CoLab: Hong Kong’s “collaboration laboratory”

by Tiffany Wan on November 21, 2012

Since 2003, designers Hung Lam (left) and Eddy Yu (right) worked together under their company, CoDesign. A few years ago, they started CoLab. CoLab is a result of a lunchtime discussion of finding a way to use their design skills to benefit society. With the chance to spend some time with Eddy Yu and Hung Lam, I found out that at the time, they had encountered social enterprises growing in Hong Kong and were shocked by the (lack of) branding of these groups and organizations. With this revelation, they saw a big opportunity to improve services through brand design and asked themselves, “How can design improve and change society?” The pair founded CoLab which stands for “collaboration” and “laboratory”. Now, with their CoLab platform, young designers are encouraged to provide input on CoLab’s Facebook Fanpage, where CoLab uses “Facebook to engage young designers to participate in design”.  Young designers are excited to get involved.

CoDesign is your traditional design studio, branding, and consulting firm which provides services to any client with a budget. CoLab, however, is the organization in which Yu and Lam work together with local, young designers and social businesses or non-profits. With CoLab, Yu and Lam oversee the projects and provide a platform and system to connect the non-profit or social business with young designers to generate new design solutions. Rather than thinking of their projects as “giving back” the two gentlemen really see themselves as educators trying to elevate design in the local community and improve the design quality of younger designers. Using CoLab as a platform for “collaboration” and  as a “laboratory”, they partner with young designers to address projects and solve problems brought to them by their partners (they prefer to form partnerships, rather than “client” relationships).

CoLab screens for potential young talent to team up with. Yu and Lam saw the need (not only to give back), but also to provide a hands on and practical experience to young designers. Yu elaborates that CoLab “needs passionate, young designers who can really dedicate themselves to our [social] projects without being too eager to earn money, but to be eager to learn something real”.  “We need their creativity”  said Hung Lam. CoLab manages the young team members on a project to project basis, as if they were freelance designers. CoLab provides structure, guidance, and business sense from their years of experience with CoDesign, while the young designers provide a fresh perspective and design inspiration for the direction of CoLab projects. However, they encourage and embrace a close working-relationship. Past experience has told Yu and Lam that “the outcome of working remotely is not always as rewarding [as working closely].” “We want to have that kind of relationship that explores and discusses in a more casual way to try different things. For that, we need to work very closely,” says Eddy Yu. CoLab plans to expand this platform through some sort of internship program as an extension of university studies. Yu and Lam aim to provide training as needed, but they currently need more resources, time, and space to make it happen.

Not only does CoLab work with young designers, the company is also proudly creating a movement around the idea of “imperfection equals perfection”, through a project called I’mperfect. With the theme of imperfection, Lam and Yu partner with other organizations to fully rethink projects and products. One I’mperfect project was teamed with a ceramics company. Seeing that the ceramic mug manufacturer discards ‘defected’ production pieces, CoLab was able to rebrand these ‘defect’ products under the I’mperfect (i’m perfect/ imperfect) theme and create desirable products rather than more waste. Sold at the local Hong Kong ceramics shop Loveramics, each mug is unique and special. No two mugs are the same. They are trying to spread this movement beyond product design and branding, they are creating an experience with I’mperfect. The I’mperfect movement has hosted yoga sessions and art making. Another I’mperfect partnership resulted from working closely with a local publisher in Hong Kong to make premium gifts and bring old books back to life with a simple design of the book jacket. With the book jacket, instead of the typical cover design and title, the new cover has one statement about the essence or contents of the book. The goal is to encourage people to see beyond the cover. As the I’mperfect movement grows, Lam and Yu aim to make the general public more aware of our waste and also show that imperfection is the same as uniqueness, which we all should and seek to embrace. Hung Lam explains that it’s “not just making something from imperfect to perfect, we want to change people’s perception of how they see the world. How to see perfection inside imperfection. This is our main core vision — to change mindsets.” Eddy Yu adds, “to see imperfection as uniqueness, rather than defects. Everything is unique, just like people.”

In addition to ironing out details of a potential 1-year internship program, CoLab has most recently partnered with Hong Kong’s PMQ (Police Married Quarters) project. In fact, it’s a perfect partnership. The PMQ is a government initiated project to revitalize the old government police married quarters in Central, Hong Kong to provide a space and studio for young designers to explore and expand their creativity, CoLab offers access to young talent and a bridge of communication between the young design community and the PMQ project. The goal as Yu puts it is that they would “like to see PMQ become an iconic place for the Hong Kong creative industry, instead of a government project with usually rather restricted policies.” There will be a kick-off for this partnership and the next step of the PMQ project at this year’s Business of Design Week. The duo of CoLab, Eddy Yu and Hung Lam will also be making a presentation for the “Design for Society” track of the conference. Hope to see you there Dec 3-8, 2012!


About the author: Tiffany Wan is a designer based in Hong Kong. Her experience includes user-research, industrial design from concept to production, and graphic communications. She is also a correspondent for Design Museum Boston. Connect with her on twitter or through her website.

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