2011.02  ESSAY
China VS Hong Kong VS Japan  Tommy Li and Works 20 Years, interview

China VS Hong Kong VS Japan
Tommy Li and Works 20 Years, interview

How do you perceive Japan, Hong Kong and Chinese design in general?

The rapid development of global economy and the internet technologies narrow down the regional differences in the essence of design whereas focuses have been highly emphasized on different cultures and diversified values.
Graphic design has been shifted from the areas of purely aesthetic values to diverse communications. I think the future demand on design will shift from expandable to sustainable design, to discover and visualize the original value of an object, will become an important task in design.

Japan: A growing age of high-speed economy in graphic design
When I was in my teens, the Japanese economy was booming. In 1964, Shinkansen began service between Tokyo and Osaka. In the same year, Olympic Games were held in Tokyo. In 1970, World Expo was hosted in Osaka. The social development at that time was like what China has today.
When I was a student, the leader of advertising and design industry was Ikko Tanaka. He was once the art director of Seibu Department Stores and MUJI. It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also the time of Vietnam War. Influenced by the Underground and the counter culture, countless design works emerged in the world. The pioneer of that generation was Tadanori Yokoo. The mixture of economic development and Underground brought great vitality to design.
By the late 1960s, the economic scale in Japan was ranked as the second place in the world. It was the economic bubble occurred in the late 80s while it was the climax of the combination of advertising and design industry in the past 20 years .

Hong Kong: Graphic design and the City
It was probably before the end of economic bubble in 1991, the Creation Gallery G8 in Tokyo held the first exhibition for Hong Kong designers .
I was deeply interested in the “East Meets West” style of Alan Chan, so I bought his portfolio book with the red cover in Pacific Place in Hong Kong. When Alan came to Japan, the economic bubble in Japan had burst, of course he was not the reason.
Since my first time to visit Hong Kong in 1984, I have fallen in love with this city. In Hong Kong, all the streets with their bilingual Chinese and English names. Numerous words in the street created a unique scenario for the city. Simplified character is used in China whereas Korean uses Hangul, while in Hong Kong, traditional Chinese character and Latin alphabet are coexisted. I think Hong Kong is a unique mixture of both east and west.
Later on, I decided to visit Hong Kong every year before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. During my visits to Hong Kong, Kowloon Walled City had been changed into a monumental park, and Kai Tak Airport had changed into Hong Kong International Airport on the island of Chek Lap Kok. The women in Hong Kong also became more beautiful and confident, while the streets were better.

In 1993 when the economic bubble ended, there was an important exhibition held in ggg Gallery from Tokyo and ddd Gallery from Osaka known as “Eight Graphic Designers from Hong Kong”. This exhibition impressed me a lot, especially graphic designer Kan-Tai Keung who stars Chinese character and pure Chinese culture can be touched profoundly in his works. His design also penetrates the essence of Chinese history and culture while he also brings an important influence on modern China graphic design.

China: Ebullition in graphic design
Last year, I was invited to be the judge of China International Poster Biennial in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. I met a lot of students there, who were full of passion and hope for the future.
Chinese students have good hand-writing skill, which I guess, resulted from the strict training since their childhood. Complex character is a good training for design, so I think the Traditional Chinese writing has a better training compared to Simplified Chinese. (Laugh)
There are so many students who wants to be designer. These 20-year-old young people will turn into their thirties, and I believe there will be hundreds of outstanding designers in the near future. From Europe and North America to Japan and Hong Kong, they are absorbing the design knowledge as a sponge from the world. In the past, Japan has experienced high-speed development in economy and design. However, the current scale of development is tens times larger than before, and the speed is several times faster.
China has solid cultural and historical foundation, perhaps Chinese design will be different from European and American design and have its unique style 10 years later.

Have you thought of entering Chinese market as a Japanese graphic designer?

For designers, Chinese market is a good location where you can extend your working opportunities and possibilities. China is a diverse country with coastal cities, inlands and frontiers. China has experienced the rise and fall of many dynasties in her history, but still moving forward with generations. To participate in various projects in such an extremely mobile environment is quite stimulating for me.
Design has both common global and regional values whereas different regions have diverse characteristics. Despite the same goal, different considerations should be taken according to local situations and knowing the local customs culture has been extremely important. A good partner, who is competent and knows Chinese market well, plays a significant role to determine whether a foreigner can succeed in the local market.

What are the advantage and disadvantages of running overseas clients (if any)?

I think it not necessary to distinguish a clear border of domestic and the overseas clients. Designers should engage rich imaginations for diversified cultures and values, which is required for being a good designer. Despite the language communication barrier, working with overseas clients should be a happy experience.

Most overseas clients and the responsible person can make the conclusion and answer quite clearly. Of course the Japanese may face difficulties in such different working style, but gradually can get used to it once the process starts. However, as a foreign designer or even like me, to collaborate with local Japanese companies is not an easy task. They would not simply make conclusions or to give the correct answers, instead, you even don't know who is the person in-charge, or always wait until the final decision made by the whole corporation, which just simply waste time.

What are the criteria of being a successfully graphic designer to survive in commercial market?

I have two design styles from works. One is the experimental works with geometric shapes and character, which are more self-initiated projects. The other is visual communication driven based on clients’ briefs and objectives. There is no such a big difference between the two, and they can simply coexist in my brain.

In my opinion, the process of discovering the problem and solving it is much more important in communication design, than the final outcome. Therefore, designer should not just follow the ideas from client, but should let the client know appropriate design process, to retain the same communication as possible. Design is not just simply an accompanying relationship, but more into the value created in the business strategy and market competition.

When I start the visual communication process, I am not purely a designer but more as a creative director. I start to make sketches first as a designer, but never execute on hand and simply use my brain and mouth. (Laugh)

In the final stage of design, I pay much attention to the tiny finishing details on 0.1 mm, just like what I am working for my experimental works, which is the best training for being a graphic designer, the finishing details is extremely important in visual communication.

Please share with us your personal experience of collaboration of VQ Magazine in 10 years ago.

When I first met Tommy in the “Eight Graphic Designers from Hong Kong” in 1993, he came to my studio and had a great chat on design. Tommy often rushed through the greetings and gets to the point quickly. I treat him as a reliable person on such an open and direct conversation between us. A few years later when I contributed to VQ Magazine, he had his solo exhibition in Tokyo.

He gave me a title: Orient Game. I rotated the map by 180 degrees and inverted the land and ocean, to make the Mainland China looked like a huge pool. Finally I created an image of a woman golfer knocking the ball to China.

In fact, Osaka was also a candidate city to host 2008 Olympic Games apart from Beijing. Appointed by Osaka City government, I design the “Bid Book” to International Olympic Committee. After I finished the color proof of this project, I went to Beijing for an exhibition.

At that time, Beijing was hot for Olympic Games, and my intuition was that Beijing must won the host of the 2008 Olympic Games. History would account for such a developing country, and just as the poster I designed for Orient Game: the woman golfer was knocking the ball to China. It simply implied that China would be the hosting country. Of course this idea was kept secret from Osaka, perhaps it was my design that made Osaka lost the host. (Laugh)

 Please share with us your personal experience of collaboration of “ARTMO” project with Tommy Li in Shenzhen.

It is great pleasure to work with someone you can trust. With a common goal we made for our efforts, and I enjoyed much for my role. It sounds like making a movie where director, actor, lighting engineer and other team members take important roles and collaborate with one another. I was responsible for designing the theme of the brand in this matter. It is designed for a Chinese mattress brand, to open up a new market for their products, I created patterns graphics that went along with each specific theme and I fully enjoyed the process because I was able to create the experimental works.

One thing I remembered most was one night when we finished the site visit of the factory in Shenzhen, Tommy was driving his Toyota Soarer 430SCV convertible and he was kept telling me how he like Hong Kong, while he was playing his favorite local female canton-pop, across the beautiful night skyline from Shenzhen to Hong Kong.

 From a Japanese designer’s point of view, please share with us your comment on Tommy Li’s “Black Humor” visual approach appeared in his works.

Humor is deep with cultural values. Humor can make someone laugh, yet it can make someone angry. I don’t think what Tommy simply expresses through the posters is black humor. The narrow sense of black humor contains superiority and cynicism, however, his works visualize accurate and objective critical spirits, represent the values of humanity, surpassing culture and regions, and are conveyed to people.

I have reinforced the imagination relationship with Hong Kong and Tommy’s growth. He is standing on the opposition between east and west, past and present, commercial and creative, unique expression and mathematic visual communication, speed and stillness, audacity and tenderness. The concept of contradiction is the key to the diversity and constant creativity appeared in his works.