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Emily Tu – HeyThere
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Emily Tu

Tung

Partner
Emily Tu is a partner / designer at one of Toronto's freshest studios - Tung. They work at the intersection of art, commerce and culture. Despite being fairly new their work is mature, beautiful, and has a timeless quality. We expect to see lots of fantastic work emerging from this studio in the future.
HT

What is Tung?

ET

Tung is the creative partnership of myself, Emily Tu, and my friend Edmond Ng.

Tu + Ng = Tung, get it? Obviously we allowed our inner teenage-selves to name the studio, but I like a good homonym. ”tung” sounds like “tongue”, and who doesn’t like tongue?

Anyway…Ed and I have been friends since school, and while we never planned on forming a studio together back then, I think we both aspired to be able to work independently one day. It was kind of fortuitous that we found ourselves at the same point in our careers, at the same time, so we just decided to start collaborating on projects together. And here we are!

We do a bit of everything: art direction, branding, identity design, book and editorial design, packaging, websites. But we’re also interested in other things, like illustration, animation, photography, and believe it or not, coding! So we really enjoy integrating these other disciplines into our design practice whenever we get the chance.

HT

Your studio is relatively new on the design scene, but you have extremely solid design credentials behind you. Did it take a long time to build up the confidence to go out on your own after having worked at such prestigious studios?

ET

It wasn’t easy leaving my last job at Underline. I was really fortunate to have worked there and to have been surrounded and mentored by such amazingly talented and funny designers. They were like family, which I think is something pretty rare and exceptional to come by at your place of work. I’d reached a point though where I needed to figure out what I was going to do next and had to leave to be able to clarify that.

I hadn’t really planned on starting up a studio when I left. The thought might have been floating around in there, but I also had other ideas for what I might want to do, like going to grad school or just freelancing for a while. I also had a dog-walking contingency plan if all else failed. To be honest, that’s still my back-up!

We just try and assess the merits of each project that comes our way, and ultimately go with our instincts.

HT

Starting a new business can be daunting. It’s easy to lose sight of your personal beliefs when you have to pay bills. What do you do to stay true to your vision of what you want Tung to be?

ET

Make less money and bring a lunch? But seriously, it’s definitely been a challenge, and also difficult when you’re still trying to establish yourself. We just try and assess the merits of each project that comes our way, and ultimately go with our instincts. I imagine it’s the sort of juggling act that all studios have to keep up if they want to do good work but also pay the bills. Luckily, we’re still small so our bills are small too.

HT

Already you are producing some timeless and beautiful pieces. We love the work Tung did for Mjölk. How do you foster these strong relationships with clients so they trust your judgement and allow you the creative freedom you need?

ET

When our objectives are aligned with our client’s and they really get what we do, that’s when we produce our best work. Communication is obviously very important, and I think being empathetic and understanding of where a client is coming from ultimately does help to develop their trust. Generally, people like to feel involved and that someone’s listening to them – that’s just human nature, really, and you can’t fault anyone for that. That said, jerks also exist… But I think that if you’re working with the right person from the start, and you’ve got a good dialogue running, the foundation is there for good work to be created.

I think it’s important to just explore and pursue the things that interest you to the fullest, and not get overly hung up on style.

HT

Tung’s work has a remarkable sensitivity to it. Conveyed through both type and image. Nothing seems forced. It’s clearly the result of years of practice. What things do you do to continually develop as a designer?

ET

Thanks! But there’s always so much more to learn… I actually often think more about the skills I’m lacking or that I wish were more developed, and weirdly, that motivates me to work harder and develop them further. It helps being constantly bombarded by the awesomeness of the Internet. It can be crippling if you let the volume of it weigh you down, but I actually find it very inspiring.

HT

Students of design often struggle to find their “voice”. What advice would you give to them?

ET

I’m not sure I’m particularly qualified to offer any advice on this since I’m probably still trying to find my own “voice”. But I think it’s important to just explore and pursue the things that interest you to the fullest, and not get overly hung up on style – especially while you’re still a student. Your voice might change over time anyway – which isn’t a bad thing – so I wouldn’t get too fixated on defining one now. It’s good to be adaptable.

HT

You did a project where you created abstract maps of Canada and Toronto neighbourhoods. What was the motivation behind this in-house project?

ET

When we started Tung, we had some spare time, so we decided to use it to collaborate on a personal project. Since we were just launching the studio, it made sense that we could also use the project to promote ourselves to the people we wanted to work with. People from Toronto love to complain about Toronto – and I’m no exception – but really, there are so many interesting individuals, organizations and start-ups doing very interesting things here. That’s when the idea of a multi-textured map emerged. We really wanted to evoke that sense of diversity and vibrancy that we see all over the city, and to tell people that we liked what they were doing.

In the end, we produced five different neighbourhood maps that we delivered to select individuals and businesses, personalizing each map with a fluorescent dot to denote the location of the recipient – one of the bright spots in our bright city. We received a lot of positive feedback, which was great, and made some new connections, including the talented design duo M-S-D-S, whose beautiful studio space we now share!

We just want to work with good, honest people who are genuinely passionate about what they do and are eager to work with us.

HT

Finding new clients is hard. Finding great new clients is harder. Do you have a certain unofficial criteria that clients have to meet before you work with them?

ET

It is hard! And honestly, I don’t really feel like we’re at a point where we can pick and choose. We did turn down one job that clashed with our personal values and ethics, but generally we’re pretty open to working with anyone. Really, we just want to work with good, honest people who are genuinely passionate about what they do and are eager to work with us.

HT

You state that Tung works within the fields of art, culture and commerce. How do you find working with cultural and artistic clients versus a more standard commercially driven client? What are the differences?

ET

The only real difference might be budgets, but that really doesn’t determine whether or not a project will be successful or if it will be enjoyable for us to work on. Really, it comes down to the client, their enthusiasm and how much trust they have in us. Sure, we have our own personal interests, and when you get a new project that actually coincides with something you’re personally interested in, it can be really fun and exciting. That said, if you and your client aren’t on the same page, the nature of the project – whether it’s cultural, commercial or corporate – really doesn’t matter.

When we started Tung, we met up with Vanessa from Blok Design (you should interview her!) and she offered us some wise words of advice, which were passed down to her from her old boss, the late William Drenttel. That is that you should always consider the three F’s when deciding whether or not to take on a new project: Fame, Fortune & Fun. Never take on a project if it doesn’t fulfill at least two of these three F’s. Personally, I think “Fun” is most important because it invariably means that you’re working with a good person, and that means way less emotional stress!

HT

What are your plans for Tung – to stay small and focused or to grow into a larger studio?

ET

We’d like to stay relatively small. It allows us to really focus on our work and to develop closer, more meaningful relationships with our clients, collaborators and suppliers. Also, I just can’t imagine myself running a big studio because I really enjoy designing and working hands on.


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