[Design Forum] Tommy Li’s design anchored in black humor, Zen
Published : Nov 6, 2015 - 17:58
Updated : Nov 9, 2015 - 22:51

Tommy Li, a branding designer known for his audacious visual designs and black humor, is one of Asia’s few designers with a global presence spanning across Hong Kong, China, Macau, Japan and Italy.

The Hong Kong-based designer currently heads the Tommy Li Design Workshop, which was selected among the 10 best branding companies in China by in 2010.

He has received over 580 local and international awards for his innovative design concepts, including the Gold Pencil Award from the One Show in New York and the iF Design Award China in 2007. 

Li, who will be making his way to Seoul to partake in this year’s Herald Design Forum on Tuesday, shared his take on design and its implications in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Tommy Li (Tommy Li Design Workshop)

Korea Herald: As a designer, how do you define design?

Tommy Li: From the perspective of a designer who is just starting out, design may seem like a hobby. However, for those who have worked in the field for 10 to 20 years, design becomes a responsibility rather than a simple hobby.

KH: What do you believe is the role of design?

Li: Design should reveal the important aspects of a society to the public. There are many well-made designs out in the market, but those which fail to become influential are easily forgotten. Therefore, designers must focus on developing designs which can make an impact on society. By doing so, designers can enhance the value of their designs as well.

KH: “Gone are the days of the master, now are the days of the artwork,” you once said. Could you elaborate on the implications?

Li: Wherever you go, you’ll hear people call you master. People call you “master” but it’s just a formality. They’re just being polite, as when they call someone “Sir,” “Madam” or “Teacher.” Today, designers are like K-pop stars -- if they do not continue to put out new songs, they’ll lose their fame and the public will forget them. That is why I said “now are the days of artwork” because these masters will all announce their work continuously in order to be remembered.

KH: How and where do you mostly get your design inspirations?

Li: I do not find inspiration from a specific space or object, because I believe that a designer must stay alert to his surroundings all the time. Everything and anything can be a source of inspiration -- it can come from a book, movie or a happening in daily life. Moreover, inspiration is highly dependent on ones emotions. When I am in a good mood, I can easily find inspiration from my surroundings. If not, things around me may not be as eye catching. Therefore, I have to always make sure to keep my emotions in check.

Tea packages designed by Tommy Li for Ying Kee (Tommy Li)

KH: Which of your design products would you pick as your personal best? Reasons?

Li: At first, I tend to like most of my new designs. After a few months, however, I tend to lose interest in them. I think that design is similar to the elderly. It is dangerous to create a piece of artwork and think it best represents you. If you fall into such thinking, your brilliant days will pass by and your work will be forgotten by the world. Therefore, I am always looking forward to creating my next piece of art, which I believe will become my best design.

KH: Your designs made in collaboration with local brands such as Gemania and Ying Kee Tea House are noted for their Oriental Zen atmosphere. Are there any specific reasons for this? Do such design tones reflect your design philosophy? Could this Oriental tendency act as an obstacle in the overseas market?

Li: My design has two major directions: “black humor” and “Oriental Zen”. This has much to do with the fact that my zodiac sign is Pisces, which supposedly embodies two diverging qualities. “Black humor” is my favorite design philosophy because it contains diverse elements like youth, cartoons and so on, while exploring human suffering. 

Hong Kong and Taiwanese societies have been lacking in elements of “black humor” as they face huge burdens of ethnic strife. Given such, I have chosen to pursue “black humor” in my designs. My other main design element is “Oriental Zen.” 

Through all my works, I just want to bring out and introduce the true beauty of eastern art to China. Nowadays, many traditional items -- such as tea, combs, furniture and alcohol -- give off a traditional vibe, yet cannot retain the elegance of the past. For hundreds of years, these items embodied the essence of elegance -- representing the full knowledge of the Zen. 

Today, they have lost their original beauty and harmonious philosophy and instead taken on old-fashioned, exaggerated and eye-catching eastern design patterns, due to various sociopolitical forces. I believe that a renaissance is about to take place very soon, helping to raise up reestablish the “Oriental Zen,” which has been silenced up to now.

Tea tables designed by Tommy Li for Ying Kee (Tommy Li)

KH: Over the past decades, you have dedicated yourself to corporate brand design, mostly in food and beverage, fashion and retail. Do you have plans to expand your portfolio to public design and thus to reach out to a wider range of audiences?

Li: Indeed, I have been focusing on retail branding over the past decade, taking part in various product design projects. Funnily, I have experience in just about every type of product design -- such as cosmetic boxes, tea packages, tea boxes and beds -- yet I have never really tried graphic design. 

I think product design is very important, because it can directly convey a feeling to consumers, perhaps more so than can graphic design. Moreover, I think product design can be very influential, for it can be applied to many public places and goods, ranging from a bus stop to a rubbish bin. It’s good to know that many people out there are currently enjoying my product designs. I think product designs will likely guide my future direction.

KH: What is your opinion of Korean companies and their design management, especially compared to that of Hong Kong?

Li: Hong Kong is a mixed society with western influences. As a free market economy, one can feel England, American, Japanese styles all at once in the city. Moreover, Hong Kong boasts a mixture of local designs and Orientalism. In other words, the city is a place which concentrates on combining the best from different places. 

Compared to Hong Kong, Korea needs to make efforts to establish a stronger local identity. Though it was influenced by Japanese and various eastern cultures, Korea has managed to create a new form of Oriental culture that moves away from old and saturated traditional elements. I think heading in such a direction enables the country to develop more elegant designs.

KH: Your design activities have mostly been focused on HK, China and Japan. Are there any factors that have kept you away from Korea? Do you have plans to expand into the Korean market in the near future? If so, share with us your blueprints.

Li: As I mentioned previously, I have two major design elements: “black humor” and “Oriental Zen.” I think similar design directions can be found in Korean works, which are already readily accepted by the country. I think there is a relationship between a growing market and design in Korea. And the government can play an important role, as it can take the lead in excavating and supporting new and talented local designers, in not only the academic realm but across diverse business sectors. I am looking forward to seeing what will come out of such efforts. 

By Sohn Ji-young (