Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Dec 8, 2014

HK's PMQ marries design thinking and business acumen

HONG KONG - A former police quarters building now houses around 100 design and creative enterprises alongside shops and restaurants in a revitalised historical site in Hong Kong. The location's director talks about showcasing young designers, why a sense of design is vital for businesspeople, and the injustices the ad industry has done to creativity.

HK's PMQ marries design thinking and business acumen

The former, less hiply named ‘Police Married Quarters’ (PMQ) played host to DETOUR, a design festival that just wrapped up yesterday after 10 days of creative workshops, design dialogues and installation exhibits. Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke with its creative and program director, William To.

Even though it also houses commercial operators including Vivienne Tam, Goods of Desire, Chocolate Rain, plus swanky restaurants from the Drawing Room Concepts group, you're very adamant that PMQ is not a shopping mall.

A mall basically just sells products, but over here it's a concentrated area that lets designers take up space to showcase their work as well as run workshops. Many of our tenants are architects and communication designers. We do not really see ourselves as a mall. The reason you see retail brands at PMQ is because our business model has to be self-sustainable.

Initially we relied on donations from the Musketeers Foundation, but we cannot continuously ask for money. These commercial entities like restaurants and local design brands serve a function to attract people who have never been to PMQ and can bring in high quality customers, but they only take up the ground floor and the first floor while providing 25 per cent of our rental revenue. If we can't survive, we can't help to nurture young designers.

Will you put yourself in the same league as K11 then? It touts itself as the world's first art mall.

K11 is positioned as a design-themed mall selling designer products; we're a little different. K11 has a profit-centred business model, while every single penny we collect goes back into the pot to nurture young designers.

Why is there such a pressing need to nurture young designers?

Because Hong Kong can no longer be a city of manufacturers. We all see [how] the power of creativity can help grow a strong economy. I think we have very limited resoures dedicated to nurture a new generation of designers. We do have design schools but they don't provide platforms to showcase design work. It's important for designers to be exposed, otherwise it is a dead end for them.

The marketing and advertising industries are a few of the end outlets for these design students, isn't it? But industry observers are getting the vibe that students are not attracted to these industries. Why?

The conventional advertising industry has seen a downward trend because there are so many new platforms for consumers, but advertising is still such an interesting industry as you learn so much about creativity, consumer behaviour and business.

But you left the advertising industry (To was at Leo Burnett) more than a decade ago.

Well, I got a better offer.

Why is that when I look at artwork in exhibitons, I get wowed and inpsired, but I rarely get the same feeling when I look at works of creativity produced by advertising agencies?

I think this is one of the greatest injustices the ad industry has done to creativity, because a lot of creative ideas were killed by clients, I'm not blaming it on the clients, but it is the limitations of our market (Hong Kong) that make clients less willing to take risks. Brands no longer invest in the market here but move their investments to China. It's not [solely] the fault of clients too as they are bound by market demands, but a lot of designers do not have the business sense and market knowledge.

Advertising is not ALL about creativity. I always tell creative people, if you really want to do arts, advertising is not the place for you. It's to sell a product or push a brand; so you cannot freely exercise your creativity because you have to answer to a brief with client objectives that dictate the parameters of creativity. Let's face it. There is a ugly reality about ROI, but that's the way it is. Bur rather than sulking, let's think how we are going to get oursleves out of this situation and focus on creativity in other ways.

I think there's a gulf in Hong Kong between the art aficionados who indulge in creativity and the business community who are reigning economically?

I do think creativity opens up one's mind to think outside of the box; even a businessman can think of an unconventional way to run his business. In general, creativity is greatly lacking in Hong Kong, but events like Art Basel and Arts Festival are all chipping in to bring forth higher awareness among the public.

Also, the younger generation in Hong Kong who are taking over their parents' businesses is very much involved in design, such as the board of directors in the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design who volunteer their own time and money. If the older generation's businesses are shaping Hong Kong, these people are the future's hope. They will inject creativity into their businesses as they see the value of design expression playing a pivotal role.

Businessmen don't understand they are making creative decisions every single day. From the moment they wake up, the toothpaste they pick, the clothes they wear, the furniture they put in their homes are decisions that they creatively package by themselves. Once they get that, they will not feel so alienated from designers, and all the better for all of us to adopt new ideas.


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