Interview with Marcus Tan

When I took up the opportunity to interview Marcus, all I had heard was that he was a Year 4 Pharmacy student with an interest in graphic design. On the day of the interview itself, I met him in the common lounge with half a page of questions in hand, many of them related to graphic design and visual art in general. What I certainly did not expect was for him to profess that he did not consider himself someone who does graphic design per se.

“It’s kind of like saying to a Math teacher, ‘Do you do algebra?’ It’s just one of the things I do. Now I do advertising and marketing. I think the business of ascribing value to visual things has expanded dramatically, so it now encompasses many other things.”

That set the tone for the rest of the interview. In the hour that followed Marcus proceeded to expound on his passion, inserting canny metaphors where required, and stringing together anecdotes and reflections along the way.

From a young age Marcus took an exacting, almost obsessive approach to problem solving. Aged seven, he would fuss over the details of the LEGO models he built.

“As a child, when my friends played with LEGO they didn’t have a goal in mind. They would put a few blocks together with a vague idea of what they were building, say a ship, a house, or a castle, but apart from that nothing. In my mind I would say I was going to build a ship, a cargo ship, we need blasters to protect the ship, all these things.”

While others would randomly grasp bricks and put them together, he would organise his bricks to ensure that he could achieve a realistic design and colour scheme (“Cargo ships are grey, while the cargo boxes are all red or yellow. It has to be sharp here, round here …”), and would have no qualms about dismantling his work and trying again if he found the outcome unsatisfactory. Little did he know that this attention to fine detail would serve him well later in life.

Marcus first got into graphic design as a hobby and “a means of escape” in his words, partly due to his disenchantment with what he was studying. His decision to read Pharmacy had been a hasty and ill-considered one on his part, and he had come to regret it. He began to design shirts for Threadless, and also took on miscellaneous projects at Tembusu on the side. Starting out with simple designs on Powerpoint, he later moved on to Illustrator, Photoshop, and other more advanced software. In his second year, he discovered a passion for brand design, and in what he describes as “a kind of semi-naivety” he began to run a small online business from his laptop, his only investment being an $80 Wacom graphics tablet bought in Hong Kong.

Through a string of opportunities, he came to do a branding project for a local advertising collective called DSTNCT, which he describes as a youth-focused advertising agency for the millennial market. In turn, he had the chance to intern with them for the summer, and eventually decided to stay on and become a partner in the agency. However, he is quick to clarify that his contributions to the company are not financial in nature. “It’s simply that I promise to invest my time, and my youth in this company,” he explains.

When I enquired about how those around him have reacted to such a drastic change of ambition, Marcus remarks that though his parents were not too happy initially, they now support his decision.

“At least I’ve proven to them I can do a good job of it, and as long as I keep doing a good job I don’t think they’ll have a problem.”

He finds that people tend to be more confused than surprised with his career choice, but he often chooses to frame his decision as an entrepreneurial one, as his role involves taking care of day-to-day processes and the operations aspect of the company. He sees it as moving past ownership of ideas to the ownership of people, their feelings, and their concerns, all of which makes for added responsibility.

His dedication to his craft means that he has less time to pursue his other interests, which include reading and playing the piano, although he does make an effort to set aside time to practice the latter (incidentally, Marcus was also a founding member of the Performing Arts Council). He talks about how he felt quite out of sync in his second and third years at the college, as he spent a lot of time with work, and could have otherwise gotten to know more people. In addition, not attending certain critical events (such as orientation) led to him feeling very lost when he returned for his fourth year. As he admits, “You pick your battles after a while.”

On a more positive note, he is currently very active in the college, and proudly estimates that he has attended more house events in this semester alone than in his previous three years here.

Looking back, Marcus has nothing but praise for his time in Tembusu.

“As a freshman, I was able to meet seniors who were very entrepreneurial, very driven, hardworking, and imaginative. These were people who dared to move out of their comfort zones, take those risks, and try to craft a new path. As someone who was just trying to get by, being surrounded by these people was very eye opening. I think that spirit, that daring, is very important… In that sense, my heroes are not so much in the advertising industry; they are much closer to home.”

Marcus hopes that his story will inspire Tembusians to make the most of opportunities that lie before them, and venture down roads less travelled. Asked if he has any advice for his juniors, Marcus hesitates briefly, before stressing, “Just be clear what you like to do, and never give that up. When you do start on it, give it your best shot and enjoy doing it.” Words to live by, indeed.

About the Author:

Wei Xiang’s love affair with books and reading began at such a young age that he was forced to wear spectacles by the time he was seven. He enjoys talking to people and listening to their stories, but cannot stand the idea of going to a party.