I first met Karen Huang and her husband Jimmy about 5 years ago when they had just moved into the unit next to ours out by the east coast. New neighbours can be a source of apprehension (what if the party gets too loud?), but I think both of us will unanimously agree that we got lucky with our neighbours!
Karen and Jimmy started Manic Design in 1999 and very recently decided to take a break from the design business and focus on other things in life. It’s been a fruitful collaboration over the last twenty years, with Jimmy helming the business side of things and Karen as Creative Director charting the creative vision of the company.
It’s a Wednesday morning in Singapore when my dog Milli and I drop by their apartment. There are creatives who spend their entire lives getting better at just one thing and then there are those restless creatives who feel compelled to dabble across hobbies. Karen falls in the latter camp, and over the years she’s gone through a whole bunch of hobbies. The house reflects her personality and varied interests, with each corner carrying a creation of hers.
Bob: So what all hobbies are you into these days?
Karen: My “hobbies” are in fact a source of embarrassment for me or more like guilty pleasures. As you can see, I’m currently into calligraphy. I tend to careen from phase to phase and it’s not good for credibility, nor any semblance of reliability, but I cannot help it.
I have always needed to make things and work with my hands, so I’ve always been into some kind of craft: sewing, patchwork and quilting, making bags and toys.
I was a pretty serious baker at one point, not the fussy chefy type, but I ran this online thing with my mum and a friend for a couple of years. My carrot cupcakes were awarded 5 stars out of 5 by 8 days magazine! That’s one thing I brag about any chance I get.
This year, I finally completed my yoga teacher’s training.
I recently revisited my typewriter collection and suddenly I’ve got 13.
Bob: Speaking of Manic Design, you guys have had a good run with the design firm. Tell me more about how you guys got started and how the whole thing grew? Was graphic design something that just came naturally to you that you just had to start a design firm?
Karen: Jimmy and I both came into graphic design by accident. It was 1999 and Jimmy had just left MTV and I had quit my job. We just wanted to do something for the money and there was very little barrier to entry into graphic design. It definitely wasn’t something that we started out to do, but the work was quite lucrative for the effort that went into it. We kind of fell into it… Before you knew it, twenty years have passed and here we are.
Bob: I see these awards here (D&AD Pencils) and up on the wall here. Tell me more about these and your marquee clients.
Karen: Over the years, we’ve won several Webby’s, some FWAs, two D&ADs, many Dieline awards, Awwwards…, which I guess I’m pretty proud of. Even though before I got the awards, I’ve always told myself not to look for external validation, awards are for sheep, blah blah blah and not to focus on them. But the moment I got the first one- and every time I get one- it still feels pretty damn sweet. That dopamine hit is something else.
Our marquee clients are Dilmah, MINI, BMW, Performance Motors, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, The Body Shop, Unilever, Starbucks. Many of these big names come to us for adaptation work. We also do a fair bit of work for local organizations such as National Healthcare Group, SingHealth, Ministry of Education, National Heritage Board, etc.
Projects that turn out particularly close to my vision give a different kind of fix these days, they are more important to me. In the early day, Dilmah was the client that gave us our chance to flex our creative muscles, MINI stretched us and brought in other car clients, and IBM was our very first big name client.
They all paved the way for the work that we were able to do for 28HKS, Paper Lantern, photography and styling for Gryphon Tea, 99. Ah, 99, which was miracle as far as design projects are concerned.
Not many people know that we do naming, but it is an area that I especially enjoy because it is where copy meets craft. By far my most favourite name that we’ve come up with is Idlewild, the latest bar at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Bob: So what is the next phase post Manic Design? I remember seeing your Instagram profile and it said "Soon to be doer of whatever I want".
Karen: I’m in a pretty good place right now- I’m doing my yoga and other hobbies- I still want to do a big personal photo project that’s been kicking around my head for years. I've been thinking about it for such a long time that I feel like I need to finish this before I can move onto other projects.
I’m also curious to see what I’d do when there isn’t a client to blame and when I am funding my own vision.
Bob: Churning sounds like something that is essential to your creative process…
Karen: This is how I get my ideas- the first few ideas are pretty stupid, or raw or obvious whatever, but then I brainstorm them with myself and then they are the building blocks for the ideas that eventually see fruition. Ideas hardly ever come to me whole and complete, but quite often I can put them through a process and turn them into something usable or even good if I'm lucky.
Bob: What are your design influences?
Karen: For client work, my influences tend to be quite mostly American. Wherever possible, there is an element of wit. In my favourite works, they also tend to be copy-driven. I read a lot about creativity, and I get many of my ideas applying techniques from those books. Um, I also believe in stealing like an artist.
For personal work, I tend to draw from my own life, books and interests.
Bob: And some of these projects that have been inspired by your own life are…?
Karen: One of my favourite projects “This is Water” came about when my mom and Ren (our 13-year-old puppy) passed away in the same year. I credit Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy and specifically the chapter on How to Suffer Successfully, for giving me the idea of processing the grief by making something with it.
The other part of this project comes from my interest in philosophy which led me to the David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, which is where the title came from.
The second example is the book “99” that we created for David Fuhrmann Lim. A fairly recent work, I drew inspiration from my childhood and my hobbies. My uncle gave me a mini (smaller than palm size) Webster when I was a kid, and my book-binding side gig (around 2008, I think). In 20 years of work, this was the only project that happened without any compromise (either due to the client, budget or circumstances) from the original vision. Like I mentioned earlier- a mini miracle!
Bob: What are the dynamics of being a husband wife team that runs a firm together and how did you guys partner successfully for so many years (without tearing each other's hair out in frustration as I imagine must happen when most couples decide to go into business together)?
Karen: I think I’ve been lucky, or we’ve been lucky. But I don’t want to be giving anyone any advice because I don’t want to be culpable for any murders!
Bob: Advice on landing the big clients and moving up from the small clients? How does one compete with the Goliaths of the agency world?
Karen: Believe it or not, we didn’t go out of our way to land big clients. We just happened to be there right at the start of the dot-com boom and rode the wave. Having said that, I think we were really hungry and nimble enough to pounce on the opportunities that came our way.
Bob: What's your advice for a young artist who's grappling with the complexity of retaining their vision yet trying to make it commercially?
Karen: The difference between design and art, is that design has to solve a problem, and there is usually a client if you want to pay the bills.
So for a young designer, I think it is important to embrace the “commercial” and try to develop a style (or vision) within the commercial context. Hopefully, that will bring already close the gap between your vision and the client’s.
After that, you need to be ok with compromise. Be happy with the fact that the client is adopting 80% of whatever you’ve proposed and concede the rest.
The advice given to me by Stefan Sagmeister when I bumped into him (by chance, in 2008) and asked him the exact same question was: Make as much money you can from commercial projects and use that to fund your personal projects.