The story of graphic design in Malaysia follows the nation's textured journey through time. A closer look at design artifacts can reveal the different preoccupations that mark significant periods in its formation. For example, graphic design was a key strategy used by the British during the 19th century to establish its identity and the “face” of British Malaya as a powerful and expanding enterprise; while design during the Japanese occupation (1942 - 1945) underwent a period of heavy handed propaganda. British icons and symbols were obliterated, replaced by a Japanese graphic sensibility: clean strong lines, the rising sun as a recurring motif and promotion of military values. Under the pretense of liberating their Asian brethren, Japan established the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ and Malaya became a military occupied state.

After the war, the road leading up Merdeka and beyond saw an explosive development of graphic design that spoke about ideals of the nation: from merging of diverse styles, to the experimentation with typography, illustration and photography, to recurrent imageries and symbolism of the “Malayan” identity.

In the midst of this, propaganda re-emerged through highly nationalistic leaflets against the communists during the period of Emergency (1948 – 1960). The formation of Malaysia in 1963 (with Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore as co-signatories) saw a blurring of boundaries between differences in social and cultural codes and signs, with more focused effort to bridge across apparent differences between race, gender and languages.

The story of graphic design in Malaysia is still unravelling, and through the process of archival and exploration, we are able to find out a little more about who we are, in all of our complexities.