"I came from a traditional family. For someone who wasn't technically allowed into design, I ultimately found my path back to design. The journey was quite interesting," 29-year-old Ruth Chao confides as she paces down the streets of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, the sentiment of paper chase or higher education is a deep-seated value in culture. It's two ways – familial 'face' and reputation, and it defines the person's identity and societal status. Chao naturally went to a reputable college. "I studied psychology at the University of Bristol. That was my graduate degree."
Yet, a younger Chao coveted a career in the creative sector. She delved into art and design with an apprenticeship at the British Vogue. Later, Chao went on to Hong Kong-based luxury retailer, Lane Crawford and I.T Apparels. There, she tried her hand at design for Isabel Marant, Acne Studios and Victoria Beckham.
"It's known – to have a good design career you will definitely need design education. To have a successful business you need the MBA." To her, a mindset like this is irrelevant. "That checklist is determined by you."
When she relocated back home to Hong Kong, Chao came together with her friend, Antonia Li. The duo started a graphic design firm, Indicube, from Chao's home. "We started small. We were working in my living room... We started from scratch. We didn't take any money from our parents."
Chao and Li went knocking on doors for business. "We did a lot of pitches in the beginning," she laughs. In the end, they secured several fellow start-ups. They gave her the opportunity to build Indicube's portfolio. She gave them good design in return. "They were small beginnings, minute projects, low prices as well."
Three years on, the design firm has won ten design awards and accolades, including the Red Dot Award for communication and design in 2016, the New York-based publisher Graphis' annual awards, and the Most Valuable Companies in Hong Kong award this year. Chao's current portfolio spans global brands like Estée Lauder, Mr Porter and menswear publication, Hypebeast. The firm was also recently acquired by creative group, PBB.
Looking back at these victories, Chao reckons they are more than mere trophies, "Winning an award legitimises the design." In a subject matter as arbitrary as design, "there's no right or wrong. It's subjective. In terms of design, winning the awards help. It does not justify, but strengthens the design."
In fact, the awards legitimise and license her design process. Chao's designs are not pretty designs. They are not merely beautiful images and objects. Her designs are moored in an unexpected field – psychology.
Chao tapped on her psychology major in her design work. "It was actually the science side of what I do. We do facial recognition, consumer psychology, feel-good colours. It's the science behind what we do now." Prior to every design project or assignment, Chao and her team delve into "consumer behaviour to study the reaction, how we respond to design."
Marrying psychology and design "might not be that common [in Hong Kong]. Most people graduate from art degrees," Chao quips. From what she's observed, most designers are trained in the technicalities of art and design, form and function. They end up unaware of the psychological and social impacts that their designs generate. To her, designs do affect people's everyday life. When people are surrounded by good design, their system of life is naturally altered to be easier and better – clearer communication, less clutter, less noise, less negative influences.
That's a subconscious aspect of good design. It seems, there's more good on Chao's plate. She told me about the work that she does for burgeoning businesses, designers and non-profit organisations. She also does pro bono rebranding assignments for charitable organisations – again, based on consumers' perception and psychology. "The way you perceive a charity is important... The website should look presentable – not dodgy but proper."
With both commercial and non-profit projects on hand, I asked Chao how does she manage her time. "I work seven days a week! ...Life is all about time. It's how you use your time." To her, if her goal is to be successful at work, her investment in time will generate returns eventually. "How do you decompress?", I probed. "I do yoga every morning. And I have a puppy," she laughs. "He helps me destress a lot."
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