Stressful to design the perfect hongbao

Liew Ann Lee, a designer at Caston Private Limited, which produces red packets and other festive products.

When most of your clients are large banks, meeting their expectations of the perfect red packet can be stressful, says designer Miss Liew Ann Lee.

The months leading up to Chinese New Year are the most intense.

“The expectations get higher every year, and there’s always a sense of competition and comparison among them (banks) when it comes to who dishes out the nicest hongbao,” says Miss Liew, who is in her late 20s.

“After all, it’s something aunties queue up for every time Chinese New Year rolls around,” she adds with a chuckle.

And yes, people do compare designs.

Designing a red packet can take just a day or two, or stretch across months, depending on how elaborate the design is, says the soft-spoken industrial design graduate, who studied at the National University of Singapore.

She does not deal directly with the clients – the marketing department handles that – but having to tweak the design over and over again can test her patience.

But it is all part of the job. You cannot lose your cool if clients want it tweaked. Even if it happens again and again, she says.

“Some clients listen to us and trust us as experts, while others need a bit of convincing,” she says. 

Miss Liew works at Caston, which produces hongbao and other festive products such as Christmas and Deepavali greeting cards. 

The company is one of the biggest hongbao producers here, and it has been dubbed “hongbao king” in previous news reports. This year, the company received local orders for about 40 million pieces.

And while red is still lucky, “these days it is increasingly common to incorporate neon colours such as bright pink, or embroidery technique,” she says.

While most of the red packets are manufactured overseas, Caston’s signature product – red packets made of silk – is produced here.

Its top-of-the-line products cost three to five times more than the typical red packet made from paper and are usually ordered by luxury brands. 

The process of designing a range of red packets begins as early as May. Miss Liew and a few other designers brainstorm for ideas for the prototypes, which are presented to clients in September.

It can be tough ensuring the red packets look fresh every year. 

“You’ve got to find the balance between tradition and the modern elements that you want to inject into the design,” she explains.

To get inspiration, Miss Liew takes to the streets and the malls.

“I go shopping and observe the prints and colours on clothes, which often give me ideas.

“I also take reference from Chinese calligraphy, paying special attention to the brush strokes of important characters. Researching and designing take place concurrently, in a back-and-forth manner,” she says, adding that half of the design process is spent researching.

It can be discouraging when her design is not appreciated by clients or even colleagues.

“You just have to be receptive to advice and feedback from fellow designers and creative directors, and move on,” she says.

Because of the long hours spent staring at the computer screen while designing, stiff and aching shoulders are a common ailment among her team.

But the job has its perks. The company’s design team gets sponsored trips overseas to get fresh ideas.

“Last year, we went to Japan and attended a stationery exhibition. We also managed to see sakura flowers, which inspired me to feature peach blossoms this year,” she says.

Miss Liew, who is Malaysian and a permanent resident here, is always excited to present her parents with the hongbao she designed, along with part of her salary.

“The relatives look forward to my visit because they like to get their hands on my red packets, which they consider prettier than those available.”

Some of the red packets produced by the company are so attractive that they lead to imitations.

“Designs in the pipeline are well-guarded secrets, but designs from previous years are sometimes reproduced on paper, which is cheaper,” she says, adding that not much can be done about the copies, except for them to work harder to design more unique ones.

Secrets of the trade

1 Knowing the basics of Chinese culture is a prerequisite for this job. Reading books and magazines will come in handy during the design process. 

2 Keep your mobile phone and notebook with you at all times. This ensures that you can capture interesting sights or experiences, which may prove useful later.

3 It’s all about the details. Don’t just use your eyes to check the finished product. Feel the product for any cracks at the edge, where it is folded. Sometimes, shiny foil stamped onto the red packet may fall off.

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