Stella Lin Hui-yin sounds more like a philosopher than an award-winning creative talent when she explains how some of her whimsical multimedia presentations were inspired by nothingness. 'I want to give new meaning to zero,' says Lin, a visual communications graduate from Polytechnic University, of a presentation entitled The Transformation of Zero. 'It has no absolute value, but it can be powerful in an intangible way. For example, changing the way how you see the world will not change the world in a physical sense, but the world is no longer the same because you have changed how you feel.' Lin, 23, was among the winners at the latest Hong Kong Young Design Talent Awards, an annual contest organised by local tertiary institutions to identify and encourage emerging creative talent. The contest, part of the Business of Design Week programme, confers four awards, two CreateHK prizes for design students under 30 and two in the DesignSmart category for practising designers under 30. CreateHK and DesignSmart winners each receive HK$200,000 and HK$500,000, respectively, to support further studies or an internship abroad. As part of her winning portfolio, Lin also made a video, A Lacuna in Telephone Directory, which sought to illustrate the function of a phone book by combining illustration, calligraphy, photography, video-making and bookbinding. 'I created this carefree character who's searching for a phone book and filmed a video out of it,' says Lin, who now works for a Sheung Wan design studio. Emerging local designers have become increasingly versatile since the Young Design Talent contest began in 2005, says Hong Kong Design Centre design director Amy Chow Yuen-mei, who was among the judges. 'The line between different disciplines is getting blurred,' she says. 'In recent years, winners have broken away from the tradition that designers were accomplished only in their own field. Now you see, for example, graphic designers using new media and sound to express themselves because they are easily informed on trends and ideas.' Good designers should not confine themselves to one discipline, says Chow, 'but should be open-minded enough to find different ways to express themselves.' Dylan Kwok Tat-lun proved how flexibility and creativity can lead to new careers - and DesignSmart recognition. Described by Chow as 'an all-rounder', the 29-year-old trained and worked as an interior designer in Canada and Japan but became disenchanted with what he calls the 'banality' of clients' demands. Four years ago, attracted by the practical, minimalist approach of the Finns, he quit to pursue a master's degree in spatial design at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. 'The government is socialist in a way, but I found the Finnish people to be inextricably linked to the landscape,' he says. 'Both are simple, approachable and humanistic.' Kwok's experience in Finland piqued his interest in sustainable living and inspired his master's project, which formed part of his winning portfolio. Dubbed Urban AgriPuncture, it is a community garden facility in which residents can recycle their organic household waste into compost for plants. The structure, made of insulated glass to provide protection from Finland's winters, would help enliven urban areas by providing space for communal activity. Kwok also collaborated with Japanese textile designer Yuko Takagi to create a set of stylish wooden blocks made from eco-friendly birch plywood that can serve as double-sided shelves or seating and can be put together or taken apart without tools. 'Exhibition stands are usually dumped after use, but they take a long time to make,' says Kwok, now working as a freelance designer in Hong Kong. 'My design can be deconstructed and rebuilt according to space and different needs.' Kelvin Kung Tin-wing demonstrated similar green concerns when he won a CreateHK award for Cardboard No1, a simple yet elegant eco-friendly chair made of cardboard he built from DIY instructions bought online. Recognising that consumerism has led to the world's waste problem, Kung says that product designers can play a role in reducing the squandering of precious resources. 'We're responsible for creating all these products. That's not going to change,' says the 23-year-old, now a product designer in Shanghai. 'So I am looking for ways to create products that cause minimal damage to the environment. I care deeply about this because my future depends on it. I'd like to challenge the throwaway mentality by giving new life to things that other people consider rubbish.' Kung says he wants his products to not only look good but also to be user-friendly. 'I want to make it easy for [users] to apply or assemble because I see many products today are made with so-called high technology. To me, the best designs are always simple and easy to use,' Kung says. For his part, industrial designer Man Lai-hong simply wanted his prize-winning entry to be fun. After four years creating hi-tech robotic toys, the 29-year-old won a DesignSmart award for his Wirlo-ball, a swivelling shuttlecock that hovers in the air after being tossed. 'Remember how frustrated we become when we miss the shuttlecock as it comes down? I make it easy and fun for them. I don't just look at the product but how it's used, when I design a toy,' says Man, a designer at a robotic entertainment company. 'My job is not about selling anything but bringing joy to people, especially children. The sharing process is very important.' Describing many companies as overly conservative, the young designers say that their creativity is often stifled by their employers' emphasis on catering to established niches. 'It's common to have my ideas dismissed because decision-makers are often close-minded and unwilling to take risks,' says Kung. 'It's not easy to have your way. I miss the creative freedom of my college days.' For all her whimsy, Lin is pragmatic about meeting business needs. 'I treat it as another medium. If you stay true to yourself, you'll be able to express something of yourself, no matter what you do,' she says. 'Many budding designers are discouraged by a lack of support for their ideas. They just do what their bosses want - making products that sell,' says Man, who has started a group on Facebook to discuss their dilemma. 'I just want to raise awareness of the issues that we're facing, and remind our fellow designers of what design should be about.' And that means anything that can improve people's lives. For Kung, it's a matter of helping people solve everyday problems (creating 'something beautiful but useful at the same time'), while Lin, who has worked with autistic children, hopes to create teaching material that can help them. But Kwok takes a systemic view. 'I want to improve our living environment. That's how I can make a positive impact on a lot more people than as an interior designer,' he says. At the same time, he recognises that Hong Kong often suffers from a problem of over-design. 'There's always this need to build something new,' Kwok says. 'We're always keen to discard something when we should upgrade and strengthen what we already have.'