Huaren design needs re-thinking or it will remain superficial – Tommy Li


For those familiar with the design and branding industry, the name ‘Tommy Li‘ is synonymous with ‘brand doctor.’ Each of Li’s brilliant, prolific, and award-winning graphic designs stem from his thorough understanding of the market and human emotions, allowing him to ascertain the needs of his clientele before even they are aware of them. Yet, in Li’s 15 years of brand management, he has never forgotten the initial intentions behind his design work.

Li believes that contemporary huaren designers should devote themselves to creating products that will make a great impact on the market and on the lifestyle of consumers. It is in this way that huaren designed products and huaren ideals can reverberate with the people and perform well in the marketplace. Li spoke frankly about the beginning of his career, saying that although he designed over 150 posters, many of which were award-winning, he remained frustrated that his works did not reach the masses. He also realized that designs that only convey messages through visual means, do not make a significant impact on huaren society, regardless of how fascinating they may be. As a result, designers (and by association, design itself) lose value.

For a designer, being inconsequential is not only regrettable, but also detrimental to his or her survival in the industry. Li devoted himself to branding in order to cultivate a force that he thinks all designers should possess.

In reference to his 15 years of devotion to branding, Li says, “I wanted to create works that are influential, which is why branding was the optimal route to realizing and fulfilling my design ideal.” By switching fields, from graphic design to brand consultancy, he was able to examine and understand huaren society from a fresh perspective. Today, Li notes, designers have a high status in society, so becoming a designer is a sought after career choice for many university graduates. However, there is much more to being a designer than simply living a glamorous and enjoyable life; designers should take the initiative to invoke an individual’s subjectivity. For example, a designer should be concerned with thoughtfully improving products–making them more affordable and more functional–to give consumers a better, more convenient product experience.

As Li further explored the subject of brand development, he noted that it would be lamentable if, over the course of two centuries, a culture only had five historic brands still in existence. Such a small number would be disastrous to the preservation of a nation’s culture. Traditional brands play an essential role in the inheritance of classic designs and popular culture. Yet nowadays, our cultural preservation is “bankrupt,” he says, a phenomenon that has inspired Li to make “reigniting the life of old brands” one of his missions.

After many years working in branding, Li has come to the conclusion that the two objects most inextricably linked to the huaren community and lifestyle also happen to be the two things that are most in need of reinvention: tea and traditional teaware. The present huaren market faces the issue of aging head-on. We cannot deny that amidst a forceful tide of tirelessly transforming markets, the progress of traditional objects and old brands have gradually come to a halt. Meanwhile, products and brands that meet the demands of the market continue to move forward. It is also clear that traditional products such as tea and teaware are, by and large, purchased by an older demographic. The younger generations do not regard these objects as a necessary part of their lifestyle, while in fact, this could not be further from the truth. It has fallen upon the shoulders of branding professionals such as Li to help these old brands–purveyors of the finest traditional huaren products and distillers of the essence of huaren culture–by infusing them with a new vitality, so that they can reconnect with the Millennial Generation.

As a judge for the Visual Communication Category of the Golden Pin Design Award 2014, Li was full of praise for the finalist entries. The high level of design prowess he observed is a testimony to the overall level of professionalism that exists in the huaren design community, he says. However, he also regrets that younger huaren designers seem to have lost touch, to some degree, with huaren culture. Their understanding of Eastern elements seems to be confined to calligraphy and ink-and-wash landscape paintings. To Li, it seems that audiences only consider a work to be ‘huaren design’ when these elements are incorporated.

Perhaps the reason for this phenomenon, he notes, is that symbolic Eastern elements are so readily identifiable that designers simply appropriate them into their designs without stopping to consider the consequences. On the other hand, certain styles of Western design, such as those seen in design from the Netherlands or Great Britain, do not necessarily need to reference ancient fonts or Shakespearean elements, for example, for the inherent culture to resonate with an audience. Today, huaren design and design thinking dwells too much in the superficial elements of the culture, and on some levels, Li believes that huaren design is failing to progress. Perhaps the most pressing issue facing contemporary huaren designers is how they can reflect on their journey to the present day and begin to make some true breakthroughs in design.

About Tommy Li

Tommy Li is a new generation brand consultant and designer from Hong Kong. He is famed for his unique style and his bold use of dark humor. Working throughout Hong Kong, China, Japan, and Italy, Li is a shining example of the few in his field that have succeeded in the international market. Li graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, and has since garnered close to 600 awards for his work. Tommy Li Design Workshop was named one of the 2009-2010 Top 10 Branding Companies in China by China’s Interbrand website. In 2008, Li founded the first creativity oriented online radio station in Hong Kong, called Radio dada. He was cited by the best-selling design magazine in Japan, Agosto, as the single most influential graphic designer of the next decade in Hong Kong. Most distinct amongst his many accomplishments are his 2007 Gold Pencil from The One Show in New York and his World Outstanding Chinese Award from the United World Chinese Association in 2008. Since 2005, he has been a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). In 2010, in collaboration with Swire Properties, Li held a solo exhibition, “Visual Dialogue – Tommy Li and Exhibition of Works Over 20 Years” at ArtisTree in Hong Kong.

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