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Uprising

Uprising: Carol Hung on Why There’s No Shortcut For Honing Your Craft

The john st. graphic designer shares all about the value of design thinking, the importance of staying curious and her obsession with ice cream, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Carol Hung on Why There’s No Shortcut For Honing Your Craft


Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, Carol Hung was a ‘rule follower’. Obedient and academically focused as a child, she’s had to step out of her comfort zone to achieve her dream of developing her creative side and working in the industry. 

“Rules were meant to be followed and I was supposed to do as I was told. It became a barrier I had to overcome as being creative sometimes means pushing boundaries, breaking rules, exploring how to interpret the same thing differently,” she says. “But I’m learning to embrace how my upbringing has given me the skill to create design systems, bring order and create rules that hold a brand together.”

Carol can look back at her younger self, a child immersed in the challenge of video games, and recognise characteristics she has to this day. “There was a sense of accomplishment in being able to beat challenging stages. I would spend hours trying to perfect a stage… It was an early sign that there was a perfectionist within me.” A ‘wallflower’ by nature, Carol enjoys building relationships with people and listening to their stories, despite her shyness, and describes herself as a detail-oriented observer, “I take pride in noticing things happening in an environment, people being left out and sudden shift in someone’s emotions.” 

Carol studied design at York University and Sheridan College, on a joint bachelor’s program. There, she learned the design fundamentals - typography, concept development, layout and more - which prepared her for work in the industry and allowed Carol to explore various interests and disciplines within design. 

Whilst potentially not as sweet as her first-ever job - at an ice cream shop that sparked a life-long frozen fixation - Carol’s first full-time job after graduating was as an art director for an advertising agency. “I remember flipping through magazines thinking these ads were so clever and cheeky, I wanted to be the one creating them. At the agency, I gained valuable experiences in co-creating and developing my conceptual skill.” Though a positive experience, the graphic designer began to miss the ‘craft of designing’ and quickly pivoted back to the design industry.

Upon returning to the design space, Carol honed her craft through the important process of making mistakes and analysing what went wrong. “I was fortunate enough to meet mentors and colleagues, that gave me space and time to learn from my mistakes. There’s no shortcut to this. Stay curious. Always ask questions when you don’t know something, learn from others…” Carol continues, explaining her tried and tested approach of spending time with and picking the brains of designers she admires, “I would ask them to take me through their design process, the thinking behind it and how they got to where they landed. Experiment, try new things, look at things from a new perspective and learn from others when you are stuck.”

Moving to different jobs and new disciplines gave Carol valuable lessons that she picked up throughout her career. She believes strongly that early on in a creative’s career is an opportune time to explore, find a mentor and create a network of people within the industry. “Don’t stay at one job. When you first get into an industry, you’re like a sponge. By moving around, working at different places with different people, you’ll find out what types of environment you thrive in, which type of leaders would make you flourish and what exactly are you interested in,” she says. “You’ll also be able to absorb the good and the bad from each place you work at making you a better leader in the future.”

Carol found her own mentor and inspiration in the form of Mooren Bofill, a creative director now at Canadian design collective 123w. She worked with Mooren when she was ECD at john st. and admires her talent as well as her grounded personality. “We spent a lot of time honing my design craft and on a personal level, helping me define my own career path and finding my voice in design. One of her most admirable traits is that she leads with her heart, and is always in support of my ideas, helping shape and push them.”

Carol’s first professional project, as an intern at a Toronto design studio, was an editorial magazine spread - and although the layouts ‘weren’t perfect’, it served as a perfect learning moment between her and the creative director. “I was fortunate to learn from some best-in-their-class designers. In the studio, everyone was dedicated to creating impeccable work, every detail of the project was being considered and I was mesmerised by their skills and talent.” Yet it wasn’t until she entered and was flown out for winning gold at the Cannes Young Lions awards, that the young creative appreciated the esteem of her field of work. “For a week, I was fully immersed in the world of creativity, learning from thought leaders, being exposed to world-class work and meeting talented individuals. It was an eye-opening experience that made me realize how special it is to be part of the creative community.”

Now based in Toronto, Carol has had time to weigh up the pros and cons of a difficult 18 month period of remote working. “I’m saving on time and money for my commute to work… and I also get to make healthier meals for lunch.” However, she adds, “ I do miss the face to face connection with my colleagues, it feels more collaborative when you are in a space together. It’s also harder to disconnect from work. I find myself always thinking about work, what I have yet to finish and what’s to come tomorrow.” The pandemic also affected Carol’s work more directly on a recent project for the rebranding of an entertainment facility. “It affected their business and that left us with a small budget to rebrand. We couldn’t afford custom photography or illustrations, so the challenge became, how do we create an iconic brand with limited resources.” 

Through her designing skills, whether it be on rebrandings or the wacky No Frills banana controller, the john st. creative aspires to design brands with meaning. “I hope to educate people on the value and importance of design thinking. Design is not just an end product, it’s an approach to problem-solving - something that can solve real-life problems.” This, however, is easier said than done. Carol says the difficulties arise in creating concepts and identifying a ‘strategic insight’ that distils a brand into an idea. “Putting beautiful things on a page is easy, but that’s not building a meaningful brand… No matter how beautifully crafted a piece of work is, without a concept, the work loses its meaning.”

Creating and designing these impactful brands and campaigns, then seeing them come to life in the real world, is what makes the work worthwhile for Carol. “It still feels surreal when it’s seen in the public. Being able to create insightful brands, communicate through visual language, then having people connect and resonate with the work is truly an incredible feeling.”

Although Carol values the process of design and design thinking very highly, as a designer would, some outside-of-the-industry individuals can underestimate or be ignorant of its importance. This assumed perception that design is ‘subjective and something that their cousin with basic photoshop skills can do’, is something that often comes up and frustrates the designer. “Design goes beyond aesthetics, it’s a way of thinking and solving problems. It’s not a preference of colour, every design decision that is made is informed by and an outcome of an idea or insight.” Fortunately, many large brands have deliberately brought design thinking into the mainstream, “Companies like Apple, or Nike have done an excellent job…” she says, sharing her excitement for more people to be educated on the value of design by these industry giants. “Many people have experienced how design is applied to every aspect of Apple, from the moment you walk into their stores to when you purchase and interact with their products. What these organisations are doing is inspiring other businesses to slowly see the value in design beyond the aesthetics.”

With more businesses now appreciating the value of design thinking, you would expect a larger investment in the field from organisations looking to rebrand or design their products and campaigns. However, Carol reveals that this may not be the case - simultaneously with this industry-wide realisation, the technology has advanced access to templates, meaning design services has become significantly easier and more affordable. The result? According to Carol - ‘mediocre design’. “Businesses no longer need to invest a lot or see the value of investing in design. While I agree that these tools can help small businesses operating under low budget with their design needs, it also devalues the whole design process.”

Besides the difficulties of communicating the importance of design, Carol says there is still room for improvement in another aspect of the industry - sustainable working. In an industry so full of passionate, creative and often perfectionist people, it’s unsurprising that Carol cites burnout and a lack of work-life balance as prevalent issues. “We dedicate so much of our day to perfecting the idea, crafting the work, there are even memes speaking to the amount of “final_final_final_v7.psd” iterations of what we felt was final. I think the industry can cultivate a more sustainable working habit, with healthier timelines and compensation.”

When she isn’t designing or working at her computer, Carol likes to travel. Not only does it ‘keep her away from her phone’, but the designer uses it as a source of revitalisation and stimulation - showing her new perspectives that influence future projects. Aside from her other, mainly aesthetically-based, passions - photography, food plating, floristry and interior design -  travelling also conveniently facilitates her ice cream obsession. “I make sure that I check out local ice cream shops. I can go on and on about how passionate I am about ice cream, their textures and different flavour combinations.” Her sweet-toothed hobbies are not limited to just ice cream however, “ I love baking and it’s also an escape for me. Whenever I’m stressed and want to take my mind off something, I turn to baking. It’s a soothing activity for me and the bonus is, I get to share the treats with friends and family.”

Entertainment that captures her imagination to this day is Pixar’s many animated films and shorts, admiring their dedication to creating ‘emotional and relatable stories’ which people of all ages can take something from. It’s this imagination and the desire to bring imaginative ideas to life that motivates Carol in her work and her life in general.

“Anything is a possibility in my imagination, there are no restrictions, limitations and no right or wrong. A world without imagination is a world at a halt. Every progression we’ve made started from a “what if…”. Imagining is a way to free myself from all the rules in the real world.”


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