How late architect and design expert Dr Milton Tan’s unexpected advice led son Ryan to start creative agency OuterEdit

Dr Milton Tan (left) is remembered by his son Ryan Tan, the founder of OuterEdit, as someone who valued integrity, honesty and kindness.
Photos: The Straits Times and courtesy of Ryan Tan

You may or may not have heard of Ryan Tan, but if you’re a millennial in Singapore, you’ve probably come across one of his agency’s projects at some point.

His boutique creative agency OuterEdit has worked with a range of big brand names from Singapore Tourism Board to Zouk since 2011. One of its more recent projects was the Street of Clans festival at Bukit Pasoh Road during the Singapore Design Week in March.

While he’s carved a name for himself, Tan, 35, could have ended up somewhere completely different if he had not heeded the advice of his father, the late Dr Milton Tan.

The founder of OuterEdit told Business Insider that he had originally wanted to pursue a degree in architecture, until his father persuaded him to do something completely different – a degree in business management.

That piece of advice might seem a little strange, considering Dr Tan was associate professor and former head of architecture at the National University of Singapore. He was also the founding executive director of DesignSingapore Council and sat on various public and private boards.

As it turns out, Dr Tan had recommended his son take on a degree in business management not because he was unsupportive of architecture. Rather, Dr Tan’s intention was to ensure Ryan was well-prepared for the future.

“He shared with me how he felt designers of the future need to be equipped with more than just the ability to design. Beyond this, they needed to embrace a multiplicity of skillsets fusing business with creativity and technology,” Tan told Business Insider.

Tan took up business management, became a freelance self-taught graphic designer, and eventually started working on projects for the Singapore Tourism Board and Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix.

Dr Tan died from leukemia in 2010 at the age of 56, before OuterEdit was formed.

Today, when Tan thinks about his father, he misses that special gift his father had “to think far and large for people”. He had a special quality of being able to stay sensitive to the “why” and “how” of things amidst executing well what he set out to do, Tan told Business Insider.

The young entrepreneur also remembers the principles and values which his father – a recipient of the Long Service Medal (Pingat Bakti Setia) in 2009 – stood for. “Some of these values include selfless service, integrity, honesty and kindness,” Tan said.

He also looked beyond the physical attributes of design and into the people, process, rigour and spirit behind it.

A passionate designer like his father, Tan was also impressed by his dad’s commitment to increase the value of design and designers in Singapore. Till today, Dr Tan is recognised by many as the man who helped put Singapore design on the map.

“He did this with real fervour even through his battle with medical complications, up until he passed away in November 2010,” Tan said.

In 2013, the Milton Tan Memorial Fund was established to recognise and encourage the best and most-improved students of the NUS department of architecture.

Being silly, growing up together

And it’s not just his work ethic that has inspired Tan. He described his dad as “a filial son, a loyal brother, a loving husband, a caring father to my brother and I, and a faithful friend”.

Admitting that he was not exactly the easiest kid to manage, Tan says his dad and mom were tough yet compassionate, and fair yet encouraging even when he and his brother suffered failures.

“My dad and I were close and I attribute much of that to him taking the time and effort despite his busy schedule to invest in memories, experiences or just being there with his family through the good times and bad.

“Many-a-times it didn’t feel like I was being ‘parented’ – but more like we were learning, being silly, and growing up together. I’m really grateful for that,” Tan said.

The late Dr Milton Tan always looked beyond the physical attributes of design and into the people, process, rigour and spirit behind it, Ryan said.
Courtesy of the Tan family

Among the many lessons his parents taught him, Tan says three stand out for him:

1) Work with what you have

While the family wasn’t very well-off, Tan remembers wanting all the coolest toys and gadgets his friends had.

“I recall my parents encouraging us to work with that we had”, Tan said. This meant that if he couldn’t have an object of desire, he would try to make it for himself.

He cherishes family photos of the family pretending to ski on ski gear his dad made out of cardboard, and play fighting with swords made of sticks. “Sometimes imagination is all you need,” he said.

2) Treat the impossible as opportunity

Ever been told “no”? Instead of dismay, obstacles represent a great opportunity in the Tan household.

“My dad would light up every time he was told that something was impossible, or improbable just because it hadn’t been explored yet,” Tan recalls.

He remembers Dr Tan saying: “If you never try, you’ll never know”. As he used to say, “just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it impossible”.

Dr Tan would also encourage his kids to explore these impossibilities and to draw conclusions for themselves, even if they ended in failure. For his father, the goal was not just to succeed, but also to learn and improve.

3) The last thing the world needs is more stuff

When getting things done, the “how” and “why” are both equally important, and sometimes even more than what you are looking to create, Tan said.

This meaning and purpose of doing things is apparent in the way Tan runs his business today, almost nine years after his dad died.

On OuterEdit’s website, the company says its goal is to help brands “make meaningful matter”.

Tan said: “To my dad, design was more than just a means to an end.

Design, he said, is “also a frame of mind and a way of thinking to solve real-life problems with solutions that drive meaning, purpose, community and impact.”

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