The Steiner Series: The Demise of Hong Kong Telephone

“Wai3 (喂)?” 

This greeting is still collectively shouted down the phone by Hongkongers millions of times each day, though its use in the city’s vernacular has certainly diminished as our concept of the telephone itself evolves. Absorbing and mutating the functions of other devices, institutions and professions, the phone is emblematic of inevitable change. A flood of texts, voice messages, mobile payments, memes, gifs, videos and artificial intelligence: few things change faster than technology. 

And it leaves some things in its wake – like the Hong Kong Telephone Company. “That’s one of the fallen ones,” laughs Henry Steiner, poring over photo negatives, Letraset transfers and paper layouts that he made for the now-defunct firm. “But it holds up well, I must say.” 

The telephone was first introduced to Hong Kong in 1877 and the first manual telephone exchange was started by the Oriental Telephone & Electric Co. in 1882. The modest reach of this technology in that era can be appreciated by a short list of subscribers published in an 1891 issue of the China Mail, which includes only a few companies and even fewer individuals. Amongst the early adopters, like Jardine Matheson and Kowloon Wharf, are a number of future Steiner&Co. clients: Hong Kong Land Investment & Agency Co. Ltd, Butterfield & Swire, the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation and Hongkong Hotel. In 1925, the Hong Kong Telephone Company, a subsidiary of Cable & Wireless, was granted a 50-year franchise to run local telephone services.

“This logo sucks!” Steiner exclaims as his assistant leafs through pages showing attempts by commercial artists in the 1960s and 70s to create graphics for Hong Kong Telephone. Steiner throws his hands up at the muddled use of multiple typefaces and clumsy alignment. 

“Be fair!” Steiner’s wife, Margaret Au-Yeung, yells from across the room. 

“But look at the typography, it’s amateurish!” Steiner responds, a little contritely. 

“Look, at that time Hong Kong only had four million people and only seven thousand [or so] could afford a telephone!” Au-Yeung continues, explaining why graphic design for telecommunications would not have been a high priority back then. This would not be true for long. Today, Hong Kong has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in Asia, with almost 90 percent of Hongkongers over ten years old owning a phone, roughly translating to seven million people.

In 1978, Steiner&Co. was engaged to create a cohesive corporate identity for Hong Kong Telephone and they tackled it with relish. The graphic is a modernist gem, as good as any of Steiner’s other more enduring work. A subtle expression of the designer’s cross-cultural MO, the identity comprises an orange circle with the letter T picked out in negative space. To complete the mark, Steiner developed a custom typeface. “But you can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is a stylised letter T,’” he says. “I always have a backstory.”

Steiner mimes the percussive striking of a musical instrument, supplying sound effects with the clicking of his tongue. “That’s the bell for Chinese opera. You hit it,” he says. More than an initial, the Hong Kong Telephone graphic is a minimalist depiction of a muk6 jyu4 (木魚, “wooden fish”), a type of wood temple bell that creates the distinctive rhythmic beat for Cantonese opera standing in for the ring of a telephone and the transmission of sound.

“It was a nice project and I was sorry to see it disappear without getting better before [the company] got bought out,” says Steiner. Through the years, Hong Kong Telephone has had a complex chain of corporate ownership; in 1987 it became Hong Kong Telecommunications Limited, more commonly known by the moniker Hong Kong Telecom. With this change came a new corporate identity retaining some characteristics of Steiner’s work — the colour and stylised T — but in a distorted form.

Steiner frowns, disowning the new mark. “That’s not mine. I’m not going to speculate on it but it seems to be wasteful. Why spend the money? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A lot of these get [rebranded] because of this…” Steiner rubs his thumb and index finger together to signify greed. “Some fast talking advertising man [says] it’s old fashioned.”

By this point, the company that was Hong Kong Telephone has changed identity numerous times. Under Cable and Wireless it became Cable and Wireless HKT in 1999. In 2000 it was taken over by PCCW, making it PCCW-HKT. Each change of name resulted in a change of visual identity. Considering whether wholesale change was necessary, we ask Steiner whether his mark could have simply been updated. “No problem,” he says. Au-Yeung views the situation from the perspective of a corporate structure. “The objective [of changing the identity] could have been good.” she offers, “but as in a game of telephones, the instructions can be [misinterpreted] as they are passed down and they don’t get 100 percent carried out.”

A change in corporate identity can be attributed to new management’s need to assert ownership but some might contend that the fleeting nature of this company’s logo reflects rapidly changing technology from local services to international calls, mobile services to high speed internet. This would mean conforming to graphic trends of the moment and Steiner has never been one for chasing trends. “I don’t think in terms of fashion,” says Steiner. “I just work with the identity. I’m interested in legibility, flexibility and the uniqueness of the work.” 

Given that product obsolescence is inherent to the nature of technology, some subjects of Steiner&Co.’s old work are bound to appear dated, but the firm is no stranger to new technology. Steiner has always dealt with cutting edge tech through his clients – each a pioneer in their own way, in their own time. 

In the time of Hong Kong Telephone, Steiner&Co. also developed graphics for their telephone books: paper analogues of modern day search engines. The front covers of these business directories are enlivened by photo still lifes depicting rotary dial phones and other business paraphernalia but more telling are the back covers, which feature advertisements for IDD calls and other services that would have seemed miraculous at the time.

“In the 60s we had to physically go to the Cable and Wireless Company to make long distance calls,” explains Au-Yeung. “You paid and went into a booth. They would connect you. [Later on you could] call the telephone company from your home and they would put you through. Only later could you dial directly. Progress!” 

Steiner is consistent in terms of values yet his practice is not static. He is actively creating visual identities for new clients and, at the same time, much of his old work endures. Visual identities for the likes of HSBC, Hongkong Land and the Hong Kong Jockey Club transcend time. By virtue of his long career, Steiner has given visual expression to many entities that have come and gone but his methods are no less current today.  Steiner’s old clients owe the longevity of their visual identities to his ability to adapt while remaining true to core values and fundamentals. His is a method of visual thinking that applies as well to fax machines and rotary dial phones as it does to streaming services and 5G broadband.

Questioning the logic that graphics should mirror the in-built obsolescence of technology and the cycle of trends, Steiner cites the identity of IBM. Created in 1972 by his mentor, Paul Rand, the IBM mark is only slightly older than the Hong Kong Telephone logo would be today. It has remained largely unchanged even as the company maintains its status as a major force in computing. “Is [IBM’s identity] old-fashioned?” he asks. The answer, of course, is no. “I think it’s timeless.”

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