Preparing students for creative careers at SCAD Hong Kong
“What would you do if you were able to have one of these buildings?” says Khoi Vo, Vice President of Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong.
In 2008, that was the question companies vying to take over the old North Kowloon Magistracy building in Sham Shui Po had to answer. Shuttered since 2005, the property was one of seven in the first batch of the government’s Revitalizing Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme.
SCAD proposed converting the site into its first Asia campus, and won the bid the following year. The rest, as they say, is history.
SCAD is located inside the former North Kowloon Magistracy building, a UNESCO-world heritage site
Student artworks adorn the walls and corridors at SCAD
In celebration of SCAD HK’s upcoming 10th birthday, we took a trip to the unconventional campus to see how far it has come over the years and to meet Vo, who was appointed VP of SCAD HK in May 2018.
With the support of his leadership team and colleagues in Savannah and Atlanta, Vo is responsible for the school’s entire Asia operation. He oversees the standard of education and teaching methodology, ensuring that resources such as computer labs and digital studios are available for students. He also builds relationships with the local community and industry.
Vo tells us how he’s been able to combine his professional training as an architect with a life-long passion for teaching, and how a SCAD education gives students an advantage in the workplace.
The building's original staircase tiles have been preserved
The old courtroom with its original furnishings have been preserved inside SCAD
Journey to SCAD
Vo moved with his family from Vietnam to the United States as a child, where he grew up and completed his education.
“I grew up in a typical scenario of an Asian family. My father was a physician, my mother studied medicine but went on to become a lawyer, and my older brother became a physician. Naturally, it was my turn to become a doctor or a lawyer or something that would make money,” he says.
“I tried it. I did pre-med the first year of uni, and didn’t do very well, and I think it really had to do with not finding my passion. I suppose you could say I’m the black sheep of the family.”
Khoi Vo, VP of SCAD Hong Kong
The turning point came one summer when Vo stayed with a friend’s brother who was studying architecture. “We spent a lot of time hanging out and talking about architecture. He was very passionate about it which inspired me,” he says. Vo enrolled in an architecture program shortly afterwards and even went on to complete a master’s degree in the same discipline.
“Architecture as a discipline strikes a balance between science and art, which turned out to be the combination of education I needed,” he says.
After graduation, Vo began practicing in interior design and architecture but stayed involved in academia by returning to review student work as a guest critic. “It sounds a bit cliche, but I always knew I would come back to teaching one way or another. I’ve had some really wonderful teachers and hope to one day influence the next generation of students as my teachers influenced me,” he says.
Vo’s transition from practitioner to professor was gradual: beginning as a guest critic, then being asked to teach a class “here and there” as an adjunct professor. Back then Vo’s career was “80 percent practice and 20 percent teaching, which eventually became the other way around” when he was offered a full-time position as Professor of Interior Design at a university in Los Angeles, before moving to SCAD in Savannah, Georgia.
Lecture, demonstrate, apply
SCAD is a private, non-profit university offering more than 100 academic degree programs in more than 40 majors across its locations in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; Hong Kong; Lacoste, France; and online via SCAD eLearning.
You get a consistent, multicultural experience regardless of which campus you’re at, Vo says. “No matter where you’re from, SCAD’s mission is to provide an open and safe environment for students to be able to learn. ‘Safe’ meaning being able to openly discuss ideas,” he says.
One thing he tells students when they first start is: “You are not going to be the one that’s shy sitting at the back of the class and going through class without ever being noticed. That’s just not the way we work in our teaching model. Our teaching model is very engaged – you will have dialogue. It’s not the ‘sage on stage’ approach, where the teacher lectures and you take notes for hours on end and there’s no exchange. Here it is very much the opposite,” he says.
Vo explains SCAD’s three fundamental teaching principles of “lecture, demonstrate, and apply.” The professors lecture, then demonstrate the skills they’ve taught. Then, crucially, get students to apply what they’ve learned.
Students of Film at SCAD HK make use of Hong Kong's largest green room
In addition to visits to businesses and attending invite-only events like the Business of Fashion’s China Summit at Shanghai’s fashion week in March this year, students have many opportunities to apply their skills to real life cases in the industry.
SCADstyle is a series of formal lectures by prominent people in the industry, says Vo. “We try to bring in different professionals from different disciplines to work with students. This year we had Mimi Tang, former Gucci [Asia Pacific] CEO,” he says.
SCADpro is a department that works with top brands on generating innovative business solutions and is what Vo likes to call, “The intersection between industry and academia. A company will come to us with a unique challenge they are having that they want a different approach to,” he says.
Clients include the Ritz-Carlton, which worked with SCAD HK students last year on the package design for their popular annual mooncakes – which proved a great success. “They’ve just finished the second iteration with SCAD, which will be produced and sent out over the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival,” he says.
Then there was Shanghai Tang, which wanted to reinvent its brand under the direction of a new CEO and welcome Victoria Tang-Owen back to the company as creative director with a new popup store project.
“The challenge was, how do we create a new type of popup store that sets them apart, but also represents the heritage and tradition of Shanghai Tang but also signifies that they’ve moved forward and are also innovative?” says Vo.
“Our students are working directly with these companies, who will come in and address students as designers, working with CEOs and creative directors before they are even out of school. They have an amazing resume before they even graduate,” says Vo.
In addition to a top-notch CV and good design skills, Vo says brands look for people who are also well-rounded, well-traveled and very culturally exposed. “Something that employers always say to me is they want someone who is culturally exposed so that the transition into a global company isn’t so difficult,” he says.
SCAD’s Career and Alumni Success department is dedicated to finding students internships, helping with their resumes and interviewing skills – including how to dress for an interview and how to follow up.
SCAD surveys all of its students worldwide six months after they graduate. Of those who responded from the Class of 2018, 99 percent said they were employed in their field of study or had gone on to do graduate studies. In Hong Kong, the figure was 100 percent.
“That is a big testament to the work SCAD is doing in preparing students for industry and giving them an advantage when entering the marketplace,” says Vo.
SCAD Art Sales office for interested buyers of student art
Library at SCAD
Napping pods: SCAD promotes taking healthy breaks in between classes
Good design changes lives
There are three goals that govern what Khoi does everyday. “To continue to expand the SCAD HK community, to raise the level of excellence and academic offerings here, and to continue to be recognized as an art & design university that supports and contributes to the local Hong Kong community,” he says.
Will he ever return to being a practitioner? “Oh wow, I ask that everyday! I jokingly call myself a recovering designer,” Khoi says, laughing. “I’m interested in problem solving, which for me can take on the form of designing a building or an interior, but also how to achieve those three goals I just mentioned. Academia challenges me in ways that continue to keep me excited and engaged. I am doing design work, but in a different way,” he says.
“I mean, I still walk through cities like this,” he says, looking up and around as though checking out the ceiling, “or I’ll be sitting having dinner with my wife and it’s not about the food but ‘Oh, this place has really nice lighting.’ That’s always going to be part of my DNA as a designer but I always find new outlets to practice that,” he says. At SCAD, that involves putting his creative energy into designing a curriculum for the next generation.
Khoi’s advice for artists, designers and would-be arts students is this: “In this line of work I get to meet a lot of incredible artists and designers – and they’re very diverse. The one bridging element between them is that they are constantly curious. They never learn enough. Another one – and there’s no substitute for it – is just to work hard and pursue your passion in what you want to study. I think if you can do those two things, you will be successful in whatever you do,” he says.
“It’s a wonderful time to study art and design now. We’re at a period in our history where it is being recognized and celebrated for its vitality and its importance,” he says, adding that even corporations like Apple and Tesla constantly strive to prove they are more than just product manufacturers.
“If you get into a car like that [Tesla] and it’s well designed, it makes your life better. That really is a true testament to the power of design and art,” he says.
“At SCAD we focus on preparing our students for professional careers in the disciplines they choose to study. This has been the mission of the university from the very beginning since its founding,” he says.
“We want people to understand that you can have a profession in art and design and you can sustain yourself and you can be very successful in these fields,” says Vo, himself a case in point.
For Vo, there is no better city in Asia to do so than Hong Kong.
“Historically, Hong Kong has been a leading financial center in Asia and trading post, which today has evolved into a leader of art and design and culture. World-class galleries sit alongside world-class Fortune 500 companies here in our backyard, providing great opportunities for students – the challenge is how to squeeze all of that experience and all of those opportunities into a four-year education.”