Two Delighted & Self-Contained Designers

In 1980s, two design students from Hong Kong Polytechnic were graduating. While both aspiring to be brand designers, separately they chose a starkly different path to live up their dreams: one of them specialized in product design, while another extended his scope to production and export. Twenty five years later, they are both icons for local design industry. Now, their career paths converge again amid challenges that emerge over intellectual property and sales networks.

Alan Yip and Winnif Pang enrolled in Hong Kong Polytechnic among the first batch of 3-year degree students.
Alan’s graduation project, an iron looking like a water-drop in shape, caused a stir in product design industry. This accomplishment landed him a designer job at Philips headquarters in the Netherland. Two years later in 1990, Alan returned to Hong Kong and founded his design firm. Philips, impressed with his performance, recommended its Hong Kong branch to continually hire Alan’s designs.

In 1991, one of Alan’s designs, a sushi-shape calculator, became a collectable among several design museums around the world. Alan said, “My golden age was from 1990 to 1997, while 1995 and 1996 were especially fantastic. Then Philips engaged me in over 50 projects, including the production of the samples. These tasks were accomplished without any staff assistance in the first 7 years. Being a single workaholic, I drew all the design plans by myself. My friends joked that I was charged with 7 persons’ workload.” Used to work alone, he confessed that he liked to savor the taste of triumph all by himself.

Meanwhile, Winnif also established a design company upon graduation, along with another classmate. They received no job in the first six months but fortunately situation improved afterwards. Winnif said, “That (launching a design firm)’s really insane. If I had to start from scratch again, probably I would have quit. It was purely a passion for design which drove me wading through the trouble waters.”

Unlike Alan, Winnif has since 1991 hired several assistant designers. As the mastermind, Winnif oversaw his fellow colleagues’ works. One year later, he launched several products and semi- products under his own brand name. These included watches and home appliances, all meant to reach overseas markets.

In 1997, Alan lost a major client as Philips established its own design department and no longer outsourced their design projects. Fortunately, Philips then referred Alan to a cluster of new clients such as Nintendo, Hitachi and Vidal Sassoon. Most of these clients stayed for five to ten years. Winnif concentrated his business on gift and premium design and the new strategy worked. Even during the 1997 financial storm, his business volumes mounted by 20 to 30 per cent. In 2000, Winnif further expanded his company in order to set the stage for further branding development.

However, shortly after Winnif’s first taste of business boom, underlying problems surfaced. Winnif said, “I have invented a silicon cup lid which is very soft in texture. It is estimated that over ten million pieces of them have been sold, but only one-tenth of them were made by our company. “

Intellectual property was meant to safeguard the harvest of designers’ painstaking efforts and is crucial for the interests of designers. Sadly, legal procedures over intellectual property involved exorbitant fees, as what Alan said, “Intellectual property right is a very expensive game which designers can hardly afford. Only giants like Sony, Philips and IBM can incur the expenses.”

According to Winnif, he was not prepared to commence on a spending spree over intellectual property. Instead, he was confident that his everlasting pursuit of betterment could distinct himself from all those imitators. However, he realized that it is wiser to establish a brand overseas first before it gets into mainland market. He warned, “A brand is prone to peril in Mainland unless it is famous enough. “

Perhaps Alan’s situation is not too difficult when compared to that of Winnif. Most of Alan’s clients, those huge companies, have obtained the design patent. In fact, when his design works are done, the products are no longer his business.

However, Alan also reckoned that every coin has two sides. He said, “We devoted a great deal of effort in designs but were simply unable to earn any royalty on the sale of the final products. You write a book or a song, you receive royalty, but for designers this is not yet happening.”

Alan now set his vision on the mammoth Mainland market. He has opened a workshop in Shenzhen in 2008, and is looking for a partner to develop branding and sales networking. He planned to employ more mainland staff to handle customers’ relations.

On the other hand, Winnif founded a new design firm in 2007 and became Chairman of the Hong Kong Designers Association. He claimed that the heavy chairman duties had made him “too busy to hire any staff” that the company is just run by himself and his wife. The couple endeavored to various tasks including design, production, quality control and export.

Despite of the fact that Alan and Winnif have very different market focus, they both agreed that sales networks were essential for the interests of designers.

Winnif suffered a failure as his products were sold in mass market American retailers.

Winnif said, “I had approached Radioshack, Target and Walmart, putting my products on their shelves, but I learnt later that it (dealing with giant retailers) was a mistake. These giant retailers allowed a very tiny profit margin that I could earn much more by sourcing my own retail outlets. In addition, they would degrade the designs by selling them as low-end merchandises. The special offers of these chains during special seasons usually cripple your branding efforts...”

Winnif found it difficult to closely monitor overseas sales and inventory. He believed that it is vital to choose a high-caliber import agent. Winnif said, “I prefer some small but ambitious agents with a track record. When these companies expand, my brand as a high-end icon would be further established. “

Winnif and Alan, both awards-winning sensations, were good at designing products on their own. Developing post-production sales networks and branding remain challenges for the pair. Whether they can succeed in responding to these hindrances or not will further define their positions in Hong Kong designers’ hall of fame.

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