Artist's magical mystery tour
Graphic designer Otto To's world is like a kaleidoscope - shifting, vibrant and colourful. The 26-year-old is hungry for novel experiences and relishes using different media in his artworks, which range from drawings to short films and three-dimensional creations.
To adjudicated in the Home Fish Home design competition organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre and Ocean Park to educate secondary students about marine conservation. He also made a sculpture - comprising six transparent acrylic cubes of varying sizes with images of marine life painted on them - through which he expressed his vision of the ideal home for ocean creatures. The artwork is on display at Ocean Park.
Last year, To was one of 12 local artists invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to illustrate the city's festivals and cultural events. Their designs were subsequently featured on the city's trams.
What draws you to design?
I have always loved art. Since primary school, I found paintings and drawings a way to communicate an idea. I was excited by the many ways a message can be conveyed – I could paint on a piece of paper, a log of wood or even rubber, using water colours or acrylic colours or other materials.
After my A-levels, I went on to do an associate degree at City University, with a focus on digital video design. It was then I became certain that I wanted to become a designer. After a year, I enrolled for a degree programme in design and visual communication at Polytechnic University (PolyU). Immediately after graduating from PolyU, I became a member of a team that designed promotional materials for an architectural exhibition. A teacher at PolyU was involved in the work and that was how I got the chance to take part in the project.
How did you enter the profession?
Soon after the project was over, I landed a job with a Hong Kong-based design firm where I am involved in graphic design that covers products such as signage, publications and e-cards. I’m not of the super aggressive type but I think it is important to equip ourselves so that we can grab any opportunity that comes knocking on our door.
I have a great boss - I work for four-and-a-half days a week and leave the office at half past five so long as I finish my tasks. My boss is the “live-life-to-the-fullest” type of guy and encourages us to do the same and develop other skills and hobbies. I really appreciate that. Because of the flexibility, I am able to try different things, such as collaborating with others and teaching kids to draw. I really enjoy teaching kids, who are always very direct and bold in their expressions.
What personal projects are you involved in?
I've been working with a gallery since last year, and my works have been displayed in its studio in Fo Tan, as well as Shenzhen. I make illustrations - such as for a series based on the characters in Alice in Wonderland - while also designing products. I am now working on a video.
Isn't it risky to be involved in so many types of art forms?
If you are very good at something, you tend to do it all the time. This may limit your exposure to things that you are less familiar with, but which can be a source of inspiration. I think it's important that I'm exposed to a variety of things to find the best way to express myself.
Tell us about your experience as a judge for the Home Fish Home competition
I was one of three judges for the event. The other two were big names in the industry and so I felt really honoured to be given the opportunity. We picked 15 entries from the students’ drawings, and the shortlisted students would have to turn their design into 3-D. Each judge provided guidance to five students and had to produce their own artwork too. Mine consisted of six transparent cubes – one big and five small – with pictures of sea creatures painted on them. The cubes are then placed on a sheet of mirror card, and the many reflections a sense of space, which I think is vital for marine life.
What challenges do you face?
As an individual, I only have a few stories to share, so I need to expand my reserve of experiences. By working with others, I can tell as many stories as possible. For example, I wasn't particularly alert to the issue of marine conservation before taking part in the Home Fish Home event. But it was a great experience that taught me a lot.
Also, since I am most familiar with the two-dimensional art form, I sometimes find 3D or other kinds of work challenging. The best way to overcome this problem is to experiment. You need to be patient because experiments take time, and you'd better love what you do because only then can you sustain your passion and determination to find the solution.
What's your advice to prospective designers?
Don't be afraid of creating something “ugly” or atypical in the conventional sense. What matters is using the most appropriate and effective channel to convey your message. Be curious about what is happening around you. Be a keen observer and don't be controlled by gadgets.