With a portfolio of big brand collaborations – including The New York Times, Red Bull and Nike – under his belt, Cape Town-based designer and illustrator, Daniel Ting Chong isn’t slowing down as the digital evolution speeds up. Instead, he is embracing the change, and finding creative new ways to incorporate AI and technology into his art. He chats to Fast Company SA about new age aesthetics and his road to becoming a household name.
Let us get to know you a little better…
I was born in Cape Town and am third-generation South African Chinese. I graduated with a BA in Brand Communication and worked at a small but potent design studio called The President. After about two years, I decided to start something of my own. I joined a group of friends to co-share a studio space in the Woodstock area. We split the expenses to alleviate our overheads as we had gone straight into an independent career and did not have any clients on the books yet. Almost a decade later and I’m fortunate enough to still be independent as a one-man-show in Woodstock. Over the past nine years, I have worked with numerous well-known international brands, most notably a handful of independent startups in South Africa and abroad. The projects have led me to work in various creative disciplines, such as brand identity, apparel design, publication design, interior design specs and digital campaigns.
From where does inspiration flow when you design?
Every project demands a different solution and communicates a unique story. I always research categories that will build a strong foundation for an idea to lean on. Only then do I approach the visual side of the project. In my opinion, you should never Google for inspiration – it’s just another word for ‘you’. It stems from everything in life – from family, friends and music to hobbies outside of your job.
How would you describe your individual style?
I don’t believe I have a specific aesthetic. Rather, creatives should have a strong approach or mindset instead of just a visual style; trends come and go, but thinking doesn’t. It’s a good fundamental to have, as your business will have a far greater lifespan than a business that ticks all the boxes for a certain time period. In my practice, I allow for the research or strategy to drive the visual interpretation of my projects rather than making them conform to an aesthetic. If you have a style-first approach, your work starts to look the same – which is completely fine – however, it then becomes difficult for brands or prospective clients to be differentiated.
You used creative coding to create collaborative artwork for Design Indaba 2019. What does this process entail?
The Design Indaba 2019 campaign has an overarching theme of ‘What can artificial intelligence (AI) do for you?’. I wanted to answer this as earnestly as possible. I’m not a coder by any means but I wanted to pay homage to the theme by creating a brand identity that mimics AI. I felt that the concept was strong but also fun. We created a system – bascially a set of rules that would apply to us and computers. It allows us to try something new and practise creativity together. There are 13 shapes in four colours that the computer selects through a script. We add physics to the shapes and have no idea on what the final composition will be.
It depends on environmental parameters around the shapes and where it may bounce and fall on the layout. Each execution is completely different, which extends the identity into something unexpected and modular. The organic nature of the falling shapes leaning on one another communicates the concept of a support structure. Each shape thus represents us as humans relying on each other, and highlights the fact that across all disciplines of design we can help each other to create the unimaginable. The computer also assigns a sound for every shape it selects, resulting in an intriguing play of notes distinct to each layout. The more shapes there are, the more intricate the sound design. The copy for the identity is also selected by the computer which is fascinating. I worked with Paul White to develop a document of words from which the script selects. This is utilised for banners, social media posts and print executions.
You say that “exploring an alternative reality, one where technological symbiosis creates something better, something that’s both human and inhuman. It’s no longer Man vs Machine, it’s now Man X Machine”. What do you mean by this?
What I mean by this statement is that technology isn’t us and them, but rather a mutual relationship. Machines assist us every day: Think mobile devices and even the basic example of a calculator. Man X Machine is most evident in the medical field where surgeons can now perform complex operations remotely and precisely through technology.
How do AI, bots, computers and applications ‘combine’ with designers and artists in order to create their work?
As a creative, we can still direct production methods or computers to execute in a certain way and ultimately still be the creator. Computers can assist us at far greater speeds than if we had to rely on ourselves completely. I see AI, bots and computers as extensions of workshop tools, like a hammer or a jigsaw. Ten designers can all use a computer to execute the same project, yet, there would be 10 different outcomes as the individual is always the decision maker.
How can simplicity in design provide an elegant solution to a complex problem?
I regard really good design as something that seems simplistic and easy, but is in fact complex and intricate in its construction. You as the creative need to solve complex solutions for people, so they seem simplistic.
I’m currently working on a few projects at the moment. There will be another sneaker launch with PUMA this year. This will be a South African-based project, but on a global scale. Another apparel-based project is a new menswear label only utilising fabrics and production from Africa. I’m also working on a coffee shop in Saudi Arabia that is entirely female-owned and carries a beautiful story to be told through their business. Between all of these projects, I service my existing clients with innovative campaigns.
Article originally published in Fast Company SA’s March/April 2019 issue.