The Brand Designers from Singapore discuss the importance of visual branding and the realities of being in a business with your spouse.
Running a brand design boutique with your spouse can put incredible strain on your relationship, especially when external complications come in the form of failed business partnerships and difficult clients who undervalue the visual branding work that you do.
Yet, 36-year-old Irwan Abu Bakar (Wan) and 35-year-old Khairin Nazeera (Zee) have only strengthened their bond through such trying times. The husband-and-wife duo behind PlayPause sits down with Arman Shah to reflect on these past 12 years that saw them transitioning from tenacious entrepreneurs to wiser, more business-minded people.
What were you doing before you founded PlayPause?
Zee: I was a customer service officer at a local bank. I worked in the Quality Assurance Department, although I personally knew it as the Complaints Department. (laughs)
Wan: I was a full-time graphic designer at Emerald Hill Group where I did design work for nightlife establishments like No5, DblO and Ice Cold Beer. Before that I was a sales associate at HMV.
How did the idea to start PlayPause come about?
Zee: It all began with a freelance project in 2004. We had to design an online directory for a shipping company and that gig paid really well. To be given a wad of 50-dollar notes was really something to us back then.
Wan: From there, we decided to become freelance designers and continued to secure more design gigs purely through word of mouth. After we got married in 2007, we felt that it was time to leave our full-time jobs and proceeded to register for sole proprietorship. We eventually registered PlayPause as a private limited company in 2013.
Zee: I think the turning point in our career was when I got hospitalised in 2008. The demands of my banking job left me sick and overstressed. It was then that we decided to focus solely on PlayPause – it was Wan’s way of saving me from the rat race! (laughs)
Describe the niche work that you do as Brand Designers.
Zee: PlayPause is in the business of making brands look good, so that encompasses everything from visual branding to visual marketing.
As the main designer of the company, Wan develops marketing collaterals like name cards, letterheads and logos for our clients. I’m in-charge of business development, but where servicing clients is concerned, I do layout work when companies hire us to produce flyers, brochures or newsletters.
What inspired the name PlayPause?
Wan: It’s actually a song from this German EDM group called Funkstorung that we discovered at a music festival. When I was working at HMV in 2006, the band had released an album which featured very nice artwork. We both liked it so I bought it for her.
Zee: That album was so good; I got hooked! There was this one song in particular where you can hear them jamming on their electronic devices for a few seconds before a voice suddenly kicks in and says “Play pause” – I thought it sounded so catchy! It was then that we got the idea for our company name.
Wan: I felt that the name represented us well as an outfit. “Play” to us is synonymous with movement, so it represented the web design services that Zee used to offer because her work dealt with design elements that were mobile and interactive. “Pause” was more symbolic of the graphic design work which I do because it’s very static.
Based on your experience, what is the general attitude that companies in Singapore have towards visual branding?
Zee: There are two very large groups of clientele that we are servicing currently – stat boards and small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs). We really enjoy working with the small local businesses, but they don’t really appreciate the importance of visual branding.
Wan: For them, paying a few hundred bucks for a logo is too much because they don’t see their corporate identity as an important aspect of their business. When we were in Jakarta recently, we discovered many small businesses that were very proud of their products.
There was this locally-made salted caramel spread in the supermarket that looked like a foreign product based on first impression. It was IDR80,000 – that’s very expensive! But the brand gets away with it because of excellent visual branding.
Zee: Some people say that our quotations are too high, but others who truly understand what we do tell us that we’re not being paid our true value. I guess most locals here have not yet understood the meaning of perceived value and how far it can bring their products, so we have to educate them. It’s a hard and long process, but an ongoing one for sure.
What have been some of your favourite projects thus far?
Wan: Mine is DeepCuts; it’s a barbershop and grooming place for men. As a customer myself, I was quite familiar with their target market and overall feel of the place. We worked on their name cards, t-shirts, website, booking system, pricing board and logo.
They wanted their logo to feature a shaver, comb and barber pole, so I took their original sketch and turned it into something professional. I also gave them a font type that was uniquely theirs.
Zee: My current favourite is Insights. It’s the inaugural newsletter by Warees which is the arm of MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore). It was very exciting when a company that has been established for 13 years entrusted us with their first ever newsletter design.
Tell us more about your online store Kedai Chetak.
Zee: Kedai Chetak, which is Malay for “Print Store”, is a subsidiary of PlayPause. It was a passion project that came about when we realised the importance of designing for ourselves instead of just executing a client’s brief.
One of the most successful projects that came out of it was the Ramadhan Kit4Kids. The idea was inspired by our friend Iryani who manually created a moon and star chart for her kids to spur their interest in fasting. So, we designed and printed a professional version of it and sold it online.
Wan: The Ramadhan Kit4Kids gained some traction last year when Peter Gould gave us a shout-out on his official Facebook page. He’s an iconic Muslim designer from Australia. Suddenly, we had sales coming in from places like Dubai, USA, UK and Canada. Currently, we’re coming up with new wall art designs for Kedai Chetak, so be on the lookout for that.
What challenges have you faced in running your business?
Zee: There were many challenges in these past four years. We survived three failed partnerships and had to deal with difficult clients who didn’t want to pay us after we’ve completed their projects. I guess I trusted people too easily, and you wonder if you should just wave the white flag and bury PlayPause during times like these.
Wan: For me, they were good lessons learnt. When we started out, we had zero business knowledge; maybe that’s why we had to go through what we went through. Now we’re wise enough to not make the same mistakes again.
Zee: We used to not believe in ourselves because we didn’t have a background in business. After the last partnership failed, I realised that we didn’t need anybody else for validation. We’ve been in this line of work for 10 years, and we’ve gained experience through dealing with SMEs and stat boards. Now, the question is not “Can we do it?” but “How can we do it?”
Describe your working relationship with your spouse.
Wan: It can be tough on certain days because we face each other 24/7, but it’s been okay generally. We got together as a couple 15 years ago and have been married for the past nine years, so we understand each other enough to not get on each other’s nerves.
We also make it a point to not talk about work after office hours, although she can’t help it sometimes because whatever happens at work will affect us directly rather than indirectly.
Zee: It’s a learning process, definitely. When we had an office in the past, it was easy to just walk out on each other when we’re fed up. Now that we’re working from home, our work and personal space are bound together in the same area, so we’re forced to exercise patience better.
We also don’t bring any issues that we were facing over to the next day; if something bad had happened that day, we’d talk about it and solve it before going to sleep.
What are your plans for the future?
Wan: I hope to venture out of Singapore and explore the possibility of working with more clients overseas. We actually went to Jakarta recently because I had a pomade labelling job there, so I hope that gig would open up more business opportunities.
Zee: I hope to start my own design workshop. I’m seeing lots of bad designs by local entrepreneurs, especially those who started out as homemakers, because they’d rather save money and come up with their own designs than hire a professional. It’s an eyesore, so I hope my introductory classes can help improve their design skills.
What is the best aspect of running your own business?
Wan: One advantage of living this lifestyle is being able to manage our own time. We don’t have a nine-to-five job so we can work on our own terms.
Zee: For me, it’s being available for family. Whenever my parents fall sick or have a medical appointment, my sisters cannot simply apply for urgent leave or take a day off to bring them to the doctor’s. I can easily set aside the time for them.
Any words of advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Zee: Save up money from your full-time job and acquire knowledge first. There were many financial bumps in our journey as entrepreneurs, and sometimes I wonder if they could have been avoided if we had basic business education.
Wan: For me, if you want to get into a business, don’t overthink it. Circumstances will never be perfect when you want to start something. If you’re bogged down by thoughts of not being able to do something because you don’t have the knowledge yet, you’ll never do it – just make mistakes and learn along the way.
Zee: That’s wisdom right there, and we’re very complementary that way. I’m very analytical, while he’s the sort who doesn’t think too much and just goes for things in life. I have too many what-ifs in my head that eventually turn into fear. 2016 will be the year I break through that fear.
Interview by: Arman Shah