Hong Kong’s hungry tigers bare their talents

Recognised as one of the ten most important services in Hong Kong, design no longer depends on plagiarising market leaders, but is producing its own original breed. Clare Dowdy reports

“The demand for good design has never been greater in Hong Kong. With its particular position in world trade, industry is well-placed to take advantage of a new breed of design professional.”

So reads Tsing Yi Technical College’s introduction to its design department’s relationship with local industry, and the changing role of design among the so-called Asian tigers.

Amid the turmoil and apprehension generated by next year’s handover to China, the first student cohort from the three-year-old graphic and industrial design courses graduates this term and has a higher diploma show kicking off today.

Peter Fossick, UK-born course leader for industrial design, acknowledges the change in demands on Hong Kong designers: “Design isn’t seen as a profession but as piecemeal. A lot of the work involves copying the market leaders from elsewhere.

“That is now changing and clients are demanding conceptually strong designers, which we are trying to develop, along with technically strong designers.”

This new approach comes as the design industry is suffering a downturn because manufacturers are leaving Hong Kong to set up in the cheaper labour markets such as China, says Fossick.

“It’s still a buoyant market for designers [compared with the UK] but the wages are lower, and you don’t get the ‘ivory tower’ European design thinker. It’s much more blood and guts,” he says, as the product turnover is so high.

With the fall in home-grown industry set to continue, Tsing Yi’s 80 graduates have benefited from the department’s strong links with the sector, says Fossick.

An initiative, titled Industrial Partnership, encourages client companies to supply briefs for students and sets up work placements.

And once it comes to the recruiting season, graduates are supported by Design Link. Set up a year ago, Design Link has forged formal contacts with industry and business in Hong Kong and China.

“Already the students are being snapped up by industry through Design Link,” says Fossick, who established the department’s industrial liaison unit.

And a national trade organisation has also taken up the challenge. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council is promoting design internationally after the government identified it as one of the colony’s top ten services.

However, design was only included after the local design industry twisted the government’s arm when it was omitted from the original list of ten priorities.

The Chartered Society of Designers in Hong Kong joined forces with the design community to create Design Hong Kong, which undertook an independent study on the service sector and then lobbied government.

The promotion of design is now in the hands of “the most successful trade development council in the world”, says Fossick.

Meanwhile, the college plans to add interior design to its existing courses and is also considering introducing multimedia.

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