21 Creatives for #SGABF2018 — Hanson Ho
SGABF: You’ve run H55 independently since 1999. Why did you choose to stay independent after all these years?
Hanson Ho (HH): Prior to that I hadn't really worked for anyone for very long. At that point, I was quite desperate to come out and be independent, not creatively but financially independent. I saw a dead end coming my way in the long run so I felt that the only way to propel myself and to accelerate my growth was really to set up my own studio. At the time I found that my predecessors in the industry were quite boring in the way they were being run. They were mostly brand consultants or publications designers who designed things like annual reports or newsletters, whereas our counterparts in the West or even in Japan were doing a lot of things that were carrying independent voices — where their individualities were allowed to be expressed in their clients' works. I thought that this should be the way to go and since I couldn't win my predecessors, I had to change the game. So if I wanted to come out on my own, I had to do something that is more individualistic, rather than just follow the ways of operation which were already established in the past.
I operate in a less hierarchical manner. The studio is fairly small and for many years, I rented it on my own and my clients from a very niche market found it refreshing because they are meeting the creative, the owner, and also the accounts manager — all in one. In a way that’s what architects have been doing. To me, that's beneficial to the work rather than having too many people which might lead to miscommunication and also, having to bear the higher costs with a bigger team. So, the process is less formal because it’s less hierarchical. The relationship that I have with my clients is more friendship-based. With this, my work becomes more individualistic and more expressive.
Some say the studio has a house-style, which is something that was not allowed previously. The mindset was that designers should have different ideas and styles to cater to different clients. But for H55, we have a fundamental belief and approach, and clients come to us for that. Graphic designers don't generally have a style, they listen to what the clients want. For us, it's different. Our work, by and large, has a spectrum of look and feel, and a way of thinking. The clients then come to us for that, and not the other way around.
In terms of ownership, it is still independently-owned and of course, that makes a lot of things easier in terms of the culture and decision-making. I basically have full control of the creative direction and finances. For me, that control is very important. It allows me to steer in different directions, whenever needed. There is more freedom, and when there is more freedom, the work becomes more creative.
SGABF: You spearheaded and curated many projects, including LTA’s Art-in-Transit Programme for the Downtown Line. Do you find that your approach differs when it comes to showcasing art on different platforms – from Biennales, gallery shows, to public spaces?
HH: We definitely need to cater to the collaborators' needs when we are working with someone but, by and large, the way of managing a project is the same for me. It's to identify and be extremely clear about the perimeters and limitations of the project and then brief the artists, designers, or myself to try and satisfy a number of checkboxes. It may sound very uncreative, but that's where the real creativity lies. Many designers or creatives say that a project cannot turn out well because of these limitations — money, space, etc. — but there are always escape routes and if you can find the escape route to every project, then all your projects will be portfolio material, works that you are proud to show rather than feel ashamed of.
I think it's about ignoring how people think it should be done. It helps to look at examples of good work or works that are good but not entirely relevant. For example, if you're designing a novel, it doesn't mean you can only refer to novels. You can look at magazines, posters, or even contemporary art, maybe that can inform the design. It is important that you don't have all these preconceived ideas, and you're not afraid or think that just because the client thinks a certain way, you have to do things differently. You can incorporate some of the client's thinking while showing them what other things are possible.
SGABF: What do you think is the current climate of Singapore’s design, and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
HH: There are definitely more younger designers and smaller studios that have sprouted in the last five to ten years, but still not very many. When I first started out in 1999, I was probably the only one. Thankfully I also had peers like Asylum and Kinetic who did the same thing, which I think is a significant movement. It was encouraging for each one of us; to see each of us doing something different but interesting. Right now I would say we're at the low point of the wave, where the scene is pretty slow and stagnant in some ways and will continue to be like that for awhile.
I try to create a map for myself and my work; where it's going in 20 to 30 years' time. As I continue to map my way into the future, thinking of what I do, I explore deeper into the craft. The works need to become better and more significant. My interest from the beginning was always to intervene with the culture in Singapore. Which means that I need to engage with the correct types of clients and audience so that my work, books, logos or brands stay and survive as part of the visual culture around us. They should become monumental as time passes, and not get thrown into dustbins like brochures. I hope to create these epitomes of things so that when I reach a certain old age, they will all be floating around Singapore and other parts of the world where people can find and enjoy.
SGABF: How do you perceive the cultural impact design has on a place and society like Singapore?
HH: I don’t really like to proclaim that design can have a big cultural impact. It will definitely have some sort of impact but I don’t think it will "save the world". However, I think what’s more important is the acknowledgement that design is important, that design thinking is important and that having good taste is important — good taste in a broader context, not just dressing well and looking fashionable but having a healthy mindset that imagination, creativity and diversity as a way of life is important. Design has undoubtedly influenced Singapore. I mean, everybody has become more image-savvy because of mobile devices, globalisation, access to all kinds of media and magazines, and different brands that have landed in Singapore. Singaporeans appreciate design a lot more now than when I first started. They do see the relevance of design, and that it’s not something that is frivolous.
SGABF: Finally, SGABF2018 aims to provide a space for artists, designers, creatives, and consumers to think critically about art — in its various forms and formats. When it comes to critical thinking, what sort of questions or ideas do you hope people will hold in minds when engaging in a festival like that?
HH: Hopefully it will be, in a way, disruptive to how they would normally think about things and also to realise the importance of publishing. I hope the younger generation don't see art books as a kind of sentimental object because in a digital age, people see print, polaroids, photography, film photography, vinyls, as a nostalgic, sentimental thing. Hopefully, they see it as processes or a means that can help them to not just generate new ideas but question things that they always thought were a certain way; to disrupt the way they think and to see publishing as a kind of validation to self-existence. Because ultimately that's why people publish. It's not a sentimental thing like keeping a diary or a scrapbook, it's more than that. It is to validate that they are different. Whether you're publishing something into a book or on a website doesn't matter. We have to embrace diverse viewpoints and this can be expressed through publishing so that you can share these ideas with people.
H55 is an award-winning Singapore-based design and communication consultancy with a reputation for conceiving relevant, engaging and effective ideas. Since its establishment in 1999, H55 has been independently owned by award-winning creative director Hanson Ho, who continues his hands-on attitude towards design and project management. Till this day, H55 remains as a light and compact office so as to be creatively sustainable, focused and dedicated to a select range of clients.
H55 has worked with a variety of clients ranging from government ministries, museums, public-listed companies, small-to-medium-sized enterprises, new startups and individuals.