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Juggling four jobs to landing scholarship: How she found success on second try
By Olivia Ho
Graphic designer Clara Yee started her own creative studio in 2016, which she runs with her husband and fellow artist Gerald Leow. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/FRENCHESCAR LIM

The DesignSingapore scholar now runs her own creative studio and has showcased works at major global exhibitions like Salone del Mobile Milan

The first thing Ms Clara Yee did upon receiving the news that she had been awarded the DesignSingapore Scholarship was to buy herself a hot sandwich.

“It was a Sicilian tuna sandwich with olives,” recalls the 33-year-old graphic designer. 

Then 21 years old, she was living off a meal budget of one pound a day while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (now known as Central Saint Martins) in London.

This was Ms Yee’s second attempt at the scholarship. She had first applied for it before commencing her studies and was devastated when she was rejected.

Her family pooled all their savings to pay for her first year’s tuition fees. To cover the high cost of living in London, she juggled four part-time jobs, from designing T-shirts to interning at fashion house Alexander McQueen.

“I knew if I couldn’t figure something out by my second year, I’d have to drop out,” says Ms Yee.

Halfway through her first year, at the start of 2010, she applied again for the scholarship with fresh determination. 

“My portfolio had changed. My whole outlook had changed,” she says. “The second time I went for the interviews, they could see the difference. I was really pulling out all the stops. I was like, I need this.”

The DesignSingapore Scholarship, which was launched in 2005, is the only one in Singapore that supports all aspects of design

More on this topic: He left business school for design – and won Singapore’s most prestigious design accolade multiple times

From passion to purpose

Ms Yee grew up with a love for sketching her observations about daily life. Nevertheless, she shocked her peers when she opted to study design at Temasek Polytechnic, even though her grades would have allowed her to attend junior college. 

“A lot of my friends did not understand. They felt it was a shame to let my grades go to waste,” she says.

However, her biology teacher encouraged her to take a chance. 

“He told me, ‘It may seem so out there, but just go for it. Then at least you won’t have regrets’,” she recalls.

In her final year at polytechnic, her tutors advised her to consider studying abroad as it would not only broaden her design education but also expand her world view.

“I wanted to break out of my box and be in an environment that would let me do that.”

Ms Clara Yee
Recipient of the DesignSingapore Scholarship

They pointed her towards the DesignSingapore Scholarship, which would not only help her financially but also connect her to a community of like-minded Singapore creatives.

Ms Yee chose Central Saint Martins because it offered an experimental, conceptual perspective she felt was lacking in her development as an artist at that point. 

“I wanted to break out of my box and be in an environment that would let me do that,” she says.

Gaining new perspectives

It was only in London that she began to truly consider what it meant to design from a Singapore perspective. In one session, a classmate asked her why the people she drew looked Caucasian.

“When I heard that, it really made me start to question myself,” says Ms Yee, who grew up reading fairy tales like those by Hans Christian Andersen and was exposed mostly to Western media. 

Having grown up in Singapore, she also had a greater appreciation of multiculturalism which was second nature to her growing up in Singapore. 

This has influenced her work in projects such as Singapore: Inside Out, an immersive experience she curated in Japan 2017 with the Singapore Tourism Board that featured collaborations between Singaporean and Japanese artists and designers. 

“When you have that kind of cross-country and cross-cultural storytelling, a multicultural background is really helpful because it makes you sensitive to picking out nuances,” she says. 

Ms Yee’s work has appeared at major global exhibitions such as the London Design Festival, Taiwan Design Expo and Salone del Mobile Milan. In 2016, Ms Yee started her own creative studio, In The Wild.

“I wanted to find my own answers,” she says.

Today, the studio – which she runs with her husband, artist Gerald Leow – has rebranded as Magicfruit, which she says signifies a maturing in their creative process.

What she would like to see more of in the Singapore design scene is emotion: “Letting loose, letting it all hang out. Not everything needs to be so polished and tightly packaged. That would be really exciting to open up the room.”

Ms Yee hopes to encourage young designers to experiment or mess around, and not be afraid of failure. 

“There’s a saying by Ray Dalio that I love: ‘Don’t worry about looking good; worry about achieving your goals’,” she shares.

“When you are younger, you might not know how to differentiate a good goal from a better goal – or discern what you might want in the long term. It is worth taking the time to explore different things.

“As long as you can pick yourself up, success is just learning from one failure to the next.”

Make design count

The DesignSingapore Scholarship supports creative and driven individuals to become design leaders in various fields, from classical areas such as industrial & product design and interior design, to emerging disciplines such as circular design, design strategy and UI/UX design. 

Ms Yee shares three tips to ace your application:

1. Contribute where you are. In London, I volunteered for a group of creatives who organised platforms for Singaporeans to showcase their works. It is important to show you are driven to give back to the community.

2. Exhibit initiative and drive. In my first interview, I was asked to identify what was lacking in my design and what I had done to learn more. Coming from a structured learning environment, the idea that I could be creative and “design” my own education felt new to me. During my second interview, the fact that I was pursuing my dream in London and was volunteering outside of school spoke for itself – because having initiative and drive shows that you are taking charge of your own path. 

3. Express the reasons for your choice. Offer a clear sense of why you need to study this course and why you chose your school, as this shows you have thoughtfully considered these aspects.

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