Sandy Choi by Jon Lowe

Growing up in Hong Kong, Sandy Choi had no idea he was going
to lead one of the country’s premier graphic design
consultancies, boasting high profile clientele such as HSBC and
Marriott International. In fact, he didn’t even know he had
a talent for art. “Boarding school in the UK changed my life,”
he admits. “In Hong Kong, I didn’t attend art classes, and
I didn’t even try drawing until my “A”-Level.”

It was at Rishworth School in Halifax that “a nice lady teacher”
encouraged him to pick up the pencil that would shape his future.
The then-16-year-old threw himself into art studies, and
in particular, figure drawing, even taking extra evening classes
in town. But it wasn’t long before his Hong Kong pragmatism
kicked in. “One day, I asked the teacher how I could make some
money out of art, and the best answer was graphic design.”

There followed a one-year foundation of art courses, and then
admission to London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins College
of Art & Design (School of Art) in 1980. However, he wasn’t
prepared for the uber-trendy, post-punk aura of the place.
“At my interview I wore a suit and tie, and took my portfolio.
They thought I was weird!”

While never wavering in his goal of making commercial art, Sandy
found the liberated teaching methods of Saint Martins to
his taste. “It had a very different style. Lessons were often
outside the classroom, such as taking a camera and spending
an afternoon at the National Theatre. It opened my eyes: I learnt
that graphic design is about problem-solving, not pretty pictures.”
He cites the Swiss International Style as a formative influence.
“There needs to be a message or an idea. Now, I tell my designers
to know what they’re going to do before sitting in front of
the computer.”

While at Central Saint Martins, Sandy also mixed with the
right crowd, including Alan Fletcher, the renowned founder of
Pentagram studio. “Alan introduced me to Henry Steiner,
the most famous graphic designer in Hong Kong at that time,
who had created the HSBC logo. After graduation, I returned to
Hong Kong and eventually worked for Henry for a couple of years
– a critical experience.”

A difficult and penniless stint as a freelancer was followed
by seven years with advertising agency Ball Partnership, working
on brands such as Puma and Toshiba. “This was not typical
local advertising, it had more of an international flavour,”
he reflects. “Ball Partnership was creative-driven – even the
Chairman, Mike Chu, was a creative person.”

In 1996, he spent a year in Shanghai working for JWT, one of the
world’s foremost marketing communications firms. However,
the experience was fraught with uncertainty, as he found himself
leading a troop of graphic greenhorns. After a year, he headed
back to Hong Kong, and in what was an important time for both him
and the then-British territory, set up his own company,
Sandy Choi Associates, in 1997. Five months later, the Asian
economic crash struck.

Unlucky as it seemed, Choi came through with a hard-learnt lesson –
keep business operations small. His studio is just a couple
of rooms,and his office doubles as the meeting room – albeit with
a stunning view of Happy Valley. What is not small is the
company’s vision. Recent successful – and artistically fulfilling –
commissions have included a company brochure for Designlink,
and a promotional brochure for Tai Tak Paper Co’s Mohawk line
of paper, which he describes, rather geekily, as a “dream project”.

Yet, Sandy is unwilling to advocate graphic design as a bright
career move. The future of the industry in Hong Kong looks uncertain,
he feels. “There are now many graphic designers and many more in
the universities but I’m not sure if the business can take that many
more graduates –and, as a current guest lecturer, I’ve doubts of
the quality. They seldom ask questions. But when I think about it,
perhaps I was the same!”

Sandy’s own future will probably see him attend to a few long-cherished
yearnings. “I may be in a mid-life crisis. I want to explore other things –
those with a personal touch. I treasure handmade things.

Interview by Jianping He

Why did you choose graphic design as your profession?
Because I am passionate about graphic design and love doing it.

How is graphic design present in your life?
I truly appreciate ‘good’ design – it constantly touches
every aspect of my life, as such, graphic design is a part of
and an extension of this appreciation which informs my life.

Where does your design inspiration come from?
From daily life, the local environment and the world around us.
From a design perspective, it comes from the Swiss graphic design
of the 50s, in particular, the work of Müller-Brockmann.
His thinking, rigour, discipline and clarity established and set
the foundations of a design system that essentially is difficult
to improve on.

Last but not least, wit and humour… it’s very important.

How many years of graphic training have you received?
3 years of formal training for my graphic design degree from
Saint Martin’s in London. But more importantly, the years following
my graduation since school and a degree alone cannot define
a graphic designer. While school may teach ‘some’ things,
there are other areas they cannot teach. Good graphic design
is an on going process of learning and experience i.e. it is
in the doing itself.

Does your own cultural background account for
the main influence in your design?

Naturally, Hong Kong and its local flavour must have served
as a basis – from the visual stimulus and colours of our culture
and environment to our food. I also remember my fascination
with old Chinese signs and the different styles of the characters.

In addition, I feel the chaos and confusion of the physical environment
in Hong Kong played a part in influencing my design sensibility
and my desire to use design to create clarity and order to improve
the environment.

Does literature, theatre, music or any other subject
contribute to your work?

I’m not directly and consciously aware of it, but that
does not mean that it doesn’t play a part in contributing to my work.

Among the three, music is essential and has always been a part of my life.
I listen to it continuously at work and home.

In literature, the books I read are mainly non-fiction – from historical,
biographical, prose, essays, to art, design and music.

To be honest, I haven’t really analysed this aspect in my work.

Who would you name as the greatest master of graphic design?
If I have to mention one designer, I would say Paul Rand. But it isn’t
synonymous with that of the ‘greatest master of graphic design’ as
I don’t think in those terms. I remember how excited I was when I first
read “Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art” in 1985. It’s not just visually,
his thinking, wit and simplicity has been very influential.

Besides design, what other hobbies do you have?
Food, music of which I have a reasonable collection of jazz and
the classics, and the cinema. And I used to really enjoy playing soccer.

RMM Interview

How does a low profile designer like yourself feel about
being one of the favourite local designers in HK?

What an embarrassing question! While I’m certainly delighted
by the kudos and greatly appreciate the recognition, this question
seems to be more fiction than fact.

What do you look for when hiring young designers?
A passion for design. To have dreams in one’s life… Of course
they have to be interested in working with me.

OK. Lets start afresh.

What is the ‘right attitude’ to learn design?
Spontaneity is one of the most important. If you like it,
you’ll naturally study it seriously and even become obsessed by it.
Also, honesty is just as important… when you’re creating
you have to truly express your own viewpoint and preference,
and not be swayed to change in order to gain the approval
of others.

What is the best and the worst conditions
for designing in Hong Kong?

The best is that Hong Kong is a very unique and interesting city.

There are plenty of bad conditions, for example, our society
is too materialistic, we lag behind in our appreciation of art
and its endeavours, our understanding of design is
not comprehensive enough, rents are too expensive, etc.

How did you enter London Central Saint Martins?
It was my art teacher for A Levels who suggested that I study
graphic design. I’ll tell you something funny – I was the only
interviewee who wore a suit and tie at Saint Martin’s.
It was embarrassing. I’m not sure why I was accepted. In the
mid 80′s Saint Martin’s hadn’t merged with Central School
of Art yet, we had classes in the school building at Covent Garden.
It’s no longer there. I was the only Asian student in the class
at that time. Alan Fletcher was our external assessor. David Ellis
from Why Not Associates and Nick Sharratt, the illustrator of
children’s books were my classmates. In fact, fashion design was
St Martin’s most famous faculty. John Galliano’s fashion show
caused quite a stir in his final year.I chose Saint Martin’s
because it had a stronger creative environment.

But to me, the culture of graphic design in England at that time
was more inspiring than the course itself. Neville Brody,
Pentagram, 8vo, Peter Saville, Minale & Tattersfield,
David King and Trickett & Webb, etc… all of their unique
talents flourished and bloomed.

Henry Steiner when he once mentioned your name spoke very
highly of you. How do you feel about it?

Really smug! (I’m joking.)

I am very happy although I believe there might be others who would
disagree with him.

I still remember being overjoyed for a whole week when I first read
Henry’s prologue in my book ‘The Last Designer’!

Could you tell us some unforgettable phases during your
studies in design?

I loved to attend workshops when I was still studying.
For example, the Graphic Workshop sponsored by D&AD. I could
directly communicate with outstanding designers and learn from
doing projects. Among them were the now deceased Marcello Minale
and Martin Lambie-Nairn who designed Chanel 4 identity. I loved
the design of that certificate very much and still keep it.
I started to develop an interest in Typography in the library
of Saint Martin’s.

In my days of working at advertising agencies, I came to
understand the importance of conceptual thinking. Working for
Mike Chu had broadened my horizons. Design is a profession
which requires life-long learning.

Any favourite local designer(s)?
Without a doubt, Henry Steiner is certainly the most
representative Hong Kong designer.

I also have a great respect for all enthusiastic designers,
particularly those working under an environment in Hong Kong
which is not particularly conducive to creativity –
it’s not easy.

I appreciate the young generation as well like Hung Lam, Milkxhake
and pillandpillow who are completely devoted to creativity.

What is your favourite Hong Kong culture? What is your
least favourite Hong Kong culture?

I like its colonial character and the local cafes.

I dislike its ‘culture of buttering up’, dislike the tastelessness
of Hong Kong’s luxury residential properties and their penchant
for ostentation.

What advice can you offer to design school graduates?
I would quote a line from the deceased designer Tibor Kalman,
“Rules are good. Break them.”

What would you like to say to Hong Kong?
This topic is too big. I can only hope that Donald Tsang
can really do his job well.

It’s soon going to be the 11th Anniversary since Sandy Choi
Associates established. What prospects are you looking at
in the future?

Time flies and we’re stepping into our 11th year. We have
no plans to expand our company and will maintain an operation
of about 10 people which we think is more suitable for the
way we work. In terms of creativity, I find myself at a crossroad
and desperately need some excitement. I also hope I can
have more opportunities to communicate with young designers
and students.

Describe a typical day for you.
I go to the office around 10:00 am but the work and time
spent varies daily. At home, I always catch up with Angela for
a drink and chat after 11pm.I really enjoy this time together
with her. Then it’s off to bed around 1am. I try my best not to
work during weekends as it is always my family day.

What do you usually do when you fail to come up with
any ideas?

I do nothing. I go to sleep if possible.

What kind of plans do you have in the future?
I have this urge to organize a Sandy Choi exhibition, an overview
of certain periods. Please let me know if you have a suitable
venue and sponsor.

What kind of a child were you back in the old days?
I was very naughty from P.1-P.3 but my academic result was very
good and I was always in the top three in the whole year.
My mother was my form master at that time. She once locked me
in a dark room for playing truant. In retrospect, I really have
no idea how my mother felt at that moment. By the time I was in P.4,
my conduct had improved however my academic result was just
average –very strange. Also, I had a passion for football since
childhood. I would kick anything – beach balls, table-tennis balls,
soft drink cans and caps, paper balls… even slippers, etc.

Where is your favourite place in Hong Kong?
I like to be at home and in the office.

The Last Designer, Henry Steiner

For someone who once didn’t know what “graphic design”
was, Sandy Choi has become a remarkably skilled and informed

He was in a Yorkshire school where he’d been sent to study
computer science or civil engineering after typically having no
exposure to Art or Music at his Hong Kong middle school.
A discerning and sympathetic art teacher saw promise in him.
She suggested he take his portfolio down to London and try for
the foundation year at St. Martin’s. Sandy wasn’t too sure
what she had meant by graphic design, but gave it a go, and
was accepted.

This story reminds me of Pierre Mendell describing his
inability to find a calling to satisfy him. With nothing to lose,
he enrolled in the school of applied art in Basel. On his
first morning he was given a pencil, a large sheet of paper,
assigned a visual problem to solve, “and I was happy.”

Later Alan Fletcher, my classmate at Yale and Sandy’s
external assessor at St. Martin’s, on learning that Sandy was
going back to Hong Kong, suggested he look me up. At that
interview I told Sandy I was uninterested in paper training
fresh graduates. Since he had grabbed his diploma and run back
to Hong Kong without any practical experience in London,
I suggested he work for a year with Kumar Pereira,
an ex-employee with his own practice, to learn some basic
realities and then come back. Precisely a year later he did and
began a two-year stint in my studio, working, he recalls,
on the Dairy Farm manual, annual reports for the MTR and
Hongkong Land.

What did he learn from me? Not much, he says, and I was not
easy to work with. (My company was considered such a rigorous
training ground that its nickname was Shaolin Ji, after
the tough kung fu temple.) Having now had his own studio for
five years, he sees how demanding one has to be to get
good work from one’s staff.

Sandy’s office is in basic white, one wall covered by
a large bookcase; he has actually read all of his design books.
An orderly, sparse work table. Some posters rectilinearly
aligned on the floor including a recent acquired Tomaszewski.
An esthetic ambiance rooted in the 50’s, familiar and
in which I feel perfectly at home.

He quotes by heart a passage where Paul Rand recommends
simplicity, honesty, objectivity and industry. He thrives on
bringing visual clarity to confusing material and would love
to work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in-house for
one year doing information architecture. His design pantheon
includes Bayer, Cassandre, Lissitzky, Müller-Brockmann,
Chermayeff, Tanaka, Tschichold. I wonder at how Sandy acquired
his deep sense of “contemporary classicism”.

His speakers are playing Kind of Blue by his favourite
musician, Miles Davis. On display is a framed lithograph by
Antoni Tapiès in a style much looser than his design work
but which, along with the work of Jackson Pollock, he feels
has some affinity with Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
While the love of jazz and abstract expressionism may seem
paradoxical, he is at heart an orthodox modernist and
as such at odds with the visual chaos of Hong Kong advertising
and the risk-free, tasteless locally designed architecture.

Sandy remembers when he worked on finished mechanicals for
my annual report page spreads how, even though they were pasted
up on thin card sheets, the stacks were massive. Today we
have the computer which allows us to organize the same materials
but much faster, without needing any storage space for
camera-ready boards. We also love it for the way it lets us see
immediately, finished and in colour, ideas which used to
take ages to render as comps. Laborious pastels, stats and rubber
cement discouraged making any changes, even if improvements.

This wonderful, fast, obedient machine can be the designer’s
most helpful friend. But it can also churn out lurid, fuzzy,
layered, illegible images, combining as many fonts and stock
photos as desired, maintaining Hong Kong’s visual pollution.
Teaching the computer and new software techniques have replaced
design training. Why should students be bothered with drawing
and conceptual thought when you can turn out, as Sandy says,
the “trendy wallpaper” which satisfies Hong Kong’s clients?

The simple minded Confucianism and lowballing style of our
educational system – deeply distrustful of spontaneity,
originality or awareness of design history – has spawned a lost
generation of practitioners who take inspiration only from
their terminal screens. An army of mouse appendages.

When well into his nineties, the American comedian
George Burns was known for dating a series of very young models
and starlets. Asked why he didn’t go out with women his own age,
he replied, “There are no women my own age.” I ask Sandy to
name some promising Hong Kong designers under forty. He can
think of none. I agree.

I ask him if he feels alone. The question puzzles him, “Why?”
“Well, because many designers feel misunderstood.” “I’m not that
difficult to understand,” he insists.

Yet the mystery of how Sandy developed his deliberate way of
working and his sure taste, persists.

Would Sandy consider working somewhere else, even though he
is at home here? Yes, in New York, San Francisco, London, Tokyo,
Kyoto. Only the last one seems an odd choice. Not a big city,
not a cauldron of modernity. Yet like Sandy, calm and confident;
emblematic of an obsession for order and a profound tradition
of Asian craftsmanship.

I hope he doesn’t go. He is living example of what design
can be about. Hong Kong needs him. We all do.

Mike Chu on Sandy Choi

It was a day in October, 1989 and I had gone down to the
11th floor to welcome a new art director on board. A month earlier,
Deb Coulsen, then head of Ball WCRS’ newly set up Direct
Marketing Division for theHongkongBank account, was interviewing
suitable candidates for an art director position. She had
brought three portfolios to show me. While all three contained
very competent work, one of them was definitely more special.
The work turned out to be from a young designer called Sandy Choi.
I will use the analogy of a young chef who is keener to
experiment with his ingredients, and hence brings fresh flavours
to his dishes. As opposed to an experienced but mediocre chef
who cooks up a safe and less exciting dish. Even in those
early years, Sandy as a young designer demonstrated his
good sense of typography, brave composition and use of colour.
And the results showed a lot of promise.

A year into his job, I asked Sandy if he was interested to be
art director for the Puma “Fly First Class” campaign that I was
working on. The task was left open after one of my art directors
went to start his own agency. The campaign was to be an
overseas shoot and Sandy welcomed the challenge to be involved
in his first film commercial. As fate would have it, this shoot was
about to change Sandy’s life. During the week’s filming in Hawaii,
my agency film producer Angela and Sandy became extremely
friendly with each other. And when the two suggested accompanying
me to L.A. to do the post production work, I was only too happy to
receive such support. Little did I know what my art director
and producer were up to. Happily for them, the two decided to get
married not long afterwards.

My loss of a capable producer is Sandy’s gain. Angela is now a
devoted wife, mother to a beautiful daughter and a capable partner
in Sandy’s office. Incidentally, that campaign also bore fruit to
a Kam Fan and a few Gold Awards at the ’91 4As Creative Awards.
In the years to come, Sandy’s work in advertising would win more
awards, and some, I’m happy to remember, in collaboration with me.

Working with Sandy is always enjoyable because we share many
common interests: jazz, film, love of books, travel, architecture,
the many disciplines of design and fine food. Sandy and I would
share recent experiences whenever we find a bit of free time.
Underneath his wide ranging interests is a man who is very focused
on his work. Perhaps it is this ability to draw inspiration and
knowledge from a vast resource of interests that has given his work
a worldly appeal. In private, Sandy is a quiet and gentle person.
And he goes about his job in a slow, orderly manner, shutting off
the chaos that may surround him. I have seen him work under
pressure and I have noticed this quality.

Some years ago, when Sandy asked me what my views were if he
was to leave his plum job as creative director of J Walter Thompson
Shanghai to start his own design studio in Hong Kong, I supported
his notion wholeheartedly. I knew too well that design ran
deep in his blood. To be able to find passion in one’s work, and to
be talented in it as well, is truly a godsend. Never mind the
risk of failing. But then, I knew Sandy would succeed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Sandy faced at the time was the need
to establish his identity as a designer. Hong Kong was going
through unprecedented changes, and clients were seeking practical
and economical solutions as opposed to aesthetic ones. To strive
for fresh, original work to be produced proved more difficult
than ever. The selection of work in this book is proof that Sandy
has risen to the challenge. His identity as one of Hong Kong’s
most promising and dedicated young designers is unquestionable.

The minimalist Japanese architect, Tadao Ando once remarked
that the difference between a good architect and a not so
good one is the ability to resist the temptation of the many choices
that are available. I happen to believe this applies to all
disciplines of design. And I think Sandy tacitly understands this.