Sandy Choi by Jon Lowe

Growing up in Hong Kong, Sandy Choi had no idea he was going
to lead one of the country’s premier graphic design
consultancies, boasting high profile clientele such as HSBC and
Marriott International. In fact, he didn’t even know he had
a talent for art. “Boarding school in the UK changed my life,”
he admits. “In Hong Kong, I didn’t attend art classes, and
I didn’t even try drawing until my “A”-Level.”

It was at Rishworth School in Halifax that “a nice lady teacher”
encouraged him to pick up the pencil that would shape his future.
The then-16-year-old threw himself into art studies, and
in particular, figure drawing, even taking extra evening classes
in town. But it wasn’t long before his Hong Kong pragmatism
kicked in. “One day, I asked the teacher how I could make some
money out of art, and the best answer was graphic design.”

There followed a one-year foundation of art courses, and then
admission to London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins College
of Art & Design (School of Art) in 1980. However, he wasn’t
prepared for the uber-trendy, post-punk aura of the place.
“At my interview I wore a suit and tie, and took my portfolio.
They thought I was weird!”

While never wavering in his goal of making commercial art, Sandy
found the liberated teaching methods of Saint Martins to
his taste. “It had a very different style. Lessons were often
outside the classroom, such as taking a camera and spending
an afternoon at the National Theatre. It opened my eyes: I learnt
that graphic design is about problem-solving, not pretty pictures.”
He cites the Swiss International Style as a formative influence.
“There needs to be a message or an idea. Now, I tell my designers
to know what they’re going to do before sitting in front of
the computer.”

While at Central Saint Martins, Sandy also mixed with the
right crowd, including Alan Fletcher, the renowned founder of
Pentagram studio. “Alan introduced me to Henry Steiner,
the most famous graphic designer in Hong Kong at that time,
who had created the HSBC logo. After graduation, I returned to
Hong Kong and eventually worked for Henry for a couple of years
– a critical experience.”

A difficult and penniless stint as a freelancer was followed
by seven years with advertising agency Ball Partnership, working
on brands such as Puma and Toshiba. “This was not typical
local advertising, it had more of an international flavour,”
he reflects. “Ball Partnership was creative-driven – even the
Chairman, Mike Chu, was a creative person.”

In 1996, he spent a year in Shanghai working for JWT, one of the
world’s foremost marketing communications firms. However,
the experience was fraught with uncertainty, as he found himself
leading a troop of graphic greenhorns. After a year, he headed
back to Hong Kong, and in what was an important time for both him
and the then-British territory, set up his own company,
Sandy Choi Associates, in 1997. Five months later, the Asian
economic crash struck.

Unlucky as it seemed, Choi came through with a hard-learnt lesson –
keep business operations small. His studio is just a couple
of rooms,and his office doubles as the meeting room – albeit with
a stunning view of Happy Valley. What is not small is the
company’s vision. Recent successful – and artistically fulfilling –
commissions have included a company brochure for Designlink,
and a promotional brochure for Tai Tak Paper Co’s Mohawk line
of paper, which he describes, rather geekily, as a “dream project”.

Yet, Sandy is unwilling to advocate graphic design as a bright
career move. The future of the industry in Hong Kong looks uncertain,
he feels. “There are now many graphic designers and many more in
the universities but I’m not sure if the business can take that many
more graduates –and, as a current guest lecturer, I’ve doubts of
the quality. They seldom ask questions. But when I think about it,
perhaps I was the same!”

Sandy’s own future will probably see him attend to a few long-cherished
yearnings. “I may be in a mid-life crisis. I want to explore other things –
those with a personal touch. I treasure handmade things.

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