The DFA Awards is Drawing a New Future for Hong Kong’s Young Designers

Zolima CityMag is a media partner of Design For Asia Award; this article was developed and produced by Zolima CityMag.

Hong Kong is a visual city. Neon signs hang over major roads, concert posters line street corners and comics take pride of place on local bookshelves. Graphic and communication design have both shaped and responded to Hong Kong’s landscape in a constant feedback loop.

“For artists who draw inspiration from everyday life, [Hong Kong is] a very interesting and intense city that is full of colour and energy,” says painter and illustrator Gwen Yip, who has worked on several children’s books. Though she no longer resides in Hong Kong — after working here and in Shanghai and Amsterdam, she has now relocated to Brooklyn in New York — the city remains a fundamental influence on her artistic endeavours.

Hong Kong’s characteristic intensity is not the only thing driving graphic design forward. There are also platforms like the annual Design for Asia Awards, which since 2003 have aimed to provide designers with a springboard that can launch their careers both around the region and the world.

Yip is well familiar with the DFA Awards, having won a Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award in 2008. This year’s award is presented on December 4, celebrating emerging talents in Hong Kong under the age of 35. Winners of the award are given up to HK$500,000 in funding to travel overseas and pursue work experience under globally renowned brands and design entities. This year, grants totalling $5 million will be invested in the city’s emerging talents, to facilitate overseas development and knowledge exchanges.

“It changed my life path,” says Yip. Before winning the award, she had embarked on a career as an art director in the advertising industry, but she wasn’t satisfied in the world of commercial art. “I wanted to go deeper and push my art further,” she says. After winning the Young Design Talent Award, Yip went on to study fine art at the prestigious Central Saint Martins University in London, which “opened a bigger world,” she says. “I started painting and I fell in love with it. I knew I had found my lifelong learning. I will never be bored again”.

It may initially seem counter-intuitive for an award to celebrate and reward local creatives by giving them a ticket overseas. But it it is precisely this chance to step away from home and gain a broader perspective that sets the award recipients apart from the pool of emerging talent. Once they finish their overseas placements, winners must return to Hong Kong, where they serve as ambassadors for their design fields. They then work with Hong Kong-based design firms for a minimum of two years, sharing and integrating their new skills and approaches with emerging members of Hong Kong’s design community.

Yip is not the only winner to have a transformative experience. 2018 DFA Award winner Julius Hui, from the Hong Kong-based design firm Monotype, is credited with redesigning the typeface used by Chinese internet behemoth Tencent. His design integrates elements of Chinese, Japanese and Latin characters, reflecting the brand’s global mindset and the ability to transcend geographic barriers and obstacles. As a city that prides itself on multiculturalism, Hong Kong is clearly well poised to facilitate such an approach.

In a constant state of flux, Hong Kong is by its very nature a transient space. This is something graphic artist and musician Chris Cheung — who goes by the nom de plume h0nh1m — knows all too well. In response to the way Hong Kong “[adapts] to many different new cultures, in a rapid way,” his work bridges traditional Chinese philosophies with contemporary approaches to design and technology. Since winning the DFA Award in 2011, Cheung has reflected on the possibilities it afforded him. He describes it as a “good platform and opportunity for young designers to showcase their work overseas,” bringing the identity of Hong Kong’s design scene to newer and bigger audiences.

DFA Awards

Typeface redesigned by Julius Hui for Tencent

The Rolodex of former DFA Hong Kong Young Design Talent winners reads like a list of the city’s creative successes. But that is not to say they don’t face any barriers. Hong Kong’s relentlessly commercial mindset can be both a blessing and a curse. “From a very practical point of view, a strong personal style can [also] be seen as a limitation,” says Yip. “Clients can give you references and expect you to mimic someone else’s style.”

But the beauty of graphic design lies in its versatility. 2009 award winner Stella Lin, is a testament to this. She now serves as the London-based artistic lead for Sanrio — the corporation behind Hello Kitty — using her experiences and talent to bring her medium to the masses.

Companies are increasingly attuned to the power of graphic design to promote brand identities. “Many brands are considering how an experience will enhance the overall brand image,” explains Cheung. But as the needs and expectations of brands and consumers continue to change, so too must the artists. “The [design] community is adapting to the changes in the media.”

While corporate culture can challenge creativity, it can also help to foster it. In Hong Kong, graphic design has developed a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the business sector. The city’s leading graphic and communication design talents travel the world to gain exposure to international approaches to contemporary design, and some are returning. Will this international approach ultimately shape Hong Kong’s creative culture? Or will homegrown influences and talent strive to design their own future?

A government census conducted in 2016 reported 16,350 people in Hong Kong were employed in the design services. This is compared with over 296,000 across New York just three years earlier. Though comparatively smaller, perhaps their significance lies not in their numbers, but in their visibility – and with every DFA Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award, they grow only more visible.


DFA Awards exhibition runs from December 4 to December 6, 2018 at the Hong Kong Convention Exhibition Centre. Click here for more information.

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