June 16, 2019

Q&A with Kelley Cheng – Becoming a Creative Director

GSM London programme leader on the Business Management with Creative Industries degree, Ann Healey continues her interview with Kelley Cheng on her experience within a creative industry and the difficulties of business and managing in this sector. This interview is part of Ann’s strategy to bring the experiences and challenges of creative business into the classroom.

Tell us a little about yourself and your journey that lead you to where you are today.

I was trained as an architect but I gave up the practice to pursue my dream of starting a design magazine. It became the 1st design magazine ever founded in Singapore in 1999. It was sold to a publishing company Page One Publishing in 2001 (2 years into the inauguration) and i continued to run it for another 8 years under Page One. The magazine, ish, successfully ran for 10 years, and it stopped when I left Page One to set up my own design and publishing consultancy The Press Room in 2009. Today i am the Creative Director of The Press Room, I have a total of 4 designers and 2 editors/writers. But due to the recent economy slowdown, I had to let go of 2 person.



You’ve accomplished a lot so far. What are you most proud of, creatively, to date?

The hardest part about running a design studio is dealing with clients’ whims and fancies about what they want and what they don’t. There are horrible clients who can make you re-do sometimes up to 20 times without feeling any remorse. You do, occasionally, feel like a slave. Doing the creative part is what i usually enjoy but honestly, as a normal human being, I really want to give up after 20 times because simply you run out of ideas and self esteem. But i guess what i am proudest is that during these hard times, I always managed to pull myself together somehow and continue to lead the team, and I have never given up even in the darkest hour. (oh well, the thought does cross my mind in those times, but i somehow always managed to find strength from somewhere in the end to carry on).


How much focus do you place on the ‘business’ of your industry and how much on ‘creating’? and how do you juggle both your creative and business hats?

I think it is 50-50. Honestly, if i can afford a good business manager, i will rather not do the business part. But as a small studio, the problem you face is often that – to get a good business manager that also is well versed in design (so that he/she can sell an idea convincingly and effectively) will cost too much for a small studio. And getting a junior one will probably add on to my burden rather than helping me. I know many small studios suffer the same predicament as me.


What do you know now, that you wish you had known when you started out in this industry?

As i am a self-taught graphic designer , having been only trained in architecture, while i can manage graphic design broadly and am able to conceptualise well, i only discover the intricacies and complexities of typography much later, and only learned to use it effectively and cleverly much later in my design career. I looked at some of my old graphic works and i feel embarrassed. I wish that someone had taught me the importance of typography earlier in my career and i do wish that i had a mentor that i could go to when i was picking my skills in Adobe and honing my graphic design skills. So my most important point to share is that –  find a mentor early in your career if you can, someone you respect and trust, who can be your go-to person whenever you have a creative crisis, or business crisis. It could be 2 mentors, one for each. I promise you will never regret this.


Have there ever been times when you have been tempted to give up and if so, how have you dealt with this?

Oh yes of course, guess i unknowingly answered in above before i came to this question. When i am really really down, yes a couple of beers do help take a little stress off, but more importantly, i will usually try to “escape” for a while by doing something i have always enjoyed throughout my life, which is watching a movie, or maybe, it is just escaping into an unreal world for even 2 hours. Sometimes i will do 2 movies back to back, if things are extremely stressful. After that, i will tell myself, ok enough – now go back to the real world and deal with the problems, take the bull by its horn. Simply because that is the only way to go forward, unless of course, you choose to give up.


People often perceive the creative industries as glamorous. What’s the least glamorous part of your job?

Taking insulting comments from clients, or worse, potential clients who are not even your clients yet. Or encountering mentally sick clients who verbally abuse you (yes i have met these types before too), or equally worse – chasing debts. Yes there are many bad people in this world who do not pay up promptly, or do not pay up at all.


What would you like to do, (or who would you like to work with) that you haven’t yet been able to, so far?

Absolutely Irma Boom. She is my hero. Her talent, her creativity, her achievements is a big inspiration to me. I always hope i can be as good as her one day but she is way too good, i don’t know if i will ever get there. I sometimes day-dream about taking a year off and working for her haha! But yes, it will be an absolute dream come true if i get to collaborate with her. Ok i’ll lower the bar – i’ll suffice to just get her autograph and have a selfie with her 🙂


How important is it to be able to connect with your audience via platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook?

It is an important platform to update your audience what you do, and the good thing is that it is free, cos small studios can’t afford to self-finance too many self-promotional events. Even producing a small book a few years (as a marketing tool to give to clients) took me a while to part with the money, but we were lucky to find a few sponsors to minimise the cost.

The problem with social media though, is that it is so saturated and everyone is doing it, so you might not be so visible in the sea of self-promotions on social media and i was told that everything you post has the optimum effectiveness in the first 15-30 minutes, if within that time it doesn’t get viral, it will never. There you go – #hardfactsoflife


If you had one superpower for a day, what would it be and what would you do?

Mind Control.


How has technology changed the nature of your work and do these changes present any challenges for your industry?

As one of our core businesses is making physical books. With the internet becoming more and more an integral part of everyone’s life, more people are asking for e-books, web-magazines, websites, apps, etc. But i am not good with the new softwares of these and i find conceptualising with these mediums in mind does not come naturally to me and when i have to do it, it is a bit of an uphill battle for me. I feel like an old man in the 80s switching from typewriter to computer. Right now the economy is slow i can’t do much to improve the situation, but i do hope to hire designers better equip with these skills to value-add to the company so at least there are more abled designers in the studio who can handle these projects when they come along.


How can people keep up with what you are doing?

Please join:

The Press Room website – www.thepressroom.com.sg (undergoing revamp now)

The Press Room’s Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/thepressroom.sg/

The Press Room Instagram page – @thepressroom_sg

My Instagram page – @kelleycheng

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