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Prizewinning designer Toby Ng: Do awards help your business?

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There are a handful of graphic designers in Hong Kong who have won a plethora of awards in their field. However, how many are in their early 30s? Toby Ng is just 32. And he’s already the proud owner of a coveted British Design & Art Direction (or D&AD) Award, New York Type Directors Club Awards, Design for Asia Awards, Hong Kong Designers Association Global Design Awards and Germany Red Dot Awards, among many others. He was also named one of Perspective magazine’s 40 under 40 in 2014. You’d think these honours at such a young age would mean it’s easy for Ng’s company to quickly make it big. Wrong. Ng doesn’t rate awards when it comes to business.

Ng is the graphic designer, creative director and founder of Toby Ng Design, which has been based at theDesk co-working space in Sai Ying Pun for more than a half a year. Over the past decade he’s created an array of projects, with some of them gaining recognition and plaudits on an international scale, not least his famous The World of 100 infographic series. For his work, he has a shelf-full of awards but he says, when it comes to his business, these prizes don’t mean much at all. “Awards don’t really matter to me in terms of business,” he says. “They don’t bring in money. But, personally, they do mean a lot to me. They let me know that my work has been approved by the best creative designers in the field.”

“Awards let me know I’ve reached a certain standard,” he continues. “At one time you could have used them to give your business exposure. But because of the online world, everyone can get exposure easily now so awards aren’t as important. Plus, there are so many awards out there now. Of course, there are only a few in our industry that are like the Oscars, such as the D&AD Awards, because this is the standard you work for but winning awards really isn’t glamorous. It takes time and money to enter. But, on a personal level, winning them still makes me proud. I don’t mean stop going for awards, though! I mean to say that people must put winning awards into perspective when they are running a design business.”

Ng, who has been labelled ‘one of Hong Kong’s most promising graphic designers of his generation’, was born, bred and attended school in our city before heading to Oswestry on the England-Wales border for five years of secondary school. He then went to internationally celebrated art college Central Saint Martins in London for four years, graduating with a degree in graphic design. He spent another year in London after that, interning and freelancing as he tried to break into the graphic design industry. “I didn’t plan to come back to Hong Kong at that time,” he tells us, “because I just didn’t know about the HK industry. I wanted to live in the UK as I have a dual passport but, in 2008, the economic crisis in the UK got really bad. There just weren’t many proper jobs around in the creative design industry in the UK. Only internships.”

“Working in graphic design is really tough,” continues Ng. “You can’t stay interning as you have no income. So then, out of the blue, Hong Kong designer Sandy Choi emailed me. I’d been back to Hong Kong on holiday and had connected with a few key figures in the industry but I’d been told there were no jobs in HK either. However, Sandy, who is one of the best designers in the SAR and also graduated from Saint Martins, offered me a job so, despite my earlier plans, I came back in 2009. Sandy became my first boss. He became my mentor.”

Ng spent about three years with Choi. He says he ‘learned a lot’. “I was really curious about the design industry,” he says, “so I tried a lot of different things, from working with agencies and studios to branding and advertising. I was finding out what was suitable for me.” Ng says he then went to Singapore for a short time and became involved in a handful of large-scale branding projects. Next up was a two-year stint at Alan Chan Design Company, back in Hong Kong. He was involved in many projects under the famous designer before he branched out on his own with Toby Ng Design. “I’d always wanted to run my own company,” he says, “from day one. I’d spent all that time learning how to get to the point of opening my own business. A lot of designers graduate and immediately open their own studio or business. I’m old school. I needed to learn my trade. I thought ‘I’m 30. Now it’s time’.”

It’s now been two-and-a-half years in the business for Toby Ng Design. He was in a shared office in Kwun Tong before heading to theDesk last year for his own office space with up to four employees at a time. The company covers an array of graphic design areas, including branding, communications, print, digital and exhibitions. Projects have included creating a brand identity for Yau Ma Tei restaurant Kitchen Savvy as well as print materials for The Pavilia Hill luxury property in Tin Hau. One huge recent project has been creating the identity and the materials for the first design exhibition at the new Pavilion in West Kowloon’s ever-nearing-completion M+ development.

Brand identity for Yau Ma Tei restaurant Kitchen Savvy by Toby Ng Design.

But, in Ng’s opinion, none of his work is as famous as one little piece he did a good few years back. “I guess the work I’m still most known for is The World of 100,” he says. “This was one of my final year projects at Central Saint Martins and it became something much bigger than I’d ever expected. I wanted to do something on global issues and I did just that.” The World of 100 is a series of more than 20 infographics based on the supposition that that world is a village of only 100 people. Stark figures are played out through the simplest of designs, such as the map of the planet that shows that 61 people in this village live in Asia and just one in Oceania.

The World of 100 Postcards by Toby Ng Design.

“It went international,” says Ng. “It was in a lot of universities and libraries across the world, in textbooks and even UNICEF exhibited it, plus it was at New York’s MoMA as well as many more locations. It worked because it made complicated statistics simple, easy, informative and fun. I guess I kind of invented a new way to do infographics. They shouldn’t be complex. Perhaps I’m just a stupid guy who doesn’t understand things that are too complex, so this was a way I could understand important global figures.”

Another project Ng is proud of is Catching Moonbeams, a series of paper printing effects designed for Antalis Hong Kong to promote their black, grey and silver paper. He did it in 2015 and calls it a ‘simple concept’, namely using the texture of the paper along with designs of the moon from afar and close-ups of the surface to create a project that literally ‘catches moonbeams’ and is also about a ‘dream’. This is what won him the British D&AD Award. “I’m not an artist,” he says. “Artists create problems and then solve them. I solve other people’s problems. I’m a designer. And I’m also trying to be a businessman. A good one.”

Catching Moonbeams by Toby Ng Design.

Ng says it’s hard to run a business in Hong Kong due to our city’s aggressive market. “There are quite a few really good designers here in Hong Kong, “ he says, “but it’s nevertheless really difficult to run a graphic design business compared to, say, the UK, USA or Japan because so many people here don’t understand or appreciate what we do. We have less chances here to make something important. Some clients don’t have a brief. It’s a small, pretty crazy marketplace. The budgets can be low and the timelines so short. The designers who survive here work really hard.”

Despite the hard work and the fact that he doesn’t believe his awards count for much in the business sphere, Ng is creating what many would judge as a successful firm. He joined theDesk as he says he found that working alone in a small enclosed office away from other businesses was ‘boring’. “Being in a co-working space is great for networking,” he says. “There are more things that can happen, day-to-day. People come in to chat and we talk to others around the space and business opportunities can happen. Plus, theDesk is easy to get to and has a great atmosphere. In fact, I’d say our business has got better at theDesk. And there’s beer here!”

As we chat during this interview, Ng is preparing to talk to his old college, Central Saint Martins, with two other former students as part of a Skype lecture to about 40 people. He doesn’t get paid for this. He says he does it because he likes to help others and give something back. He’s done a lot of lectures and talks over the past few years, including his landmark TEDYouth talk at PolyU in 2013. TED Talks are a huge deal these days. “Some see taking part in these big discussions and presentations as good exposure but I don’t,” he says. “I just see talks as a chance to share your ideas with others and to give something back to the industry.” The same sentiment as his take on awards, then. You do talks and enter awards for personal satisfaction, rather than business gain.

What does the future hold, then, for Ng and his company? “I don’t think our business is ‘there’ yet,” he says. “We have a long way to go to make it to a certain place where I can then say ‘we’ve done it’. I’m looking to grow the business, though. It’s tough. Finding the budget and projects to grow is a difficult challenge, plus finding constant work to survive is hard, but I’m optimistic. I don’t know what the future holds but I do want to do more meaningful work. Winning awards is great but I’m looking forward to a meaningful future.”

Member guide: Toby Ng

NAME: Toby Ng
BUSINESS: Toby Ng Design
POSITION: Creative director and founder
AGE: 32
FROM: Hong Kong
BUSINESS LOCATION: Rents an office space at theDesk, Sai Ying Pun
FIND OUT MORE: Visit toby-ng.com and facebook.com/tobyngdesign

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