On 16 March, I received a Facebook message from a small-scale Hong Kong publisher Mosses, telling me they were preparing for the publication of Kallen Yan’s photography collection; they got in touch to discuss about the translation work for the photo book. The plan was to finalise all the articles by the end of March, and to have them translated from Chinese into English and Japanese before sending for print in early April. To target launching the book during the KYOTO GRAPHIE International Photography Festival that opened on 14 April, they personally brought the articles from Hong Kong to Kyoto, so that they could reach my hands earlier. Having learned that they allowed only one month time for the entire planning and production, I was astonished by their guts, for photo book is very demanding regarding the printing quality, and hence requires more time for modifying colour saturation and et cetera. However, when seeing the photo collection was launched on time, and was sitting on the shelves in bookshops in Kyoto, my astonishment was enhanced to an inexpressible level.
Renatus Wu, one of the representatives of Mosses, was the one who reached out to me for the photo book’s translation. Not only is Renatus a book designer, owner of Edited design firm, founder of Book B bookstore and Common Room & Co. exhibition space; Renatus is also a person who can make anything come true.
R: What drove you to become a book designer?
W: I love reading, I really like words written by Wong Bik-Wan. The beauty of her words is however not shared by her book design. Her books were so poorly designed with overly small font size, flipping the pages are difficult too. Then I thought, being a designer, shouldn’t I design something in line with my passion?
R: How did you become a designer?
W: I graduated from a private design school. Upon finishing HKCEE in secondary 5, I chose this school as it only took around a year to finish the entire programme and graduate. I have already learnt to create a website at a young age, then I got too confident and thought, graphic design could be my next step after website design. Once started learning, I realised graphic design was nothing like I imagined it to be. I started working for the acclaimed Hong Kong designer, Tommy Li, even before my graduation. I had been in his firm for more than 4 years before I was invited to resign.
R: Invited to resign? What happened?
W: I mentioned to him my interest in designing books, he told me, ‘Just give it a shot. Come back to us if it doesn’t work out.’ That was how I resigned. I always remain thankful to him.
R: Did you have troubles getting design jobs as an individual?
W: There was a lecture organised by Joint Publishing, which as few as 3 people, including myself, attended. I did a hard work researching beforehand, and did all I could to impress Anne Lee, the associate editor then. I even introduced myself as a publishing practitioner; now that I think of it, I was rather cheeky. That was how I got myself into Joint Publishing, where I stayed for only half a year. I worked on only two books during my career in Joint Publishing, but both of them were award-winning designs. The I Ching Lectures was one of the two that were well-received and got reprinted for few times.
R: What made you resign so soon?
W: I am not a fan of the publishing house’s structure, where people from various departments, for instance editorial or distribution department, can all say something to criticise the design of a book.
R: After that you started your own company?
W: A Germany based Chinese designer saw my work and invited me to Germany to help preparing a book exhibition. I handed over all my work to friends and was ready to set off. Then came the unfortunate volcanic eruption in Iceland, air travel was made impossible in many places in Europe. I couldn’t be there on time for the exhibition and lost the job as a result. With only 2000 Hong Kong dollars in my pocket, I traveled to Yunnan with a frustrated mind. Hong Kong was badly hit by financial crisis, my future appeared to be grim. But one day in Yunnan, the craving for getting back to work struck me hard. I bought a train ticket for the cheapest class and returned to Hong Kong. Many companies were adversely affected by the economic situation back then, so I figure I might give myself a year to focus on jobs that I could enjoy, to design only books that I like. I wanted to see if I could make a living by designing books. I have designed altogether 5 books that year, and earned as little as 40 thousand HK dollars in total for the whole year.
R: Most of the books published by Kubrick Bookshop are designed by you. How did you build up the relationship with them?
W: I got to know Kubrick Bookshop in the same year when I returned from Yunnan. Being their design consultant gave me a certain stability. From 2010 on, around 90 percent of their books are my designs. Soon after that, I was acquainted with Sotheby’s and began designing their catalogs. These opportunities taught me that being a book designer is not a hopeless path as many imagine it to be.
R: Among many of your book designs, which gave you the most memorable time?
W: I would say it is Angela Law’s books on cinema and music. She continues editing even when I have already started designing; it is possible for her to unexpectedly add an additional piece of interview to the book. I sometimes feel my design is not good enough to cater the increased amount of content and opt to start all over again. It often takes as long as a year to finish working on her books. I am truly grateful for the tolerance of Kubrick Bookshop.
R: From my experience, publishing house usually allows only less than half a year for a manuscript to be ready for printing. One whole year sounds a really long process. Was that the book that took you the longest to work on?
W: As far as I remember, it should be Our City, Our Decades by 7 authors including Chan Wai Yee, Wong Yankwai and Hon Lai-chu instead. The book spans from 1950 through 2010, each of the authors was responsible for one decade; the book tells unrelated stories of the same characters as if sketching history of Hong Kong. It is hard to conclude 7 authors and 7 styles into a single design, therefore I went for a book cover that looks like 7 book spines being placed side by side. Different layouts were as well applied to different decade, for instance, bigger font size and greyish white paper were used for Wong Yankwai’s 1950s, as printing technique was not matured back then. Each decade has its subtly distinctive paper colour, 60s was the whitest among all, those coming after all have different shades of light grey. The difference might be too subtle to tell, but what I wanted to express was my observation of how Hong Kong slowly departed from the golden era and moved towards the depressive decades.
W：若說設計師的話，定是陸智昌了。但真正影響我最深的人，其實是哲學家Alain de Botton。他教會我「造書」其實不是Stand Alone的，而是一個整體來的。像他的書，也是用非常立體的方式來敘事。例如他在《我愛身份地位》中，他竟然由血統切入，談及以前人因階級分別，因為不會感到自卑，反而現代人有努力向上的想法，靠考試制度來分出高下，考不好的人就被視為廢、懶，但其實不一定的，因為制度不一定完善的。他以這個方法告訴我們，現代人追求的，並不一定是真理。<
R：Alain de Botton常以故事來談哲學理論，是他的多樣性思考給予你啟發嗎？
R: Which designer has influenced you the most?
W: It must be Luk Chi Cheong if we’re limiting the question to designers. However, if you asked about the person who has the greatest influence in my life, my answer would be Alain de Botton. He reminded me making book is not a stand alone process; it exists as part of the greater unity. His books are written in a very comprehensive manner. In Status Anxiety, he uses ancestry to discuss how people in the old times did not get discouraged by their underprivileged social status; elevating one’s social status through the system of examination is in fact a modern society practice that screens out the so-called unsuccessful ones. Every system has its flaws and is doomed to be imperfect. De Botton explains to us the modern society ideal is merely one of the many systems, and should not be treated as ultimate truth.
R: Alain de Botton tends to explain his philosophical through storytelling. Were you inspired by his non-linear way of thinking?
W: Indeed. If I limit myself to the book I’m designing, it is very likely to get obsessed with making beautiful books. But now I tend to explore the use of my book design. Do I design for the sake of making the book standout? The three major Chinese publishers in Hong Kong, namely Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa Book and Commercial Press, only promote books published by them. No matter how hard I try, the books I design can never win the best spot in their bookshops. Although it is to a certain extent true when people measure the quality of cover design based on how good it sells, I personally do not want to turn book design a form of advertisement. To me, I wish my book design functions the same as tea ware; tea ware doesn’t help to sell any type of tea, instead, it is a container that can well match the character of tea.
R: Besides the design firm, you also run a bookshop dedicated to independent publishers, a publishing house and an art gallery. I assume these are all efforts to help improving every aspect of publishing?
W: I guess you’re right.
R: What is the most deciding factor of book design?
W: The book title. I have a greater stress on book title than book design. Book design is a result of hypothesis and calculation; my design is based on the hypothesis I obtain from the book title. Therefore when designing a book, I sometimes discuss with the editor and the author hoping to refine the book title. The I Ching Lectures was initially named To Open the Door to I Ching. Since it is a book for beginners, I believed we should make it more clean and direct. A good book requires the joint effort of a designer with some editing knowledge, and an editor with some designing knowledge. So to speak, what I am doing is not merely designing, but to participate in making a book.