John Tan

John Tan

“No balls, no babies”
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks

John Tan
Principal of Orita Sinclair School of Design, Co-Founder of Frolick and Black Coffee Bar

Age: 29

With his wild, curly hair, John Tan could easily pass off as the front man of an indie band. His hair, however, is the loudest part about him; even when he speaks it is a slow, quiet drawl, interspersed with mild smiles and keen eyes. John’s pensive demeanour belies a man of action – an alumnus of the Chinese High School and University College London, John was the co-founder of the successful frozen yoghurt chain Frolick and artisan coffee bar Black. These enterprises successfully integrate design and enterprise, with Frolick taking on a cheeky, youth oriented vibe (just look at their website: and Black ( appropriating a style both chic and retro.

After leaving these projects, he went on to helm the Orita Sinclair School of Design, a boutique design school that offers diplomas and short courses for art, design and new media. The school boasts a faculty of practicing industry professionals with their eyes on the real world – classes are designed to build and grow the students’ portfolios, and equip them with an understanding of how the industry functions. Although Orita Sinclair is currently still focused on traditional modes of design, John plans to expand its curriculum to include technology as well as entrepreneurship.

At the end of our interview, John offers to walk me to my next appointment, and I gratefully oblige. It is a quiet walk, and he seems perfectly at home in the sleepy, quaint surroundings of Arab Street in the late afternoon. He is a man who has finally found his element.

You graduated with a degree in Economics from University College London – how did you get involved in so many other things not related to economics?

Yeah it wasn’t planned…I think a lot of things in life don’t go according to plan, and that’s great. We should just let things happen. I studied economics because it was the one subject I was good at in junior college, and it was somewhat relevant to what my dad wanted me to do, which was banking. I did economics, and then I got sold on consulting. I was sold by the whole idea of strategy and telling CEOs what to do.

After a couple of years I felt that I wanted to do something more meaningful, because consulting involves spending a lot of your time doing Excel models and Powerpoint slides, but at the end of the day very little actually gets done. I just felt that I wanted to do something where I could see tangible outcome. When I was in consulting, a couple of my Chinese High friends wanted to run a start-up. In Singapore, if you want to be an entrepreneur, the first thing you would look at is the Food and Beverage industry because it is the easiest. So we started Frolick. That’s how I got into design, because for Frolick, my role was to engage the design firm and work with the designers. Before that, I had no design training and no inclination towards design, but I really enjoyed the process of working with the designers and conceptualizing the brand.

After a while I left Frolick, because to me, the fun part is in the conceptualization. After that, the running of a yoghurt shop is just not that interesting. Black was my second start-up. I did it for a few months, and then I realised I really didn’t like the F and B industry. So I left Black, and bummed around for a few months. I was looking for a new project, and then the opportunity came along to buy over this school. At that point I had already worked with designers on 2 different projects, and I was fairly interested in design. So I thought it would be cool to run a design school.

So what exactly is Orita Sinclair?

It’s a boutique design school. It was started in 2002, by a couple. She was a design educator and he was an artist, so they came together and started this school. When I took over the school it was really just a design school, in the sense that its focus was purely on graphic design and animation. After a year and a half, I figured that design was not really the direction that I wanted the school to go in. Even though graphic design and branding is interesting, it is quite limited in terms of making positive change. And this is what I’m interested in – I’m really interested in making positive change. Or in producing students who can make positive change. As a graphic designer, the work that you do is very limited by what you know. You can only make static images; you can’t really make things work. That kind of made me want to change the direction of the school to start looking at technology and entrepreneurship. If you put a designer, a tech guy, and an entrepreneur in a room, you get the best of everything. These three guys can make something really wonderful. That’s my vision for the school. To move to technology and entrepreneurship. I’m not a techie myself, and I don’t know programming. But I’m really interested in what technology can do. I think technology is a tool to make positive change. In order to do that, you need to have a designer, who can create a wonderful user experience, and you need to have an entrepreneur, who can think of an idea and be resourceful enough to execute the idea.

What courses does Orita Sinclair offer as of now?

Creative writing, typography, packaging…these are all fairly common modules within a graphic design programme. But we are launching a new diploma, which is in interaction design. When we use the word “design” today, people think of graphic design, fashion design or interior design, but if you’re familiar with the start-up scene, you’ll realise that a lot of start-ups are looking for interaction designers. What interaction designers do is basically figure out what the best user interface or user experience for a service or product is. Facebook is the best example. You may have the programmer who can code the whole website, but at the end of the day, you need to be able to make the user spend time on the website and share information. That’s basically the interaction designer’s job. To figure out what is the best user experience such that he or she will spend more time on the site or the product.

That sounds great. Is there a course like that in other schools right now?

In Singapore, not really. I think Republic Poly has a similar programme called Design for interactivity, but typically an interaction design programme would be a Masters programme. Whereas what we’re offering is a diploma programme. From there I want to start introducing more programming classes, and then finally entrepreneurship classes. Maybe I’ll teach the entrepreneurship classes myself. 

What can you actually teach in entrepreneurship classes? Can entrepreneurship really be taught?

That’s a good question. I think it’s not so much a technical course, not so much how to do entrepreneurship. There is no how, but there is why. Why you should do it. If you work in a big company, you are typically pigeonholed in a very specific role, and for you to be able to make an impact on the organization, you have to climb up the ranks, and that takes many years. I feel that if you want your work to have an impact, the best way is to run your own show. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is that work takes up so much of your time. You might as well love what you do. And I think that not many people who are employees truly love what they do. They may love their work, but besides their work, they have to deal with a lot of other things because they’re part of an organization. Whereas when you’re an entrepreneur you get to decide how you want the organization to be run, what the culture should be. For these reasons, I think entrepreneurship is attractive.

An entrepreneurship class could perhaps also teach people to accept failure. Which I think is pretty crucial, especially in an Asian context, where failure is pretty frowned upon. In the US, some firms actually look at how many times you have failed when they decide to invest in your start-up. To them, failure is a good thing. You fail, you learn from your past failures and then you move on. And that is not so accepted here.

So have you failed before?

I can’t say that any of my start-ups have been very successful, but I guess I haven’t really failed either. You just got to keep pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. My favourite quote is from Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA team Dallas Mavericks. He said, “No balls, no babies”. You really have to go for it.

What separates Orita Sinclair from other design schools?

Aside from the interaction design programme that’s coming up, we also currently have an Apprenticeship Programme. We looked at how design should be taught, and we asked ourselves whether being in a classroom environment and listening to a lecturer was really the best way to learn design. And we figured, probably not. So we decided to try this apprenticeship programme, where the student actually comes in and works as an apprentice to 2 creative directors. We set up our own studio in the school. It’s not a real studio in the sense that we don’t have real, fee-paying clients, but what we do have is a simulated environment. The apprentice, rather than going for class, would just come in and start working on projects. So it’s really like how he or she would work in a real studio. We hope that at the end of the 7 months, the apprentices will pick up skills through on-the-job training and “learning by doing”, so that when they join a design studio, they can start producing work by day one. Because when you take a design graduate and you put them in a studio, they have no idea how the design studio works, and it takes some time before they can actually create anything. Our apprenticeship programme is our way to try to shortcut the learning process.

Are there any more things you want to do?

I want to be more involved in the start-up scene, particularly tech start-ups. That could be Orita Sinclair part 2. Part 1 is us being a school, where design, entrepreneurship and technology intersect. Part 2 could be Orita Sinclair the incubator. Maybe we could start a seed fund and fund start-ups. I mean, I’m just throwing ideas out for now.

Has the experience of studying overseas affected your view of life? If so, in what way?

Honestly, I would have liked to stay in London but I couldn’t get a job. Going overseas definitely changed my outlook on a lot of things. Singapore is so comfortable, and everything works. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the world revolves around Singapore. And I think that really is a problem, especially for young people who have not lived overseas. Their perspective on things is very, very parochial. I think that limits what they think they can achieve. It’s very hard to articulate. But going to London definitely changed me.

If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?

If I could go back in time, I would have studied computer science. I would have learnt programming. I would have made a more conscious effort at being interested in technology. I think that’s what took a long time to realise. If you want to make positive change, technology is the best tool you can have. And because I’m not as savvy, I feel handicapped.

I’m actually thinking of doing a programming school for kids. I remember when I was 10 or 11, my mom actually sent me to a programming class, but I basically had no idea what I was I doing. (laughs) I have a vision for a new kind of programming school. A programming school where kids can actually see the end result of what they’re doing. Where kids are actually excited about going for class. I think that if there’s one thing the government should introduce into the education system, it’s programming. Make it interesting, and design a class such that the students don’t learn it because they want to get good grades. They learn because they want to figure out how to make things work. I think if we have a new breed of entrepreneurs who are tech savvy and are genuinely interested in making things work better, then we have a shot at coming up with something that would change the world. The same way Google changed the word, or Facebook changed the world, or Amazon changed the world.

 If you want to make positive change, technology is the best tool you can have.

Do you have any advice for the younger people of Singapore?

Stay curious. The moment you stop being curious is the moment you stop developing as a person. Stay curious about everything that’s going on around you, don’t be afraid to explore and try new things. I always believe that you don’t know until you try. And be interested in technology, because it’s really a very powerful tool to make an impact.

It’s where the future lies.

It really is, it really, really is.

– Profiled by Natalee Ho