Oddity’s Alice Mourou on starting the Hong Kong-based studio and her continuous learning process
Oddity are an independent team of creative people who ‘beat the useless rules and templates’ of working in design. With a studio based in the heart of Hong Kong, the practice work with international clients to create distinct brands through technology and design, from concept to production. Creating story-driven identities, Oddity are all about ‘making your own way.’ We spoke with Founder and Creative Director Alice Mourou about the ‘odd’ beginning of the studio, their organic growth, and unrestrictive creative approach.
PT Hello Alice! How is 2022 going for you so far?
AM Full of contrasts. On one hand, the studio is getting stronger, on the other hand, we are living through the effects of the pandemic and insanity of war in Ukraine.
PT How did the studio start out?
AM When we moved to Hong Kong I was looking for a small family-like studio to join. I didn’t want to work for a big agency, even though I had quite a few great offers. I am not a fan of complex hierarchy, and heavy management over design. At some point, I realised that if I couldn’t find what I was looking for I should probably build it myself. I started as a freelancer.
Coming from a digital background, I have attracted quite a lot of clients with my storytelling approach to web and apps. It was the time when the terms ‘UI’ and ‘UX’ were exaggerated, user behaviour and best practices were non-negotiable rules and gave a green light for standardised templates, while curiosity of the design process was gradually neglected. On the contrary, my work was balancing practicality and memorable uniqueness of experience. I would consider layouts as a writer – with the setup of a story, climaxes, midpoints and resolutions – to keep users attention with a tailor-made visual tone of voice of the brand. It naturally went beyond digital, and I was often asked if I could design a logo, printed materials or even a full brand.
I am a tactile person in love with materials. I always wanted to create beyond the screen, yet I was always honest enough to confess my lack of skills in graphic design to my clients. I had no knowledge of print and I was scared of logotypes, so one day I was told: “Hire a graphic designer better than you are and learn from him!”
That’s when the studio really started. By that time I already had an intern, digital designer, project manager, front-end developer and a rented space. The growth was so perfectly organic it took me by surprise to transit from solo work to running a dream-chasing collective.
Our portfolio is a proof of trust from like-minded people.
PT Where did the name Oddity come from?
AM I was looking for a name even before the studio formed to ensure it is not about me, but about something abstract to represent everyone. Being odd was always around. Opening the studio in the country where we just moved in was odd, having no financial backup was odd, mixing digital and graphic was odd, and rebelling against best practices was odd. Wordy manifestation ‘Oddity’ came from Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity.’ It will always remind me and the team that we can be heroes.
PT How has the studio, and the work you do, evolved since you began?
AM When we started everything was new, and many things were done for the first time. I personally had to pick up knowledge in missing areas of graphic design on my own through daily practice and reading. We had a lot of courage to prove our ideas and the way of working to almost an unbelievable extent in some instances. We were a team of five when we managed to do a global rebrand of the financial corporation Manulife. Would you bet on a young design studio with no name against a big international agency? I didn’t believe till the end that Manulife would give us the project, yet it happened.
It is different now. We established our design process, it is less raw and more predictable, still odd and constantly evolving. We know what we are capable of, and we are gradually practising to get even better. Relationships with clients evolved too – our portfolio is a proof of trust from like-minded people who encourage us to challenge best practices.
Routine does not help the creative process.
PT How would you describe the culture at Oddity?
AM We are all equal here, open to sharing and getting involved in each other’s process. Our atmosphere is relaxing yet we are highly dedicated to the outcome, and encourage each other to take challenges, ask questions and explore new ways in the process.
PT Can you talk us through a typical day in the studio?
AM Our days are always changing. From my point of view, routine does not help the creative process, nor do countless meetings. To keep our senses awakened we tend to adapt to ongoing projects.
If it is a bar or restaurant we will go there and a few other places over time, to feel different atmospheres and talk to people. It naturally would make us start our working day in slightly later hours.
If the idea requires painting or going outside to take pictures – we do it. For example when we developed the ‘Substance’ identity, at the beginning we wanted to make graphics made with stamps made of veggies, we did try to use different inks, objects and ways of cutting. Typical days at that period included morning shopping at the market, cutting veggies in the kitchen, stamping till lunch, taking pictures of stamps after, quick retouching and discussion in the evening. During this process, we realised that it does not work with some of the key ingredients that we need to show (like bread, pak choi, squid). So we changed the approach to take x-ray-like photos of very thin slices, and it did work out quite well. The idea was tested with action in real life and it helped to find the best execution. That wouldn’t be possible if we just used mockups and references.
Sometimes we share and discuss progress almost every day, while for other projects craftsmanship may take more time and it won’t make any sense to check in so frequently. For some projects we print out and pin results on the well, for some, we skip it. We do want to be highly efficient with our time and get rid of unnecessary actions, so in the end, there is not much of a routine.
It works well for our size of the team, as there are only six people at the studio, and when we see each other’s screens, we know what is going on. We as well invested quite a bit to make sure we have all tools that may be needed in our work available at all times: from the photo studio, video lights, and materials library, to paints, prototyping and even woodworking stations. It won’t cause any questions if someone just stands up and goes to try something.
PT Do you look to hire people that have multiple skill sets, or specialise?
AM You don’t need to be a great specialist in motion, typography or illustrations all at the same time. You definitely need to be curious enough to try them all and have confident basics in multiple areas. Yet you have to be strong at one, at least. If you have one thing nailed and a clear idea of what areas you want to grow – we will work it out.
When I hire people I believe that technical skills come and go, more important is what it is in your mind. Can you use your brain? Can you ask questions? Can you search for answers? Can you criticise and accept the critique? Can you connect the dots?
Another dream is to work with a magazine or publisher on their visual system.
PT What do you think you’re particularly good at, as a studio?
AM We are definitely good at conceptualising, shaping the core message, and setting the framework for the brand to play with. Our ideas and visual systems are orderly connected.
PT Are there any industries that you would love to work with, going forward?
AM We would like to work more with museums, exhibitions, theatres – the cultural sector. Another dream is to work with a magazine or publisher on their visual system.
PT What is the best thing about working in Hong Kong, as a creative team?
AM It is a tough question at the moment. Hong Kong changed quite a lot, especially after the pandemic, things that were great about it are no longer applicable.
PT What is the studio looking forward to this year?
AM We are excited about projects we are working on now – quite a few very different fashion brands, and we are looking forward to seeing them implemented in real life.
We as well continue with our own perfume brand .Oddity Fragrance, which we started last year by launching our first fragrance ‘Naked Dance.’ It is our ultimate answer to the question ‘where your inspiration comes from’ – for us, it is always on the edge where different forms of art are influencing each other, in this case, visible and invisible.
We collaborated with gorgeous master perfumer Mark Buxton on this, and we are looking forward to completing our first collection with two more perfumes, and expressive visual elements.