Professor Eric Yim is the chairman of the Hong Kong Design Centre, the chairman of the Design Council Hong Kong, a professor in Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, the Director of the Ocean Park Corporation and member on the boards of a substantial number of Hong Kong’s official bodies. He’s also an award-winning architect, a furniture designer and a successful entrepreneur, but above all, Prof. Eric Yim is a true visionary who’s changing Hong Kong’s landscape, by design intervention.
Would you say your interest in design dates back to your childhood?
In my early years, I was more interested in the technical side of design. I completed my secondary education in a technical school in Hong Kong, where I learnt about woodwork, metallurgy, technical drawing, etc. This sparked my interest in materials, forms and spatial relationships. After that, I started to develop a true interest in design and craft. Despite that, I chose not to study fine art. Instead, I opted for architecture, believing it to be a discipline that requires both logical and creative thinking – the perfect combination of my nascent interests. So I studied for a degree in architecture at Manchester University, before going on to complete my Masters from Cambridge.
What was it that brought you back to Hong Kong after your time in Europe?
Well, after I finished my studies at Cambridge, I joined an architectural firm in London, one that specialised in the design of cultural spaces. My work there took me Zwickau in Germany, where we eventually set up an office. Once that was in place, I felt it was the right time to come back to Hong Kong, maybe for just 12 months, and get a feel for the local architectural scene. Once I returned, though, I realised it was very difficult to win cultural space commissions unless you worked in the government sector. Instead, I turned my hand to working on some designs for my father’s furniture business. Fortunately, the items I designed were well received. So I decided to launch my own business.
Why did you choose to branch out on your own instead of working for your father?
My father only made steel furniture, which he then sold via retail channels. For my part, though, I was designing the kind of storage systems where it is necessary to work closely with the lead architects on any development to ensure that the furniture fits exactly into the building. I was not doing retail work, but rather contract-based designing for commercial clients. When we started, it was a very small operation with just four people. In the beginning, I was acting as the sales manager, the project manager, the delivery guy and even the cleaner.
Was it easy for you to switch to designing furniture after you’d been designing buildings?
To me, they’re basically one and the same. While the end product and scale may be different, the essence is the same. You are still trying to assemble things from a variety of materials – whether concrete, glass and bricks or steel, wood, veneer and fabric. Ultimately, if you’re designing a building or making a piece of furniture, the ultimate goal should be to create something beautiful, something that will enhance people’s lives.
In what ways do you think good design can truly enhance life?
Design is everywhere. Let’s say you want to go to a music concert. Even before you set foot in the auditorium, you have been affected by design. The website where you booked the ticket, the traffic on the road, the entrance to the venue…everything has to be designed. Look at the London Underground, for instance, that’s an excellent example of design thinking. Is it very beautiful? No, nobody says it is beautiful, but it does serve its purpose seamlessly on a daily basis. That’s great design right there.
What exactly do you mean by ‘design thinking’?
Design is a process. It’s not just someone doing fancy sketches on a piece of paper. That may be part of design, but it’s far from all of it. Real design involves proper ‘design thinking’, a process where you actually go back to the root of any problem. Let’s say you are designing a chair. You have to start off by asking: “Why do you need a chair?”, “What type of chair do you need?”, “Why do you need another chair when you already have so many chairs?”. Basically, you need to identify the purpose of this chair – the thing that sets it apart from all other chairs. Otherwise you will just be creating more and more stuff that’s destined for landfill.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
Be creative, but also be curious. Ask ‘why’ at every turn. Never think you’ve learnt everything that there is to learn– the world is constantly changing. Today, the same problem may require a different solution to the one it did 10 years ago. Always keep exploring possible solutions.
Interview by: Suchetana Mukhopadhyay
Photos: Jack Law
Art direction: San Wong
Video: Kingsley Lau
Venue: Hong Kong Design Centre