City has designs on itself

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Next month, design professionals from around the world will flock to Hong Kong for the 10th edition of the Business of Design Week, sharing tips on how design can improve the fortunes of all kinds of businesses.

The public, meanwhile, can take in art, music and design exhibitions at Detour, a design festival in Central whose popularity has grown by leaps and bounds since it was launched four years ago.

Both events are just two highlights in a packed calendar of design festivals, conferences, awards and exhibitions. That means one thing: it's a good time to be a designer in Hong Kong.

'Some of the world's major design firms are coming this way,' says William To, project director of the Hong Kong Design Centre. 'They understand the unique position of Hong Kong in the whole of China. A lot of them are moving their businesses or setting up shop in this part of the world.'

As a result, he says, more Hong Kong students are pursuing careers in design than ever before. 'Parents understand design a lot more, so they're letting their kids go into design school,' he says.

Postgraduate studies in design are available at three institutions in the city. The Savannah College of Art and Design, a private American university, opened a campus in Sham Shui Po last year providing master's programmes in graphic design, animation and photography. Then there's the Hong Kong Design Institute, which offers a mix of foundation courses, diploma programmes and undergraduate degrees in a wide range of disciplines, from advertising to jewellery design.

The most venerable local design institution is Polytechnic University's 1,200-student School of Design, whose graduates include fashion designer Vivienne Tam, brand guru Freeman Lau Siu-hong and Shanghai Tang's chief home designer, Millicent Lai.

Rather than divide its courses into the usual categories, such as graphic or product design, PolyU's one-year Master of Design programme is split into five areas of concentration: design education, design practices, design strategies, interaction design and urban environments design. 'It's an approach that cuts across the traditional disciplinary divisions,' programme director Tim Jachna says.

'It's unorthodox but extremely relevant to the realities that designers face. It allows them to take on positions of more responsibility in which this kind of cross-disciplinary vision can be applied. They can become agents of change.'

Students of interaction design, for instance, focus on how to improve the way that people use and access information. This applies as much to physical environments as it does to computer systems and software. Students include everyone from product designers to software developers.

One current student is computer programmer Cedric Sam, who is reading the programme part-time. 'I'm interested in the way designers think and approach solution-finding, and want to complement what I already know as a technical person,' he says.

Last year, Sam and his fellow students worked with Pok Oi Hospital in Yuen Long to develop a system for ethnic minority patients who don't speak English or Cantonese to communicate with hospital staff members. He and two classmates also won a HK$30,000 award for a project in which they applied the principles of social networking to a real-world space, by creating a portal that allowed people in two separate spots to interact playfully.

Sam still has a year left before he graduates, but he already feels that what he has learned at PolyU has helped him with his day-to-day work. Recently, he received acclaim in his native Canada for developing a series of interactive maps based on the country's electoral data, including election results and contributions to political parties.

'I have not finished my degree, but I think it has helped by teaching me how to organise my ideas and present to clients,' he says.

On the other side of Kowloon, the Savannah College runs an upstart postgraduate programme of 17 students from the imposing environs of the former North Kowloon Magistracy. It offers one-year Master of Arts and two-year Master of Fine Arts programmes.

'The university's vision is for SCAD Hong Kong to become the leading site for the study of digital media in Asia,' the school's vice-president, John Rowan, says. 'This vision will play a valuable role in helping Hong Kong develop into the leading centre for the creative industries in Asia.'

At PolyU, students are drawn in roughly equal numbers from Hong Kong, mainland China and other countries. Though many local students interested in design might have been tempted to study abroad in the past, Jachna says, their best bet is now Hong Kong.

'If you study in the US or UK, you design there but it's made here [in China]. You don't have this contact with the point of production,' he says. 'Hong Kong is evolving. Anyone who is participating in it now has a role in defining what will eventually be one of the world's centres of design.'