Putting Hong Kong on the world’s design map

|     Chitralekha Basu     |

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) – Are the city’s designers ready for the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution? Or are they already meeting it halfway? Chitralekha Basu talks to brand leaders, academics and industry watchers to find out.

A good design could help improve the quality of life in a city, taking it to the next level of building a sophisticated, metropolitan culture. Hong Kong is beginning to appreciate this. It’s evident in the niche but steady customer base supporting eateries like Grassroots Pantry and Mana!, who serve organic food-based artisanal cuisine while promoting the values of sustainable living.

It also shows in the popularity of more mass-market products like the mBots (mini robots controlled through coding), developed by the Shenzhen-based educational tools specialist Makeblock that thousands of children in over 600 Hong Kong schools are using. School curriculums are being redesigned to accommodate computer coding and artificial intelligence-assisted learning.

The successful resolution of form and functionality in a design is often the result of a joint effort between people from diverse fields. Design-oriented education programs “should not be confined to nurturing artists, designers or architects,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her maiden Policy Address in October, advocating interdisciplinary collaboration.

Such cross-pollination of ideas and sharing of resources is not uncommon in Hong Kong. For example, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparels (HKRITA) teamed up with the Hong Kong Sports Institute to develop training and competition outfits for the rowing team sent to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. “The costume now weighs less than 100 grammes,” said Yan Chan, the director of HKRITA.

Even as the buzz about a coming Fourth Industrial Revolution does the rounds, one wonders if Hong Kong with its amazing plethora of design brains is ready to take advantage of the growth opportunities the turnaround is likely to create.

Chan of HKRITA — an institute which has produced items such as GPS tracking-enabled jackets for elderly people and 3-D brassieres for prosthetic support — agrees that marketing these products on an industrial scale is not easy.

“Only big brands could do it, by first promoting the newly developed customised product and receiving bulk orders as a result,” said Chan. “We create a prototype which the 3-D printer copies and in the long run the costs are much cheaper,” she adds, outlining the possibilities of an industry-institute tie-up.

The multinational clothing brand H&M is supporting HKRITA’s project for upcycling used materials. “The investment is directly from the H&M Foundation. This benefits the whole textile industry,” said Chan. “Then the intellectual property, the research and development and the brain informing the technology are all from right here in Hong Kong.”

Makeblock’s mBot, a device operated through computer coding, has been introduced in over 600 Hong Kong schools. – PHOTOS: CHINA DAILY/ANN
Eateries like Mana! do a great job of promoting the values of sustainable living by serving organic food-based artisanal cuisine
Caleb and Joshua Ng believe in personalising the coffee-drinking experience of every customer who visits Common Ground

Service design is hot

Eric Yim, chairman of Hong Kong Design Council, who started DesignXcel — an annual coming together of the design schools across the city to showcase their work to prospective buyers — said the field of opportunities for the city’s design graduates is growing.

Then, he hastens to add, every design professional from the city cannot expect to find a job “necessarily on the same street where one lives”. “There is the Chinese mainland to tap, and the Asean countries, the second-largest market for Hong Kong,” he suggests.

Yim would like the new design professionals in the city to try and expand their horizons, not just spatially but also in terms of looking beyond the disciplines they might have trained in.

“Ninety per cent of Hong Kong industries comprise the service industry,” said Yim. “There are a lot of opportunities for designers in service designing. In the hospitality industry, service design is applied long before the client actually steps into the property. It’s about the experience one can deliver before, during and after the service.”

As an example he cites Common Ground, a coffee shop in Central. Tucked away in a shaded nook as one walks up the steps of Shing Wong Street, the cafe is about making value additions to the experience of coffee drinking in a classy, understated way. Common Ground is the brainchild of brothers Caleb and Joshua Ng, who gave up a career with Merrill Lynch in California to start a food consultancy in Hong Kong. “They make the coffee in front of the customers and talk to them personally, about the journey of a coffee bean,” said Yim. The brothers’ background of studying economics at the University of California, Los Angeles seems to have helped. “They know how to position themselves as coffee ambassadors,” said Yim.

Such attempts at giving what’s essentially a business transaction the top-spin of community bonding may not be that new. The model could be traced back to the traditional tea-house culture in China. By the time the Fourth Industrial Revolution makes mass-customisation affordable, each consumer will be looking to buy personalised goods which would, ideally, reflect who he is. By subtly linking up coffee history with a traditional Chinese ritual, the brothers Ng have already taken a few steps down that road.

Bespoke in the digital era

The idea of bespoke has changed in the post-mass-production era. To breathe fresh life into Hong Kong’s small bespoke tailoring establishments, which had begun losing customers to branded clothing, HKRITA evolved a standardised measurement system. “We call it paper patterning system,” said Chan. “It’s an aggregate that helps translate physical measurements into the paper pattern without having to measure up the wearer. You’re allowed one fitting and it usually works.”

“This is a way of combining handed-down knowledge with high technology and translating these into the end products which cost less than bespoke,” she adds.

The ways of marketing bespoke merchandise are changing too. Anna Garner, who sells individually commissioned bes-poke items of household decor, handcrafted by some of the finest artists and designers from Europe, through her online portal — the Garnered, recently opened a pop-up retail store for just a month in Hong Kong’s Landmark. The idea was to humanise online shopping, to renew the appeal of touching before buying.

“We sell online, which is usually such a fast convenient way to shop, but in many cases, our products are made to order and therefore require a lead time of up to six weeks,” said Garner. “So despite being in a fast-paced online environment, we offer our customers a ‘slow’ pace and encourage the enjoyment in that slowing down. In fact, people stepping in during our workshops at the Landmark pop-up commented on how meditative it was.”

She is looking to livestream interactive sessions between designers and interested customers in the future. “The possibilities of new digital marketing are infinite, and I find this contrast with the more traditional crafts and methods we are working hugely dynamic and exciting,” Garner adds.