Jonathan Mak is a graphic and web designer raised and based in Hong Kong. A graduate from Polytechnic University, his unique final year project caught plenty of attention with its’ bold and distinctive graphic style, based on the concept of original thought. He also experiments in motion graphics to illustration and touches on philosophy for inspiration in his work.
“Originally created as a tribute when Steve Jobs left Apple, but the design went viral when he passed away shortly afterwards.
Bottom: Graham Fink from Ogilvy China met with me after the Apple incident, which led to a project with Coca-Cola.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up and what inspired you to be a designer?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, where my mother teaches English at a primary school, and my father worked as a translator for the government. They didn’t push me to follow into their footsteps, but I grew up with a love for language and books because of them. Around the age of 13, I started making web banners in MS paint. I can’t explain the urge, but the moment I started my first blog, I felt that it needed graphics. So I made lots of them, and never stopped. Fast forward 5 years to when I had to pick a university, it was a choice between studying literature or design. Neither promised a particularly good career by Hong Kong’s standards, but design programmes get a worse rep for being where kids with bad grades belong. I actually did ok at school, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t at least give graphic design a try. It combines two of my favorite things: turning words into visuals. I simply liked design on a very visceral level. I was very proud about it too. As a high school kid, I’d walk around exhibitions thinking to myself: “Pfft, I could do it better.” So I guess I didn’t get into the field to save the world with good design. I just had a huge ego (and no self-awareness).
What kind of design do you do? Can you tell us about your thought process?
It would be an easy answer 2-3 years ago, when I was trying my hand at minimalist graphics. My “style” was apparent, and through a bit of luck, my posts on Tumblr got me some recognition (My graphic commemorating Steve Job’s passing went viral, which led to a commercial project with Coca Cola). There was no particular thought process involved: just a series of happy accidents and random visual associations. I’d love to have some grand philosophy about form and function, but the truth is, 1.5 years into my first full-time job as a web designer, juggling my work with my interests in print, illustration, and motion graphics is challenging enough. I haven’t found my groove since I left the creative sanctuary that is design school, let alone a process!
“Illustrations from a story book I made about a cyberbullying sparrow on Twitter.”
What are your biggest inspirations in design trends currently?
I suppose the most obvious trends are the eye candy on everyone’s Behance and Pinterest, but now there’s a wave of people putting down sites like Dribbble for putting style above substance. There are as many people creating “hipster-style” logos as there are those making fun of them, to the point that criticizing these clichés are becoming a cliché itself. I’m as jaded and cynical as any other designer, but after all the talk about trends and timelessness, I think it’s still better to create something rather than nothing. I have a love/hate relationship with this continuing discussion on originality, because getting too deep into the conversation stops me from making anything at all, yet it’s a fascinating topic. So it’s not the trends that I find interesting, but people’s reactions towards them.
“Two of the designs I created during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.”
What do you feel is the most exciting thing happening in the Hong Kong art and design scene?
Ink’chacha, Hong Kong’s only risograph print studio is doing cool print based projects to promote risograph printing over here. There also seems to be more and more workshops and exhibitions about things like printmaking and zines these days. But honestly, I never feel comfortable commenting on “the scene” here, because, even though I’m part of it by simply being a designer in HK. I don’t consider myself an active participant, unlike some of my friends who seem to know everyone. That was why the Umbrella Movement, aside from its obvious political significance, was so striking. Not only were there the usual artists and designers doing their thing, normal citizens were making their voices heard in unexpected ways too. Drawings, installations… everyone was making art inside the occupy zones, where there was no separation between the “design scene” and “the masses”. Because the creativity was everywhere, it was very inspiring.
“As I did research for my graduation project, I found it ironic that many quotes about originality are eerily similar, or surprisingly contradictory. This is an excerpt from one of my booklets.”
Have you got any exciting projects coming up in 2015 that you can tell us about?
A year ago, I finished my graduation project, which was about originality. I spent a long time looking for fresh, new ways to explore the idea, when the point might exactly be that there are no fresh, new ways to communicate anything at all. It was a very meta, self-defeating project, which I presented at the final exhibition with 3 booklets and an interactive screen, documenting my struggle. I stood next to my booth the whole time, grabbing every chance to discuss with passers-by. It was a very unique experience that I find hard to capture with just pictures of my books and iPad. So this year, I hope to adapt my project from print into the digital medium, so it reaches more people. As pretentious and fruitless my project may have been, I want to share the masochistic joy I got out of it.
“Another excerpt from my graduation project. Continuing to explore the relationship between the perceived novelty of a thought, and the different ways we express the idea.”
As a Hong Kong designer, what has influenced you most about living here?
As someone who loves bold, flat shapes and typography (like every designer), I enjoy the geometric compositions you get from all the buildings. I also look for interesting street type from different districts around HK. They are the two main things you see on my Instagram (@jmaklong).
“My booth at the graduation exhibition.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring designer looking to work in Hong Kong?
Because of how small Hong Kong is, it’s quite easy to keep track of design and art events around the city, so do try to go. On the virtual front, just set time aside for personal projects and share them online. There are obviously already many talented people here that create great work, but I think it was only in recent years that more and more local designers are focusing on their online presence. In short, the obvious: meet more people and put your work out there. I should take my own advice.
“A Chinese typeface inspired by my love for Hong Kong’s architectural geometry.”
What do you love doing outside of your design work?
Listening to an unhealthy amount of comedy podcasts.