Interview with Design 360°

‘An interview with PolyU Design (Keith Tam)’, in Design 360°, issue 51 (the type issue), June 2014, pp.26–33

Design 360°: School of Design has just moved into the Jockey Club Innovation Tower, the latest landmark of Hong Kong. Congratulations. The building looks spectacular from outside, and I am more curious to know its way-finding system in the inside. Since it’s your expertise. Any insight?

Keith Tam: Thank you! It has been exciting to move to such an iconic building designed by Zaha Hadid. I believe that the new building will bring new inspirations to the School and gradually transform its culture — it is a space that is of much higher quality than our previous premises, and all programmes of the School is now housed under one roof, which is a good thing.

In terms of the building’s wayfinding system, the Information Design Lab (IDL) has taken on the responsibility, and the project is still ongoing. Our team has been prototyping and testing various design ideas to ensure that the system works for our users as intended. The most important aspect of the project is to consider a typical user’s journey in finding destinations within the tower, and to provide relevant information for them at strategic locations to ensure that they do not get lost. We provide a clear mental model for our users to understand the various activities and organisation within our School. The keyword for such a project being ‘system’: we are not designing disparate artefacts but a coherent and consistent set of principles that help people navigate around with as much ease as possible. Since the building is already an iconic architectural statement in and of itself, our design approach for the signage is therefore a rather subtle one. We did not want to create a sweeping aesthetic statement that might be at odds with the architectural language. The building is unusual in that no two floors are the same. Unlike more conventional buildings, it does not have a predictable and repeatable architectural pattern. Our thinking was that the signs should not be obtrusive nor unnecessarily draw attention to themselves, but yet should be immediately apparent when needed.


We have also commissioned and co-developed a new typeface called PolyU Chatham, designed by Irene Vlachou, which will be the new corporate typeface for the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This is a sanserif typeface of generous proportions, with open counters and distinctive, legible shapes. At the moment there are three weights for signage use: regular, medium and bold, plus a variant specially made for numerals. We will expand it to a full range of weights, for print as well as screen. The Chinese typeface is Xin Gothic designed by a distinguised local type design veteran Sammy Or, who is also a part-time lecturer at the PolyU School of Design.


What’s your guiding principle for typography?

I believe that typography is situated at the intersection of language, culture, technology and aesthetics. First and foremost, typography rests on the foundation of language, this is the most important. After all, typography cannot exist without language, and language is a cornerstone of civilization. Technology on the other hand, has to do with how we render, reproduce and disseminate written language. Writing implements, paper, the book format, the internet, all the way to the now ubiquitous digital screen — they influence what letterforms or characters look like and how content is arranged, interacted and comprehended by readers. Under this context, culture comes into play. How we connect with others, how we connect with information and knowledge, our behavior and ways of life as a result of the communication as mediated by written language and communication technology, form the cultural aspects of typography. It defines who we are as groups of people who share common visions and sets of values. And last but not least, aesthetics is of course an important part of all this, but not as pure forms of artistic expression. The aesthetic value of typography is sometimes very difficult to define, evolves over time and place. Typographic aesthetics concern readers’ emotional responses and have associative qualities that can be very powerful.

‘Crossroads’ model for typography

Globally as well as in Asia, there seems to be a lot of interest in typography recently. But it seems that people tend to equate typography with fonts (the more appropriate term is ‘typefaces’), which I do not believe is necessarily the case. Typography, to me, is perhaps more about the arrangement of content for reading/viewing rather than the forms of the letters or characters themselves. I tend to be of the opinion that typography is a subset of information design, rather than an extension of, say, calligraphy. Though of course, ‘type as image’ is also an important area that’s more closely related to traditional graphic design and advertising. But from my perspective ‘type as information’ needs more urgent attention these days.

You head the Information Design Lab (IDL), a research and consultancy unit at the School of Design. The slogan goes, ‘We investigate what makes information accessible, understandable, usable and attractive.’ It’s easy to understand information design need to be legible at least, but does it really matter to be ‘attractive?’ If design is too visible, will information pass away merely as signs or symbols other than conveying meaning?

That’s not so much a ‘slogan’ than something that guides the nature of our work and our approach to design. You are right in that sometimes good design doesn’t have to be ‘attractive’ in the more traditional ‘graphic design’ sense, referring to an element of surprise or graphic impact. But being attractive — hence highly visible — is also a function that a piece of communication needs to serve. Before a user engages in the content, they need to first be able to recognise it as something that is of interest and relevance to them. So the general impression of a piece of communication does work as a symbol or sign as you’ve put it, no matter whether it is a form or an instructional leaflet or a document, and users will form subjective judgments as to what is it, whether it should be read, how to use it and how they feel about it.

For today’s news reading, which you focused on first, picture or headline? (specify the medium)

News tend to come in many different forms nowadays, most of which streamed through apps on our mobile devices. These mobile apps tend to favour headlines rather than pictures, such as RSS feeds, with images reduced to sizes smaller than postage stamps. The smaller the screen, the fewer the choices available on one ‘screenful’ of information. True multitasking is not available on small screens really. This is very different from a traditional broadsheet newspaper, where serendipity is part of the design. It is much easier to stumble upon something that you didn’t intend to read when you are browsing through a traditional printed newspaper because there are multiple entry points, and these could be large headlines or images. On mobile apps, choice is favoured over chance. There are pros and cons about this. Stories could be customised to the users’ interests in digital media, and one has more access to larger varieties of new sources. More democratic than traditional mass media perhaps, and the mode of reading has indeed shifted.

IDL launched a project to investigate the bilingual typography exclusively in Hong Kong. It’s a very interesting topic. Hong Kong is known as an international metropolis where Western culture and Lingnan culture converge and interfuse. In what ways do you think bilingual typography as part of urban codes enhances the distinctiveness of Hong Kong?

Hong Kong’s colonial history was obviously the main catalyst for its distinctive combination of the Chinese and English typographic traditions. This unique culture is manifested most vividly on the streets of Hong Kong in the signage, but also reflected in spoken language as well as print media. When two language are combined, a number of linguistic and visual issues arise, and one of the most important being status relationship. This might sound surprising, but Chinese did not become an official language in Hong Kong until the 1970s after the anti-colonial riots and what was known as the ‘Chinese Language Movement’. This evolving status relationship between Chinese and English is most easily seen signage and architectural lettering for government establishments especially. The combination of Chinese calligraphy (usually Kaishu) with Roman capitals for example is an eclectic yet distinctive approach that is uniquely Hong Kong. It does not aim for absolute harmonisation but design with respect for each culture’s heritage and tradition, unashamedly mixing the best attributes of both together. This to me is very Hong Kong and very Lingnan — it is the tolerance and openness for differences, as well as a pragmatism and ingenuity that is very honest. The prevailing approach these days tend to be one that is more in the Modernist spirit: to combine Heiti with a sanserif and Songti with a seriffed face. Aiming for a middle-ground and a so-called ‘universal’ visual language. This to me is less interesting, but nevertheless inevitable.

Is there a font type matches your personality?

If you are asking about my personal preferences, I do have them, but when it comes to using typefaces in projects, it will depend on what the project is. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s something that matches my personality, but perhaps my design philosophy or approach. I like simple ‘workhorse’ typefaces that are a little ‘understated’ in terms of character. For example when I write, I always use Georgia (designed by Matthew Carter) because it is quite neutral and works well on screen. I have a tendency to prefer plain simple typefaces like Thesis Sans (designed by Luc(as) de Groot) and Charter (designed by Matthew Carter). For Chinese typefaces I like using Monotype Sung and Xin Gothic (both designed by Sammy Or).

Is it possible Braille needs typographic modifications, too?

To the best of my knowledge yes — considerations for size and spacing for example need to be made. But I haven’t had much experience in this area.