in search of creative space

Javin Mo, born in 1970s, and Hong Ko, born in 1980s, are classified as “the fourth generation of Hong Konger”. Their rises to eminence are connected to their brilliance alongside diligence. In fact, the heyday for Hong Kong designers has been concluded by a shrinking local market, since many of their struggling clients severed design bud- gets though mainland China’s economy has grown dramatically in recent years. How do young designers such as Javin and Hong find out their ways of success?


Both Javin and Hong were not majoring in design at undergraduate stage, but the pair coincidentally developed affection for this subject. Javin was discovered by renowned designer Tommy Li in 1997 through a design competition. On the other hand, Hong met the famous designer Freeman Lau when he was studying fine arts in the Chinese Univer- sity of Hong Kong and was recruited by Kan and Lau Design Consultants after gradua- tion in 2000.
Hong was awarded “the Chevening Scholar- ship” two years later and he went to England for a master degree in design. While in Lon- don, Hong spent a lot of time at museums, music concerts and musicals. These expo- sures broadened his horizon, feeding him with the necessary nutrients for creative culture.
On the other hand, Javin won an internship at Fabrica, Italian fashion brand Benetton’s communication research centre, in 2004. The centre, a melting pot of creativities from all over the world, inspired Javin on originality. He learned how to bring the power of collec- tive originalities in business operation.
Both Javin and Hong joined a cross border tour led by Tommy Li in 2007. The journey was a wake-up call to the pair. They found the reversal of fortune between the emerg- ing mainland design sector and her declining Hong Kong counterpart. The exhibition exerted a profound impact on their career direction.
Hong recalled that many mainland design- ers, who were still in their mid 20s, had al- ready run a company with over 20 employ- ees, whereas Hong Kong designers could hardly establish their own firm at this age. He ascribed this to the market force, rather than the ability or the background of indi- vidual designers, which led to the discrep- ancy. Hong asserted that choosing the right battlefield (market) was crucial in deciding the outcome. As local design and advertisement industries were plunging from the pin- nacle, new comers, in their 20s or 30s, now have diminishing opportunity locally.
Javin said, “When I joined the industry, the economy was at its bottom...the recessions, including the financial crisis in 1998 and the burst of dot-com bubble after 2000, forced many companies to cut their budgets and evacuated their operations to the mainland. As what Tommy (Li) has remarked, small and medium firms, now cash-strapped, are un- able to spend money on expanding their outlets. Accordingly, there is no need for them to spare any resources on brand and design. This is the straw that breaks the cam- el’s back. “
Javin agreed that well-established design- ers like Tommy Li can afford to reject clients, serving only those customers who appreci- ate good design. However, this strategy is currently not at all applicable to young de- signers.
As proverb goes, “A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.” Though factors beyond control have changed, Javin reck- oned that he should not forsake. Instead, he swiftly refined Tommy Li’s strategy to target new clients in cultural industries. Javin has by now established a reputation for his spe- cialty in arts exhibitions and cultural projects. Meanwhile, he has since 2009 shouldered the design work of “Design 360°”, a famous design journal in the mainland. Javin now frequents between Hong Kong and Guang- zhou to discuss the journal’s design. How- ever, he insists that only three projects can be undertaken in the meanwhile to ensure the best outcome.
As small and medium firms in Hong Kong are fighting an uphill battle, the cultural in- dustries, hopefully under the blessing of the ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District project, can be seen by designers as salva- tion. In this regard, Javin has mounted a step by branding himself as an excelled cultural designer. He envisaged this direction as a way out for many Hong Kong designers.
Javin said some mainland companies, like garment for example, are recruiting design- ers to work exclusively for them. These com- panies usually require their employees to sign a one to two year full time contract, and they have to station in Shanghai or Beijing.
He said, “I think that if I had no (mortgage) burden, I would have complied with their request (to station in mainland). Since I have already established my career in Hong Kong, I want to stay and continually pursuit my dream at here, running a dream work- shop and serving clients from all places. “
Javin added that he had an alternate instead of starting from scratch in the mainland and accustoming to a set of starkly different rules. He doubted if geographical barriers would completely cripple his practice. In addition, his Hong Kong perspective allows him to see things from a vantage point, de- spite the edge is now shrinking.
On the other hand, Hong adopted a very different approach in dealing with the main- land market. He asserted that the advantage of Hong Kong designers have entirely van- ished after the introduction of economic reform and opening up in the mainland for over three decades.
Hong said, “There is no problem if you insist to position your firm as a Hong Kong com- pany. What puzzles me is the perspective of the others towards that (Hong Kong) iden- tity. The trend is crystal clear that the Hong Kong label virtually had no impact in the mainland. I can truly feel it.”
Clients adoring the reputation of star de- signers like Kan Tai-keung, were willing to spend handsome money for trademark de- signs. However, their number is falling now. There is an abundant supply of designers in the mainland and competition has piercing- ly reduced design fee in general. Therefore Hong has set up a special strategic unit in his Shenzhen office to provide positioning and marketing analysis for his clients.
Hong said he was willing to alter the cor- porate culture to meet the needs of a new market. His ambition was making the Kan And Lau Design Consultants a top design house in the mainland. He said that brand building is not a single piece. Instead, many brand building consultants are trying to specialize themselves in a particular area so as to develop a niche. He took Kan And Lau Design Consultants as an example, saying that the firm is taking a slice of the brand- ing market by engaging the clients through visual elements The most important thing is trust. Once trust is developed between you and your clients, they will entrust important task to you.
Hong’s challenge is whether he can make the mainland staff competent managers. He said, “The morale among mainland crew will be undermined if we only promote Hong Kong staff. Perhaps this is the secret for Hong to keep his mainland talents.

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