‘If I ask what their dreams are, they can’t answer’: Eric Lau on choosing a creative career

Lau is now a designer and senior art director at a New York ad agency, but he didn’t discover his passion until he’d exhausted a few other obsessions first

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 3:47pm

Award-winning designer and art director Eric Lau Kwan-tai admits he wasn’t the best student.

As a secondary school student at Wah Yan College, Kowloon, he once told his physics teacher: “Studying all this is useless. I want to do design work and none of this is relevant.”

However, Lau, now 29, became close to that teacher while he worked on his early designs on school computers, and he still visits that teacher whenever he returns to Hong Kong from New York, where he now lives.

One of those early design projects was the cover of his school yearbook, which looks like a record player with a tone arm made from Lego. The idea is that secondary school life is like Lego: you can try all sorts of things, such as sports or music, and if you don’t like the result, you can always start again and try something else.

Lau entered the design into the prestigious Graphis international design competition and won a silver award in the books category. It was the first time a secondary school student had ever won a Graphis award.

Later, Lau left Hong Kong to study at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and is now the senior art director at the ad agency Sparks & Honey. He is hosting his first solo photography exhibition in Hong Kong until January 15, featuring his street photography from across North and South America and the Caribbean.

He has worked on many advertising campaigns, one notable example being a campaign for Lego and Star Wars in May 2013. His team made a life-sized X-wing fighter from more than 5.3 million bricks, making it the largest Lego sculpture in history.

Although Lau says he did not like school much, education means a lot to him: he lectures at Parsons and the Miami Ad School, and he often returns to his secondary school in Hong Kong to talk about creative careers and to mentor students interested in his line of work.

“When I was five, I asked my parents why I had to study and they said, ‘So you can get into university.’ I asked them, ‘Then what?’, and they said, ‘That would lead to a good career, so you can get married, and have children and then they can go to a good school and get a career.’ I said, ‘That sounds terrible.’”

He says students in Hong Kong shouldn’t feel pressured into studying subjects that don’t interest them. “A lot of my accounting friends tell me they don’t like what they’re doing. Once they started pursuing this line of work, they should have already known that they don’t like it. At every stage, you know what the result is going to be.

“My friends are talking about which Rolex to buy, or which car to buy. But if I ask them what their dreams are, they can’t answer. I wouldn’t have a concrete answer either, but I have ideas that I’m working on.”

You don’t have to wear a suit and work in an office to make a good living, in Hong Kong or elsewhere

Lau says schools and teachers should be encouraging students to pursue their interests and not get in the way. “You don’t have much time in secondary school – say you want to run in the Olympics, then you have to run every single day; if you want to be a musician, you should practise and listen to music every day.”

Lau’s own interests have evolved quite a bit. He spent his first two years of secondary school obsessively playing the clarinet, then got into video games and basketball, and discovered his passion for design afterwards. He interned at an ad agency in Hong Kong one summer and was impressed with how a photographer created powerful product shots with a camera and lighting. This sparked his interest in photography, but he later realised that he prefers street photography because it’s part of people’s lives.

“I rarely went to galleries or museums before I went to New York. You don’t have to go looking for street art – the art finds you. You might see some interesting graffiti on your commute or while you’re waiting for a bus or going to get coffee. Even though they don’t have the same protection as museum pieces, they still add colour to your life.”

He started an Instagram account for street photography and art, and whenever he travels, he seeks out lively neighbourhoods to get a taste of local life.

He recalls taking pictures of two people at a market in Panama after he bought them a chicken, and they later showed him their home and their neighbourhood.

“If I hadn’t paid for that chicken, I might not have seen the area where they lived. It was very poor and the police had warned us against going there,” Lau says. “But when you get there, you’ll see a lot of children and residents. It’s not very hygienic, there’s not a lot of ventilation, and that means even the locals might think it’s a dangerous neighbourhood. But if you look closer, you’ll see that it’s not the case.”

Another memorable place was Cuba, where he wandered around some residential neighbourhoods.

“We saw a grandfather with his grandson playing baseball, and I asked if I could join. I had never played baseball before. They let me play, and when I hit the ball, I realised that it was just a bit of scrap paper scrunched up into a ball. But they were having a lot of fun. I think that people in Hong Kong have a lot of material possessions, but we don’t have the same kind of satisfaction as those people do.

“Hong Kong has a lot of material riches, but we don’t have a lot of freedom, not freedom in the sense of people in China not having access to Facebook, but society puts invisible pressure on all of us, which is scarier, in a way.

"It inundates us with messages like if you can’t make enough money, you’re screwed; if you don’t own property by a certain age, you’re screwed.

“Everyone in Hong Kong is working on the means to live, but no one has stopped to figure out the meaning of their lives, and that’s sad. I think this is a kind of spiritual poverty. If you had unlimited money and you could achieve your dreams right away, then it’s not really a dream. If you won the lottery, does that mean you’ve done all you want to do in life?”

“Detour: From the Street of NYC to the Americas”, until Jan 15, Studio 83, Room A, 13/F Winning Centre, 46-48 Wyndham St, Central