Award-winning brand designer Ruth Chao is the mastermind behind some of Hong Kong’s largest cultural projects, from Heritage 1881 to the revitalisation of Central Market. She tells us why graphic design is her calling and what she finds so gratifying about reinvigorating this city’s cultural heritage.
It’s often said that what we study in university has little to do with what we end up doing professionally. Do you think your psychology degree from the University of Bristol has helped your creative work in any way?
Psychology is actually the scientific side of what I do now, and coincidentally, it was during my psychology degree when I discovered my passion for design.
In psychology, one of the modules we studied was the cognitive processing of visual information. We had eye-dart experiments, where a machine measures how your eyes study a design, from where it first lands on the page to how it moves across the page or object. I still remember how we were working on Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, and we designed a lot of renditions, variations of fonts, colours and placements. It was so fascinating to see how different designs create different responses in the human eyes and brain. That was the beginning of my path in design, the nerdy, scientific side, after which I applied to British Vogue magazine in London and quixotically landed in their art department.
How has working with British Vogue, various fashion institutions and film studios, and William Chang shaped you as a designer?
At British Vogue, I got to learn from Robin Derrick, who was the then creative director for 17 years. It was back in the days when typefaces were made from custom calligraphy instead of digital typefaces, which is more of the usual trend now. We would hand draw calligraphy and scan them in for the digital translations. The creative process was very tactile. It being the beginning of my career, there were also a lot of coffee-fetching and miscellaneous (though sometimes exciting) tasks. I still remember having less than an hour to head to another end of London for 50 bags of spaceship candies to create the setting of a shoot for Nick Knight. Those were the days of graphic design, typesetting, calligraphy, styling and photo shooting that laid a lot of groundwork for what I do now.
When I came back to Hong Kong, I was at Tigergate, which was a subsidiary studio of Lionsgate. As a new company back then, the creative works were all outsourced to creative agencies. Looking back, it was the turn of my luck when I asked the then-CEO William Pfeiffer to let me join the pitches in the design of the movie posters. I had to keep the same tasks at the company during the day, and only work on these posters in my own time at night.
What was tough was that movie posters are the deep ends of graphic design. They require a wide range of advanced skills to create textures and special effects, skills that I did not know. So to solve that, I learnt in every way that I could – I joined Adobe online classes, found youtube tutorials, googled how to light fire digitally, how to make water droplets. It was a tough time running a day and night marathon, but I was 23 and I felt lucky to be able to work on the Asian versions of overseas movie posters, I could not be happier.
Moving into my time learning from William Chang, my world transcended from 2D into 3D, into motion pictures, costume design and set design. I was in Beijing and it was a completely different experience than anything that I had ever experienced. It was a film crew of 300 people directed by JiangWen, starred by ShuQi and ZhouYun. The production timeline was tight, the creative scope was limitless, and ‘marathon’ took on a whole new meaning when there was not a single rest day filming in China. On the other hand, it was the most fascinating when I saw how sketches became drafts, that turned into real life on the silver screen. From my time there, I learnt so much more than creative concepts from William. It was the tenacity of creativity, honing the ability to predict creative outcomes, and most importantly, how to remain sharp and artistically productive even in high-pressured environments.
Did you think you’d end up becoming a graphic designer?
I always knew I wanted to do something creative. But sometimes it takes exploration to know where your path is, I always knew that I wanted to do something creative, but it took time for me to find my path. I have since been in the creative industry for more than 12 years now, and having been in the different parts of the industry, what I love most is how all facets come together to tell one story. Brand design does exactly that, and I love the balance and variety of it all. It keeps me curious and energized.
Your first entrepreneurial venture was Indicube alongside Antonia Li. Was that a learning curve for you?
Being creative and running a creative company are two different things. There was definitely a lot of learning – I am still learning now and I think that is the way it should be. Back then, I was the creative and Antonia was in business development. We were really young, and we learnt the many different parts that go into running a business. Indicube was such an important experience and it definitely helped me evolve into the creative that I am today. They say many people cannot stay friends after running a business together. What I am the most thankful for is that Antonia and I are still good friends until today.
How does it feel to have won a Red Dot Award not just once but three times?
The design awards are for all the designers that I work with, and not just for me. The team has been with me for more than five, six years, and there is a great synergy when you’ve been creating with somebody for a long time. My art director Mag and I, there is a kind of familiarity and you can do more with saying less, and we keep evolving and improving together. After so many years, it is still surprising when we win.
One of our winning projects is a Hong Kong cookie brand called Pin (品). In Chinese, pin chang (品嚐) means to savour, and we created a logo emblem that merged the English and Chinese languages together. From there we designed the visual identity, packaging and digital experience. It was a 360-degree creative project, which I particularly love because we were expressing our culture to the world. The East-meets-West perspective is apparent in the brand itself, from the Asian flavours of the cookies (such as scallion chicken and red dates), modernized into a crunchy western cookie. Our brand design mirrors that, drawing the ingredients to take centre stage, highlighted with witty captions and lined with traditional Chinese patterns that are cool and contemporary. In today’s world, being Chinese no longer means sticking to a stereotypical style. It could be international and still be Chinese.
Do you ever look back at your old work?
I usually obsess over the designs and keep doing rounds and rounds of revisions before I think they are ready, but there are maybe one or two projects where I think I can add small edits to now. Perhaps perfection is really a never-ending road. This is also one thing that William told me, that he cannot rewatch an old film that he worked on because of a specific detail that he would now like to perfect. I think that is the beauty of it, when you are a creative, the years always add a fresh perspective. It is a subjectivity that evolves across time. It keeps you on your toes when you keep improving.
One of your latest projects is a citywide campaign for Swire to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
The creative brief evolved in the past year to the core concept of bringing positivity to Hong Kong, especially after the two tough years that our community has had here. For us, there is no narrative more purposeful than a story that shines light to the minds. In the beginning of the project, we went through the Swire archives that spans 150 years, and designed the story through the people that moves forward in the linearity of time, with a pending celebration soon to come in a glowing sun of a positive future.
You also worked on the restoration at 1881 Heritage and the latest Central Market revitalisation project. A lot of your work tends to highlight the traditional, with an eye towards innovation and the future. Is this something you find yourself drawn to?
There is something so romantic about keeping a part of history and breathing new life into it. We get to reshape a piece of history and make it enticing and relevant in today’s culture. I think it is the balance of it that particularly attracts me. The balance of the old and the new, the right brain and the left brain, the art and the commerce, the wildness of creativity and the grounding nature of logic.
For House 1881, it was actually the former Marine Police Headquarters. It wasn’t quite deserted but it wasn’t quite utilised as a building either. To have the designs kind of echo the brand itself, because it’s a very rare colonial building here in Hong Kong. We only have small a number in Hong Kong on that scale. We literally drew out, part-by-part, and mirrored the exact architectural structure in the graphics. And even a logo that small contained so much detail. We did rounds and rounds of size tests and things like that but we really wanted to keep that as a kind of the key branding element for House 1881.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to reviving these heritage sites? Do you find yourself limited in terms of what you can do, or do you find excitement in these constraints?
I don’t see respecting history as a limitation. I think that, as exciting as it is to build a new brand, it’s almost more interesting to take something old and make it new. You learn so much from the process. I personally love the box, because then I know where the lines are, so I can go outside of the box to find new ways to create and innovate.
What can you tell us about the Central Market Revitalisation Project?
It is a project led by Chinachem. We helped to create brands and revitalise the vendors within the space, including the restaurants and retail shops. The concept of Central Market is all about Hong Kong, celebrating the roots of our heritage and the unique beauty of our culture.
For me, I particularly enjoy the balance between the old and the new. Through this project, we reshaped parts of the Hong Kong heritage into new experiences that are relevant and interesting for the younger generations. Vintage fruit stands, dai pai dong, a digital cafe for bonding.. We designed a mahjong dining concept that reflects the traditional palette of Hong Kong cuisine. The restaurant had ravioli dishes made in a wonton style, and the dining space is built out of mahjong pieces that we designed. It was also very fun to work with the interior designers to bring alive the physical spaces together.
With Central Market and 1881 before that, do you think you’re in a unique position to preserve Hong Kong and, at the same time, shape the city’s future?
Chinachem has been our client for many years, and the company takes on a number of cultural projects to revitalise the city in a warm and heartfelt way. Similar to dedicating a tribute to Hong Kong, it is a treasured experience for me and my team. What I particularly love about heritage projects is that we can spice up traditions with innovations to create a fresh perspective.
For heritage and other branding projects, no matter the size of the companies, we always apply an approach of art to our designs. We make custom oil painting, calligraphy, ink drawings, typography, all of which do take more time, but they are the definitive way to shape a unique brand story tailored for our clients. And from the past to the future, a key goal that I set for my team this year is to produce our designs only on recycled papers. It is important in today’s time to not only create with innovation, but also with care to our nature and its future.
You also have a lot of luxury clients. Is there a different mindset going into these projects compared to the more cultural, revitalisation projects you’re working on?
Luxury and lifestyle brands have their own heritage in a different way. Each brand has its own story and history. Whether it is a cultural project, luxury brand or charity project, for a restaurant, pet brand or even a short film, it is the same principle. We start by understanding the client, its origins, target audience, unique selling points.. From there, we devise a unique angle and apply an artistic approach to bring alive a strong brand story essential for a successful business. To me, designing a brand is similar to creating a different world each time, and after working with more than 100 brands, it is still a whole new world each time.