Illustrating a More ‘Singaporean’ Digital Identity

From a public housing block to an otter, familiar sights and scenes of Singapore help create a delightful user experience in the redesigned Singpass app.

Void decks are a common sight at public housing estates of Singapore where most Singaporeans live in. These ground-level spaces are typically open and empty, except for a few sets of public furniture, to allow for various activities like weddings, funerals or simple hangouts with fellow residents. Now, void decks can also be found in the Singpass app!

Singpass’s illustrations take inspiration from everyday life in Singapore, injecting a sense of familiarity and delight for users.

When a user’s Inbox is empty, an illustration of a void deck shows up instead. It is part of a library of Singapore-inspired illustrations that Shin Ooi drew up for the redesign of the national digital identity app by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).

“The brief was to inject delight and to make the Singpass app feel friendly,” said the freelance designer. “We wanted users to feel it is not just another ‘cold’ digital app by adding some elements of fun and humour.”

GovTech’s designers also envisioned the illustrations alleviating users’ anxieties, such as when a text-heavy screen or stressful state appears in the app. Thus, Shin proposed drawing parallels to everyday encounters in Singapore to make the encounters relatable to Singpass users who come from all walks of life. While the void deck symbolises the app’s empty states, she used Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train in instances when data is being sent. Another illustration of a cat locked behind an apartment gate appears when users are locked out from their Singpass account, a familiar sight to Shin whenever she walks along the corridors of public housing estates.

A key role for the illustrations was to alleviate the stress users who are unfamiliar with technology may feel when experiencing error messages.

“One of the most stressful error messages to receive is when one’s account is locked. I wanted to help users understand that it’s okay,” she said. “Instead of depicting robots or technology, I used scenes from everyday life and nature as they feel less tech-related and are more relatable. They are also very uniquely Singaporean.”

Shin complemented the local scenes with a cast of characters and items that inject life to the world of Singpass. There are the “Singtizens” who represent its users, while “Singaflora and fauna” include otters, orchids and other plants and animals found in Singapore. Together with Singpass’s existing mascot and robot assistant, the trio are used to illustrate the various messages and tutorials in the app.

The Singpass mascot is a representation of the system and it appears at various instances in the app to illustrate what happens behind-the-scenes.

Singtizens also come in a distinct form inspired by the Singpass mascot. Their trapezoid silhouettes are derived from the redesigned Singpass logo with an ‘i’ logo mark resembling both a human silhouette and a keyhole. Singtizens also come in various colours and styles that represent the diversity of the app’s users. They range from different skin colours to headgear worn by various religious groups and organisations, as well as hairstyles and clothing. There are also Singtizens in wheelchairs to include persons with disabilities. Each character is built from a modular design akin to a LEGO character. By simply mixing and matching a different head, headgear, upper body, and bottom, the Singtizen community can continue to grow.

Initial explorations of how the Singpass mascot and Singtizens co-exist in the app.

“It was very important to the team that the diversity of users was represented in the app as inclusivity is one of the core values of Singpass,” Shin explained.

Apart from the Singtizens, the Singpass mascot is accompanied by an array of Singaflora and fauna. They are used to construct spot illustrations to convey messages in the app.

The range of Singaporean characters and items inject a light touch to the app, said GovTech designer Aspen Tng, who worked closely with Shin to incorporate them in the user interface design.

Singtizens come in all colours, shapes and forms to represent the diversity of its users.

“We wanted to keep the app minimalist and professional-looking but at the same time we didn’t want it to be super serious. The illustrations add a flavour to the app that is unique to Singapore,” he said.

However, the team was also mindful not to distract from Singpass’s functionality.

“We strategically placed the illustrations such that they don’t appear randomly such as next to the user’s Digital Identity Card,” Aspen said. “At the end of the day, we wanted people to be able to use this app well rather than notice the illustrations.”

To ensure the illustrations blended in with Singpass’s overall look-and-feel, Shin worked with a palette that accentuates rather than overpowers the app’s red-and-grey colour scheme. The illustrations were also made with simple, two-dimensional elements. For example, a public housing block is formed with three rectangular blocks in a grid of pastel colours resembling its actual colourful facade. “A major challenge was figuring out how to illustrate simply without looking generic, says Shin.

“The block of flats initially looked much more detailed. As I tried to reduce it to the most recognisable silhouette, it became a question of how little do you need to convey something in an illustration,” she added.

Amongst the over 50 illustrations Shin created for Singpass, her fondest is one featuring the Singpass mascot and a dog waiting for data to be fetched. The animated design is a homage to a similar one featuring only a dog which she created for a previous version of the app (2019). Her suggestion to entertain users while they waited for their personal data to be fetched from the server — hence the dog reference — became an unexpected hit with users. Thus, when GovTech embarked on a redesign, it invited Shin back to expand on her work and make illustration a core feature.

“People usually find that government apps don’t put too much thought to inject fun. The fact that users pointed out the illustration made the team very happy,” she remarked.

Since her first Singpass assignment to create explainer videos for the app in 2018, Shin’s efforts to help the national digital identity platform become more “Singaporean” by design have helped her see the country in a new light too.

“I had a lot of fun working on this project because I became more attuned to the hidden quirks of Singapore,” said Shin who has lived in Costa Rica and Malaysia, where she was born.

One of the things I really noticed is the diversity of people living in the city and their different ways of living. It is what makes Singapore unique.”

This article is part 3 of our 3-part series about the Singpass app redesign in 2021. The series covers the evolution of the Digital IC, the redesign effort and its Singapore-inspired illustration system.

Here’s where we share more about the work happening behind…