Cover Ruth Chao at work in her Hong Kong studio (Photo credit: RCS)

The Hong Kong-based creative director has racked up more than 40 awards, including the prestigious Red Dot, for her work with startups, established brands and heritage projects. She tells us about the atypical path and approach that have gotten her so far

Most creative directors get into the field because they study design. Not Ruth Chao. While pursuing a degree in consumer psychology, she realised that she most enjoyed experiments in which she got to tinker with fonts and other design elements based on how viewers were processing them.

She began the application process for Parsons in New York City, however her father encouraged her to get real-world experience and learn design on the job rather than pursue another degree program. So Chao set out as an intern, proving herself while making a pittance at British Vogue. In hindsight, she appreciates his advice.

“Anything that’s tough, after you go through it, the story is better,” says Chao. “It makes you verify your own goals and desires and dreams—and it also makes you a lot more thankful.”

Equipped with the will, Chao continued to find ways to acquire new skill sets. From magazine layouts and photography, she threw herself into work with the film industry and fashion retailers before co-founding agency Indicube with Antonia Li at the age of 26. They both were recognised as Gen.T honourees in 2016 for their fresh approach to branding. Beijing-based agency PBB also took notice and acquired Indicube shortly afterwards.

See also: Ruth Chao on 5 Things Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know About Branding

Chao went on to launch Ruth Chao Studios (RCS) in 2018, where she and a close-knit team (about half male, half female) create designs tailormade to brands from different industries and cultures; no two projects are alike. As she describes her process, the value of her psychology background becomes clear.  

“When a person comes in the door, they may not know what they want, so you have to understand them, their taste and what they are trying to achieve,” says Chao. “It’s through a lot of intuition and asking the right questions.”

Chao has been working with a growing number of female entrepreneurs lately and feels a responsibility to help their businesses succeed. “There is a lot of respect because this is often the culmination of their careers and the branding, packaging, touch and feel all affect the customer experience, sometimes as much as the product itself,” says Chao. “We can help and empower these women by creating their branding.”

Read on for more of Chao’s story in her own words. 

See also: Upfront With Rachel Carrasco on Using Her Marketing Business to Empower Other Women at Work

How I was drawn to the psychology of design

I had a degree in consumer psychology at University of Bristol and spent years learning the science side of design and doing experiments on how the brain processes visual information. I still remember how we redesigned the Campbell’s soup packaging and conducted eye dart experiments. I love seeing how colours, types and proportions change the way we digest designs. After graduation, I applied to British Vogue with my sketches, paintings and photography, and luckily landed in their design department. 

My days at British Vogue were back in 2008, when designs were still made by hand, then scanned back digitally into computers. We drew typography and illustrations, shot the shots and designed layouts. I was just out of university and it was fascinating to learn in this fast-paced world of style. Then came the film company Lionsgate, where things became multi-dimensional. I learnt how to make graphics move, plan shots and draw storyboards, so visuals can come alive in a moving picture of storytelling.

Lessons in creativity from mentor William Chang

A very good friend of mine introduced me to the Oscar-nominated art director William Chang. The first time we met was at the womenswear department of a fashion store, and I was put to the test right away to style three total looks for a period film. We went for a bite afterwards and that same day, William gave me the job to work with him in Beijing on the period film. It was an opportunity of a lifetime so I went for it, and within two short weeks, I left my life in Hong Kong and went backstage in Beijing for a yearlong filmmaking journey I’ll never forget.

I learnt so much from William about creativity and its limitless facets, from costume to set design to film editing to furniture design to logos. Creativity is also not just about the creation process but everything that goes around it. You have to communicate with people and collaborate on a vision. 

The joy of working on branding with female founders

I have had the luck to work with a lot of female founders, business owners and managers on brands including Antonia Li’s Autopilot, Sonia Cheng’s Rosewood, Emily Lam-Ho’s 8 Shades and Gigi Lai’s CosMax Group. It is always empowering to work together to make dreams and plans happen. I enjoy finding and sculpting that uniqueness in each of the brands we work with, and making it the star in its field to shine.

I think in the times of today, being a woman can be a great strength in any field. Intuition brings a deeper understanding and gentility is always a great balance to strength. I don’t see being a woman as an advantage or disadvantage. Everyone is unique in the way they are.

See also: Upfront With Microsoft's Cally Chan on Becoming a Female Leader in Tech

Developing my distinct approach: handcrafted, unconventional, east-meets-west

Our creations at RCS always have a handcrafted quality, made innovative by technology, maybe that’s inspired by my days at Vogue, where things were made both by hand and digital. I love the roots of Hong Kong being east mixed with west, something which I see in myself as well, having grown up here in Hong Kong and lived in different countries abroad. It helps me gauge and connect with different cultures and bring alive brands with a global perspective.

My creative process is very much about finding that perfect balance of elements. Between form and function, logic and emotions, history and innovation, east and west. Every project is different and I love striking that perfect point of balance. It also comes with understanding where the conventional box is, so I can go outside of it to make something unique. I always say, the dream project is the next one.

Heritage projects can bring hope to Hong Kong

I love history and the stories of time. Naturally in heritage projects and corporate rebranding, it is all about understanding the past, refreshing the present and building for the future. For me as a native Hongkonger, projects like Central Market and 1881 Heritage are especially close to heart—to preserve and retell the stories of our city and to hopefully bring a sense of positivity and light for our future.

See also: 5 Design Features Not to Miss at Central Market

 

Advice for my younger self: “enjoy the journey”

One thing I wish I could share with my younger self is to enjoy the journey. I was always in a rush to finish a design or meet a deadline, to reach a goal or go somewhere. Of course timing is important, but I’ve learnt that the process is just as important as the result. Happiness comes from enjoying the journey, it is a state of mind and it is about being in the here and now.

How I recharge from working a lot

A misconception people might have about me is that I am outgoing or enjoy being out and about. The truth is I very much enjoy being close with a few great friends and having simple moments with my significant other and my doggy Clover. I spend a lot of time at work, and it is in the way I recharge that I come back to centre with myself.

On staying engaged and challenged

As a creative, I see life as an evolving design. It is always a work in progress, and the great constant is perpetual change. To stay engaged and challenged, I go out of my comfort zone, and I am learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“My proudest moments are always with my team”

As creatives, we work such long hours together and they are my second family. I love it most when I catch them chatting with each other. Not necessarily about design, but just generally chatting with this happy mood in the studio. I guess it makes me happy to see that I’ve built a place of creativity and happy fulfilment.

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