De Sign-Age is a blog dedicated to sharing anecdotes and trivia about the signage systems in Hong Kong, Macau and around the world, trying to explore the meaning, historical changes and cultural contexts behind them through its design features. Hugo is from Macau and lives in Hong Kong.
What inspired and motivated you to open the blog/Facebook page De Sign-Age?
I’ve always been interested in the topic since my dad is a graphic designer. There would be a lot of books and materials with pictures about the design of signages, so I have always been aware. In fact, signages can be seen on a lot of drawings that I did when I was young, it could be described as a long-standing passion of mine. Besides, I was so lucky to have the chance travelling abroad with my parents.
It has really broadened my horizon and those precious experiences have turned into the foundation of my Facebook page, like the story about Porto's branding strategy. Eventually, when I was pursing my bachelor degree of Urban Studies at the university in 2014, I decided that I wanted to create a Facebook page with a blog to share these thoughts with other people.
How did you get started and gather the specific resources/ skills needed?
As mentioned, signages have always been my interest and I have had influences from my dad growing up. Studying urban planning at university also gave me a new framework to understand Hong Kong and it’s signages. The city itself also provides plentiful resources, with a variety of old signages left behind from various eras in Hong Kong. It gave me a lot of new contexts to think in and reflect upon because of the unique colonial history and transition.
Also, when I first moved to Hong Kong, I had to get used to the new environment, and would go to explore a lot of new public facilities, streets, and housing estates, especially in new towns. All those facilitated new understanding and observation of the city I’m in. I doubt that I would have started the blog and page if I hadn’t moved and studied in Hong Kong.
Was it hard to start writing the blog and operating the page?
Not really, as I don’t write too systematically, and the writings are more of a casual blog and thoughts. The original intention of the page was to share and use different areas of knowledge of the signage system as an entry point towards (re-)understanding the community and cities around us. I simply wished to share and start a discussion.
For example, I wrote an article about the change of units in the speed limit signages in the 1980s when I spotted a speed limit sign in Kowloon stating km/h on it. It turns out that all speed limit signs were using the imperial units system (miles, yards) during the British colonial period. The Hong Kong government planned to change all of them into the metrics system (km, metres) after signing the metre convention to adhere to international standards for using the metric system in the 1960s.
Due to some resistance from the Conservative Party, the British government never really implemented the change. Yet the Hong Kong government even set up a metrication committee to implement the conversion of everything (not only signages) to the metric system. There was 3 days of public holidays in 1984 all of the speed limit of all roads was set at 50km/hr and all the signs were taken down and changed during the 3 days.
The example is a history about signage, but it reflects the course of history and politics in the society, allowing us a deeper understanding.
Why base in Hong Kong?
HK has many old signages that can reflect the situation or stories from different eras, for example the KaiTak airport road sign with old typography produced by prisoners and the black-and-white pole which is a classic pattern for Hong Kong road sign. Furthermore, Hong Kong is much larger in terms of territory, compared to Macau, leaving a lot of old signages untouched, for example in villages in Tsuen Wan, where signs from even the 80s are left behind, all of which as its special characteristics. While Macau has more colonial legacy in its architecture because of its positioning in tourism, much of the signage has been digitalized or changed.
What is the impact or message that you wish to bring to your audience/community in Hong Kong?
I wish to show people that Hong Kong has its unique identity, reflected through its signage and and the design rationale behind. A lot of people used to say, “HK is a cultural desert”, but I think they haven’t really tried to discover the hidden cultures and history in HK.
HK has a very rich cultural context and history, and I hope more people would be able to see it.
What do you think are the major social changes in Hong Kong in the recent years reflected through your observation of signages?
More recently, there seems to be an increase of emphasis on walkability in the city as the government has been doing various things to encourage walkability as part of the government’s Walk in Hong Kong initiative. Generally, there also seems to be more awareness on the conservation of signages and related cultural relics.
The recent installation of "London-style wayfinding system" in Tsim Sha Tsui has arouse a great social awareness on walkability. The citizens are fond of the design regarding its better legibility and useful information. They go site visits while share some suggestions for making the system adaptive to Hong Kong context, like adjusting the bi-lingual typography issue.
How do you think De sign-age impacts you personally, and your community/ the city?
Personally, I have become more observant about different urban environments after opening the blog. Occasionally, when I discuss about certain issues or problems online, they get shared and reaches groups that eventually help get things fixed. For example, I found an Internet Corner within a shopping mall with a historical symbols to illustrate that. At first, none of the computers were operating. Yet, after one of my fans shared the post to the community Facebook group, the computers became normal again.
How are you planning to continue?
I’m going to continue the blog with the same goal, at the same time I wish to diversify the type of signages I’m writing about, I’ll try including other signage types other than road signage and sort them out as different themes, in order to create a more comprehensive database of signage in Hong Kong and preserve one of the most important identities of the city before they disappear. Finally, I will try to translate some of my posts into English for overseas audiences to learn deeper about the fascinated Hong Kong. Stay Tuned!
A big thank you to Hugo for the not only the interview and sharing, but also for revealing and helping many to understand Hong Kong’s unique culture and identity through his blog/writing. For more stories, visit de sign-age’s webpage:
Words by Hong Kong correspondent Carmen Kwok.
Imagery provided by Bertha Wang & Hugo Ng.