PolyU spinoff SDWorks helps students market their own designs

PolyU spinoff SDWorks offers up-and-coming designers an opportunity to profit from their own work instead of competing for an entry-level job

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 4:03am

The real world can be a letdown for design students. After three years of creating their own products and concepts at school, they enter the job market only to find entry-level drudgery.

"We saw many of them go to work for companies, working every day for 10 or 11 hours and only earning HK$10,000 [a month]," says Ernesto Spiccio- lato, a senior teaching fellow at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong's school of design. "Hong Kong is not that big, so the market is saturated. It's very competitive to find jobs."

What students needed was enterprise, Spicciolato realised. So instead of helping them find jobs with established design firms, he encouraged them to make their own work. "I saw our students making many products that could be commercialised, so I thought, 'Why let them die?'" he says. That was the inspiration for SDWorks, a programme that helps PolyU students bring their best designs to market. "[The school] gave me HK$20,000 to start," says Spicciolato. "They said, 'This is it - if your account remains positive, you stay open. If not, you close'."

Five years later, SDWorks is still in the black, with a roster of around 20 products designed by current and former PolyU students. SDWorks covers the production costs and shares intellectual property rights with the students, who receive a 7 per cent royalty on products sold directly through SDWorks' website. Spicciolato says the two best-selling products are a series of delicate sheet metal bookmarks designed by 2008 BA graduate Irene Kwong, which are inspired by traditional Chinese paper-cutting, and a necklace in the shape of a roast duck designed by Cindy Yu, who also graduated from the undergraduate design programme in 2008.

SDWorks' latest brand, Pomch, is a series of bags designed by 2011 graduates Jeffrey Leung and Felix Tai and released this year. "Pomch is named after the sound of the machine that makes the bags," said Leung. Each bag is made from black polyurethane and stamped with the three-dimensional imprint of a tool like a wrench or pliers. "It was inspired by industrial elements," says Tai. "The idea for our first wallet came from a door hinge."

Industry is one advantage Hong Kong designers have over those in other countries. "It's easy to put things into production with China so close," said Spicciolato. What's more difficult is setting up and marketing a brand, especially with so few points of sale for local design. In 2011, Spicciolato set up a course at PolyU called Design Direct that gives students the opportunity to develop their own brand of products.

That's how Timo was born. Conceived by Timothy Wan and Finnish classmate Oliver Lehtonen, Timo is a line of wristwatch-like men's bracelets that will be sold through SDWorks later this year. "No matter how expensive a watch is, people use it more as an accessory," said Wan. "So we decided to take the watch face out."

For budding designers, Design Direct and SDWorks offer a support structure they wouldn't get otherwise. Lecturers and fellow students offer critiques - Timo's designers were advised to refine their product's proportions, and Pomch clarified its branding and improved the quality of its material after pointers from students and teachers - and SDWorks helps students negotiate the tricky business side of design. In Timo's case, it found a manufacturer that could handle the anodising and machining needed to make the bracelets.

But launching a new product is always a gamble, especially for young designers. "The first attempt is always a bit of a failure, but you learn a lot from that," said Spicciolato. Once it's on the market, there's a risk a product will be copied by unscrupulous mainland Chinese manufacturers, as was the case with one of SDWorks' first efforts, Cheuk Kee Lai's Mirror Watch. "They copied it the month it came out, and now you can find it at the Ladies' Market for a tenth of the price," says Spicciolato.

Then there's the struggle to reach consumers. "After we send 20 or 30 e-mails [to design shops], we get just one or two replies," said Leung. Pomch is now being sold through SDWorks' online shop, the locally based buymedesign.com and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council's boutiques.

Leung said the Hong Kong Design Centre's regular Design Mart is another good opportunity to reach new customers. "The sales volume has been quite good," he said.

SDWorks selects student works only after it conducts surveys based on prototypes and it has made sure there aren't too many similar products already available. But sometimes the market behaves in mysterious ways. "Some objects didn't sell even one piece and others sold 1,000," said Spicciolato. "When an object can be a gift, it sells much better, but it's not very predictable."

Leung said it's still worth the risk. Before devoting himself to Pomch full-time, he spent a year designing phone cases for a local design company. "It was really boring," he said. "Now we're using our minds."