Niche and market positioning—Interview with branding designer Mann Lao

02 2017 | Issue 19

Text/Yuki Ieong

“It is every designer’s dream to have a studio of his own. With hundreds of such local design studios, one must think carefully about or her own market positioning and how he or she can outcompete other designers,” Mann Lao, Creative & Managing Director of Chiii Design Ltd., advised young designers.

Before graduating from university, Lao had worked as an intern in several 4A advertising agencies. He went on to work for the studio of the design maestro, Tommy Li. Later, he worked in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Portugal. These experiences helped to enrich his professional exposure and achievements. Three and a half years ago, he turned down jobs from well-known design firms in order to return to Macao to further his career, where he actively supported young local designers.

“Any creative work must have marketability, otherwise, without the commercial value, it is only an artpiece. If it exists only as an artpiece, and disregards the market, it will certainly fail to gain market support and recognition.” Lao emphasises his positioning is business-oriented. While he studied at university, he worked as an intern in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which helped him to learn more about the design industry with new insights. These experiences also fostered his determination to pursue branding design.

“Tommy Li has taught me that branding design is not pure design, but to help clients grow their businesses. I have learnt a lot more about how to use visual design to promote business for my clients.”

“Macao is a place that lacks commercial design, and I hope to open up more opportunities, so that people can better appreciate Macao design.” Lao is a true pioneer in advocating local commercial design. Before his return to Macao, others have warned him: “There are abundant opportunities outside Macao. There is no necessity to come back to a place where there is not enough market for what you do.” He confessed that, back then when he set up his practice, the market had a substantial need for expo design, such that all the businesses that came to them were related to expos. However he decided to focus only on branding design, turning down all other assignments. Nowadays, his clients come from all over the world, including Canada, Britain and the United States.

When asked his view towards his profession, he said: “Most local design practices are concerned with following the client briefs and are suspicious towards local designers.” In the past, Macao enterprises would only hire branding designers from Hong Kong or the Mainland. So does it mean that local designers would only be sought after if they have some overseas experience? Lao felt that young designers should not care too much about this.

“The year I left Tommy Li’s studio and returned to find another job in Macao, I was a designer without much reputation. Since the commercial world does not even know who Tommy Li is, the experience I have from abroad has given me a competitive edge and new insights. I think that clients care about that kind of experience in the sense that my professional knowledge is demonstrated through the work I do, rather than take me on just because I have studied or worked overseas.”

“In Macao, many young people are quite passive and have a lesser sense of urgency when it comes to seeking opportunities.” For Lao, this is a concern in the development of human talent in Macao. Earlier, he was invited to give lectures for first year undergraduates in the Polytechnic University. That year, he focused on doing the teaching well, especially in inspiring the students’ interest in the art of design. “Regardless of the subject, I feel that there is a lot more to learn from the real world rather than in the classroom. The role of a teacher, therefore, is mainly to arouse the students’ interest for new knowledge, and to guide them to seek their own answers.”

In September last year, Lao sought for more collaborations with enterprises, and organised the First Macau Art Graduates Joint Exhibition (“joint exhibition”) in Macao, inviting art students from five tertiary institutions to take part. This has attracted a lot of attention from design institutes in Taiwan and Japan, as well as prompted several enterprises to get in touch with art students in Macao to look for collaborative opportunities. According to Lao, Macao has the advantage of being a small city, and so it is much easier to promote culture and creativity. However, the fact that everyone knows each other in the sector also makes it difficult to invite someone without jeopardising the relationship with others. Hence, this joint exhibition was organised without any additional funding, and proved to be successful in opening up many opportunities for the sector, even with a discreet budget.

In his work to promote local design talent, Lao said that many design students told him that they were no longer interested to work in the field. This suggested the risk that this sector is losing its talent to other professional fields. “To many of these young people, working as a designer seems to be a tough job, but if they give up before even trying, this is certainly a shame.” Currently, Lao is at work putting together the new joint exhibition. “Most people thought that I organise this for the students but, in fact, other than promoting student exchange, another key aim is to encourage design educators to engage more fully with the contents of the subject.”

In the future, Lao hopes that the government could put in more efforts to cultivate talent. Some people consider that the promotion of design education is futile, but he is willing to do it steadily. Lao believed that training always takes time, but in the long run it will pay off, as Macao benefits from a higher quality of local design talent. “The government is keen to promote arts and culture, but they must do it from the source, paying attention to the quality of education. There is no shortcut in achieving the same results. After all, the cultivation of talent is a long marathon.”