The famed American graphic designer Milton Glaser once said: “There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and wow. Wow is the one to aim for.”

And “wow” would certainly be a good word to describe the award-winning Malaysia Design Archive (MDA), a digital platform which aims to trace and document the legacy of Malaysian graphic design.

“The project began with a sense that there is a need to understand the different influences of Malaysia’s design lexicon, and through that, to unpack and interrogate history through the lens of design,” says Ezrena Marwan, MDA co-founder and graphic designer. The MDA’s core team currently comprises Ezrena, activist/writer Jac SM Kee and art history senior lecturer Simon Soon. Founded in 2008, the group started off as an online repository, mainly used by students and graphic design practitioners. Soon, it started engaging in public engagements, including giving workshops and talks, and in April this year, it set up a physical archive space at the Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur.

In early December, MDA won the Grand Award for Culture at the Hong Kong-based DFA Design for Asia Awards. The DFA Awards, organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre, aims to raise awareness about the value of good design as an essential component of the improvement of the quality and vibrancy of life in Asia.

“We are both surprised and honoured to have been selected as a winner for this prize. It speaks to us about the support from the community, as well as a recognition of design and visual culture as significant sites for socio-cultural engagement that can have wide, and potentially transformative, impact. This is a great achievement to us,” says Kee.

It may be difficult to believe, but the idea for a Malaysian design archive was actually mooted on another continent: in the city of Havana, Cuba, to be exact. In 2007, Ezrena visited the city as part of the Icograda World Design Congress, where she listened to Cuban graphic designers share how they were limited to creating propaganda by their country’s politics. There, she was struck by how different things were to the situation back in Malaysia.

graphic design

Japanese WWII-era posters seen at the As We See It: History Through Visual Design exhibition, which was presented by the Malaysia Design Archive, at the National Visual Arts Gallery in KL in June. It was an independent project aimed at mapping the development of graphic design and visual culture in Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

“We only design for commercial stuff, and we don’t really pay attention to anything else. I was really inspired by how much they think about design, and how much it’s linked to politics and the land,” Ezrena was quoted as saying in the AIGA Eye On Design magazine.

When she returned, Ezrena started documenting graphics, and sharing them online. That marked the genesis of the MDA. Ezrena then started collaborating with Kee, who she had met in 2005 on a project for a women’s rights organisation.

The MDA currently contains about 500 artefacts and design works, categorised into four time periods: Colonialisation, the Japanese Occupation, the Emergency Period, and Independence.

The group is currently working on expanding the archive, and digitising its present collection. The members also aim to strengthen MDA’s research dimension as well as its public engagement and dialogue activities.

MDA is constantly exploring ideas on achieving comprehensive financial sustainability. “There are many gaps in our archive which we are hoping to fill slowly and surely through this journey. But at the moment, we are prioritising archival materials from the Tamil and Indian community through Malaysia’s history, as well as material from Sabah and Sarawak,” says Kee.

“We are also looking at other kinds of intangible artefacts, such as audio and oral history, as part of this archival process.”