While his classmates in primary school were doing sums and taking notes, Fei Wong was equally busy colouring in his textbooks and adding designs in the margins. Those early artistic endeavours may not have been greatly appreciated by his teachers, but they did lead to great things. Mr Wong ultimately went on to study at the First Institute of Art and Design and, subsequently, became founder and art director of Fine Effort Illustration.
Though he completed his studies in 1981, it was only later that he found work as a full-time illustrator, which had always been his ambition. "At that time, illustrators were not considered as professionals," he recalls. "Only a handful of devoted freelancers were in the field and they worked mainly as designers." Therefore, Mr Wong followed a well-trodden path becoming assistant art director at Far East Ketchum Advertising Limited and then a visualiser at J. Walter Thompson. By 1989, though, the market was changing and he decided it was time to break away and set up his own company.
New computer applications were transforming the way illustrators could work and presenting many challenges as well. Mr Wong was among the first to use software to create designs and graphics but found the early applications were far from perfect. "The processing was so slow that it took ages to complete a simple task," he notes. However, he admits that later upgrades and developments made a big difference and that his own skills also improved.
In visual design, everything goes back to being able to draw well
"Computerised methods make the difficult easy," he says. "Some of the skills that professional illustrators might have struggled to master can now be done by almost anyone with just a few clicks of the mouse." Because of that, there are now fewer jobs which require the old-style expertise, even though the total number of design jobs is increasing. "Computerisation has come a long way, but some illustrators still prefer to work by hand, simply because it's more fun," Mr Wong says.
He adds that use of the computer may allow youngsters to acquire certain professional skills more easily, but they also miss out on some of the basics. "Drawing is still important," Mr Wong says. "It provides proper training in observation and makes you pay attention to essentials like lighting and perspective. In visual design, everything goes back to being able to draw well." He also believes a person's background and cultural surroundings have a strong influence on their artistic development. "Being sensitive to what happens around you is a prerequisite for an illustrator," he explains.
Therefore, when assessing candidates for jobs as designers or illustrators, Mr Wong is more interested in seeing their portfolios than their certificates. "It is the portfolio that counts," he says, adding that those starting out should not focus on the money because it is a profession where you have to build a name for yourself. He stresses that recognition does not come easily and that there are no overnight successes.
Professional illustrators undertake commercial projects which require them to combine an artistic viewpoint with sound business sense. Mr Wong says that this should not be regarded as restrictive, but as a chance to test different perspectives and come up with new ideas. "Nothing stops you being artistic but you must also be confident and professional," he explains.
Punctuality and meeting deadlines also play a big part in creating the right professional image. If necessary, he will work into the small hours or sleep only four hours a night to complete a project on time. He remains aware of the competition but also realises that each leading illustrator has a distinct style which clients may want for their own reasons.
As chairman of the Hong Kong Society of Illustrators (HKSI), Mr Wong is helping to raise the status of the profession. "Not many people know about us or our jobs, so I hope to make the profession better understood," he says. With the help of the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC), the HKSI is therefore undertaking various promotional campaigns and 15 delegates recently completed a series of workshops, plus a conference, exhibition and exchange programme in San Francisco. This year-round project, named i-mission, will continue until March 2006 and is intended to help professionals within the industry extend their reach to the mainland and overseas markets. "We've been working closely with the HKPC to promote the profession and are grateful for the help we've received from the council," Mr Wong says. "Ongoing activities including an industry exchange forum, exhibition, and local workshops called iX, will also help to introduce the latest international trends to practitioners and members of the general public."
As China's consumer culture develops, marketing and advertising are also becoming big business. As a result, there is new demand for design professionals able to make a product or a brand name look attractive. This means there are sure to be more openings for illustrators and designers in China.
Mr Wong has already worked on assignments in Shanghai and Beijing and believes the number of design projects will increase dramatically. The monetary rewards are usually good. "Companies who opt for professional designers and illustrators from Hong Kong are of a certain size. They can afford to pay more," he says.