Designer, Neo Khama, talks about her journey from being a law student to launching her design agency in Hong Kong and shares her tips on being a self-taught designer, starting a career and business in a foreign country and the importance of taking risks.
Neo, can you talk about your beginnings? What was your dream job as a child and why did you decide to become a designer?
I’m from Botswana but I actually came to England at the age of eleven, where I went to a boarding school just outside of London. Growing up I was not really sure about what I wanted to do. I’ve always been academically minded even though, deep down, I knew I had a real interest for everything related to creativity and art. My father was into design and both my sister and brother were inclined toward the arts too, but for some reason it wasn’t an area I pursued at school. I think primarily because I was better at other subjects.
I had originally thought I might be a doctor, but decided to study law instead. This was a choice made with my head and not my heart. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and it seemed like a safe option. At the time, creative jobs where not as celebrated as they are right now, and to be honest I didn’t really know enough about all the different opportunities available.
When I left university I was sure of only one thing, I knew I was not fit for corporate life. I was not remotely interested in working in that type of environment. All my friends were going into corporate jobs, and, as I was still unsure of what I wanted to do, I found an internship in a modelling agency that led to a job as PR assistant. The model agency was connected to an ads agency and that’s where I got my first experience into branding. When that job ended, I stayed in the fashion industry and I went to work for a production agency where I was in charge of sponsorship and endorsement opportunities for designers during London Fashion Week.
So you never studied graphic design at school?
Not really. It’s while working that I started taking evening and online classes in graphic and web design. It wasn’t because I wanted a career change but because I was genuinely interested in it. During all these different jobs, I really got into the nitty-gritty of branding. It really was a combination of everything I learned during those years that got me into what I’m doing now.
You have travelled quite a lot, can you talk about your experience in Asia?
About four years ago, I moved to Shanghai. I had hoped to move to NY as that had always been my dream, but the timing was all wrong due to global financial crisis. A friend had just moved to Shanghai and encouraged me to visit to experience the city for myself. So after a spending a summer there, I decided to make the leap and moved the following year.
Growing up in England, definitely gave me the independence to live in different places, but while Shanghai was not a total culture shock, there are lots of elements that you need to get used. Not being able to readily communicate with everyone was one of them and being part of a very small expat community another. It really pushes you to do different things and be out of your comfort zone. I also started to learn Mandarin, which was really tough in the beginning. There are times when you do feel slightly lost and cut off from what you know, but overall it was an exciting period of life, and great to expand my horizons with a totally new language and way of thinking.
Was it easy to start a business in a new country?
By the time I moved to Shanghai, I was lucky that my friend had been there for a while and was willing to share her network of friends and contacts. Despite being a huge city, a large portion of the expat community lived in the French Concession, so you would often bump into people and to an extent it felt like a small village. Everyone in the community has experienced the difficulty in moving countries, so they are all willing to help you get started.
I stayed in Shanghai for a year and while I loved it, I knew that I wasn’t ready to settle there. I also felt very cut off from the rest of the world, primarily because the internet doesn’t work well and you feel like you are in a bubble of sorts. I wasn’t ready to leave the East though, so I decided to move to Hong Kong.
When I arrived in Hong Kong, I had found my niche and I knew what I wanted to do and what sort of companies I was hoping to work with. I set up a small boutique agency and worked out of The Hive, a shared office space that houses a community of freelancers and entrepreneurs. As a business community, Hong Kong is really straightforward and welcoming. The creative and entrepreneurial spirit in is contagious. There are so many entities helping you to set up and they really encourage startups. The government has a vehicle called HK Invest – they give free advice, and will help you set up a company, sort out your visa and the necessary paperwork.
I was in Hong Kong for two years and the business is still operating now. With the world being such a global place, I am lucky that I can still run it from wherever I am, and now work between London, Botswana and Hong Kong. I am still invested in moving to New York and I hoping to move there in the near future.
What was one challenge that you faced as a freelancer and how did you get over it?
Taking on too much work. As a freelancer I used to worry that the next job might not necessarily be around the corner, so I’d take on whatever project came my way regardless of the workload I had on, which would often put me under incredible pressure. I learnt very quickly that sometimes you need to say no, or take the risk of asking a potential client if they will delay their start date and if someone really wants to work with you, they often will.
What is one accomplishment you are most proud of?
One of my favourite jobs was for Purearth, an ethical skincare line that uses produce from the Himalayas. I started working with Kavita Khosa, the founder, in 2013, and at that point she had already been through a couple of redesigns with other designers. After all the previous setbacks, it felt very rewarding to present something to her that she loved, that added value to the brand, and that gained such positive feedback. The fact that the whole project is a sustainable enterprise that creates commerce for the women based in Manali, an area in the Himalayas made the whole process even more worthwhile.
Tell us about your design process:
After a couple of consultations with clients, I will often put down my immediate thoughts and a few basic visuals together. I will then think about the overall project from more of a strategic point of view rather than just the aesthetics. With so many diy digital/design tools, I think its really important to make sure that design work actually adds value to a project and is functional and effective. Usually the two approaches will meet and be compatible. I then compile moodboards, inspirations and a couple of different design directions, all of which I present to the client. From then on (if I am lucky), it’s usually fairly straight-forward and a back and forth collaborative approach with the client.
What advice would you give to your 20 year’s old self?
Don’t spend so much time worrying – it never changes the outcome.
Who do you see as an innovator in your industry and why?
I really admire Roanna Adams and the work her studio produces. It always feels really light and fresh but still on brand. Another creative I love is Margaret Zhang. I often read her blog if I need to feel inspired and she has definitely developed a really strong personal brand.
What was the best life and business advice someone has ever given to you?
Never be afraid to take a calculated risk and follow your heart. The worst case scenario is never as bad as you think, and the best case scenario will often pay off greatly. After studying law at university, I was well on my way to entering the corporate world and becoming a lawyer despite knowing it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. One summer later with an internship at a London modelling agency, I quit that path and started my creative journey.
What are three things you learned while running your own agency?
- How to budget.
- Extreme self-discipline.
- The ability to take advice without losing your sense of self.
What are three favorite books on your bookshelf?
Secret History by Donna Tartt
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Americana by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What is your daily routine like?
Email check, Early morning yoga & breakfast
Breakfast: All time favourite is pancakes and bacon – Sunday on Hemingford Road make the best ones. But usually, coffee, fresh juice, fruit and yoghurt
Work schedule :
Hours spent in front of my mac, interspersed with meetings and skype chats.
Favorite Lunch : Sushi
Favorite workout : I am addicted to Muay thai boxing
Evening routine before going to bed : I try very hard to stay away from my computer before bed, but night time is often when I do my best work as there are less distractions. So most of the time I spend a few hours on my computer. Otherwise I like reading.
What you like doing when you are not in front of your computer:
Being in Hong Kong got me into hiking. Most people imagine the city to be full of skyscrapers but you’d might be surprised to discover that nearly 3/4s is countryside or protected national parks. I also love cooking and food, and just down time with friends.
Five fun facts about you
- When I was 8, I used to know the lyrics to De La Soul’s “Bitties in the BK Lounge”
2. I have a new affinity with karaoke since living in Shanghai
3. I used to have a jewellery stall at Portobello market
4. I am not and have never been on facebook
5. I am weirdly good at Snake (yes, that game you used to find on old school Nokias)
Neo portrait by Daisy Honeybun