the financial crisis in 2009, many people were retrenched and depressed. There was also a lot of political foul play in Malaysia. We had almost zero client jobs for six months. The state of affairs led us to publish a book on hope to promote positivity. We interviewed people about their stories and what they hoped for Malaysia and uploaded their answers on YouTube. During the launch, my son who was six read a poem on hope written by a friend. It was a very small project but close to my heart.

The idea for the ABC (A Book & Chocolate) Learning Space in Annapuna, Nepal, came about when I had some time in solitude while trekking. Many children had asked us for candies and chocolates. We decided to set up a space where they could collect candies and chocolates left by trekkers while accessing a library for free. To realise ABC (2016), we had three donation points in Malaysia, raising 15,000 ringgit in two months. It was more than enough to set up the space and fill it with Nepali books. With the surplus, we bought shoes and jackets for the children.

I believe that when small changes happen concurrently, they can create a big change.

Through our self-initiated projects, we accumulated hours of working with the community, and that became our comfort zone. We are in a position where we can inspire clients to do the same. Clients who are not only interested in building up brands but to help the community started approaching us.

We worked with a cardboard company and taught them how to turn their waste into cardboard objects like stools, which they then produced for non-profit events free-of-charge.

We repackaged offcuts bak kwa to be sold to raise funds for the under-privileged community.

I tried to persuade a developer to turn their balconies into mini ‘farms’. The swimming pool is not the only thing you can promote in a condo development. In the 90s, 30-40% of what my grandmother consumed came straight from her garden. She had the knowledge to grow food, which is something that we have forgotten as a society even though it has only been two generations.

These efforts are often about helping clients see things from a different perspective. I believe that the design profession is not just for making our clients rich or blindly serving the corporate sector.

I have been teaching since 1998. I tell my students that they don’t have to become a graphic designer or an art director. What you learn in design school can be applied in many ways. You can use it to turn small businesses into something desirable or even become a policy maker. Coming from a practitioner, it helps to take the pressure off this competitive industry, allowing them to learn better.

During the first few weeks of my classes, I like to encourage students to find time in solitude to look inside and outside of themselves to understand their calling and the values that they subscribe to.

What are our strengths?

How can we use our superpower to make a difference in our community or our country?

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