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HKFP Interview: Design guru Tommy Li on professionalism, 1997 and the East-meets-West fallacy

Tommy Li is a brand designer/consultant who graduated from the School of Design in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He was known for his “Black Humor” and “Audacious Visual” designs. Spanning Hong Kong, China, Japan, and Italy, he is one of the few designers to have penetrated the international market. Tommy Li Design Workshop was selected by Chinabico.com as one of the top 10 Branding Companies in China in 2008.

Speaking to HKFP at the 2016 Global Design Awards held by the Hong Kong Designers’ Association, Li expressed his views on the state of the design industry, and how the popular phrase describing Hong Kong, “East-meets-West”, is nothing more than a catchphrase.

tommy li

Tommy Li. Photo provided by 2016 Global Design Awards.

HKFP: Being the experienced and in-demand brand designer that you are, what do you think sets you apart from other designers? How does that affect how you choose your clients or projects?

Tommy Li: Finding customers is actually no different to finding a wife. It’s not about how beautiful, how good [she is], no, no, no! You need to find some who has the same mindset as you, to be your soulmate… I need to let them understand what kind of person I am. The prerequisite condition when I work with new clients is to tell them, “you listen to me”. But in the Chinese world, the person who is paying would say “you listen to me”.

Is it the Chinese world, or is it a worldwide phenomenon, that clients would call the shots instead of listening to you?

I worked in Japan for about 10 years and it’s slightly better there. They’re the ones paying, and if they don’t listen to what I have to say, they’re not able to fully utilise my profession. They know it, and they really listen. But in the Chinese world, the concept of a “master-slave relationship” is very strong. Of course, the use of the word “slave” is a little severe, but they [the clients] certainly think they are the masters… But there’s one thing that I’m certainly superior to my clients – and that’s why they should listen to me – is that I know people who are in the market. They may know their products inside out, but they don’t know what the people in the market want. That’s why you need to listen to me. And this strategy has made even some Chinese officials give way to me.

 Zen Ori

Zen Ori. Photo: Tommy Li.

In your presentation earlier, you mentioned that since Xi Jinping has started the anti-corruption campaign, clubhouses have been hit hard. In the project Zen Ori, you rebranded an extravagant, lavish clubhouse frequently visited by Chinese officials into one that advocates nature and healthy lifestyles. How has this affected the customer base of the clubhouse?

You know the tea they sell at Zen Ori is still very expensive! One lump of 30-year-old tea is sold for HK$250,000! But the whole clubhouse is upgraded. When customers visit, they feel that it’s high-class and healthy. The charges are still very expensive. The image and presentation are no longer old-fashioned.

Do Chinese officials still visit this clubhouse?

Officials are never going to not go to these places.

Even after the anti-corruption campaign?

They will still go. They’re not going to Starbucks to discuss the money they laundered. They won’t. Not even Four Seasons – they definitely still go to these clubhouses. I changed the image, but I still needed to protect the income of my client. As brand consultants, it’s not only the design, but also the business model that I help change. The goal is to make sure of the survival of my client financially, with a nicer image. As brand consultants, you also need to understand the people and the culture. I read a lot of books to understand the market, the history, the politics, the mindset of the citizens. It is a shame that a lot of designers rush to projects when they don’t know anything about the market.

tommy li

Tommy Li at the HKDA’s Global Design Awards 2016. Photo provided by 2016 Global Design Awards.

When you pick up a project which originated from a country you’re not familiar with, do you often collaborate with people that do? Is this common among other brand designers in the market?

Yes, there is a possibility for collaboration. Our regions include Hong Kong, China, Korea and United Kingdom. We work with different PR firms to get information from them. It is not possible to just pack your bags and rush to the place – the success rate would be low. I always think that the right partner could cover my limitations. If I don’t know something, I will recruit PR firms or even designers to collaborate. I look at end result more than just the company’s interests. If you see the end result, that is in the company’s interests. Some may appoint other companies and think they may lose some profit. If you have this mindset, you’re putting yourself further away from success… You need somebody to give a hand to you.

How do you feel about the future of the design industry in Hong Kong?

We have our advantages – we can do it in Hong Kong. The problem is whether people give up in the first round. Life is of course tough. The problem is what your values are. If you do your work well, the profits will come eventually… Profits weren’t my main concern at the beginning. It didn’t matter to me if my balance sheet was zero. Once I do my work well today, the profits will come in the future. I won’t be impatient. I won’t give up my values for immediate profits. From day one to today, I don’t think being in this industry is easy.

But it’s not because of the size of the market, but because of the mentality of designers [who] bend down at the start. The integration of mainland China and Hong Kong meant that we would almost certainly have projects in the mainland. We have a “three anti” policy – no drinking with clients, no going to night clubs, no trade under the table. Maybe there isn’t one company like that in 99 – people will think of you, as opposed to the other 99. I think this is even beneficial to us.

Tommy li

Photo provided by 2016 Global Design Awards.

How do you feel the 1997 handover has affected the design industry philosophically and ideologically?

It has immensely changed. Our pop culture is changing – it’s becoming more and more blurred and losing Hong Kong’s original culture. This is dangerous. Is this a policy of the Chinese government? I can’t really say because I’m not them… In the history of colonial Hong Kong, Britain produced a bunch of obedient people. Hong Kong has a very good service industry, and good salesmen. Being a salesman means you have to be a smartass. After ’97 the top government didn’t really say what you needed to do but the smartasses automatically adapted and adjusted. They would kiss your ass, and this is scary. Even without request from anyone, they would adjust, and I think this is stupid. Their designs won’t change but they would begin to lose themselves in the process. I will try and strike a balance. I don’t think localism is necessary because of the globalised world.

During the panel discussion earlier, you and others talked about ‘east-meets-west’. How do you feel about this label?

I think it’s a false proposition. When you sing a song, would you think about an “oriental tone”? No one would think that! When you make a sandwich, would you add a little “Toronto touch”? That’s crazy. You don’t need to think about this… “East-meets-west” is not a philosophy, it’s just a habit. All cultures are from language – same in Singapore and Hong Kong. Speaking with people from Shenzhen and Shanghai – you’ll notice the difference. Some people from Shanghai would add English words into their speeches… “East-meets-west” is a false proposition – there is nothing special about it.

HKFP is a media partner for the 2016 Global Designs Awards.

HKFP Interview: Design guru Tommy Li on professionalism, 1997 and the East-meets-West fallacy