Top designer tells Aimee Shaw he's in the best of careers - and it's fun too.
There's a simple reason why Jef Wong has been at design firm Designworks for almost two decades - he's seen no reason to leave. Design, he says, is one of the best industries you can get into.
Wong, a first-generation Chinese Kiwi, has always been creative.
Born in Auckland, he grew up with two older brothers and a sister. His parents made the move from China to New Zealand separately in the 50s and 60s, looking for a better life.
"It was interesting growing up being Chinese in New Zealand in those early days, there wasn't many Chinese families around, but it was great - I had a pretty simple life," Wong says. "My parents had a takeaway shop and we kind of grew up in two places - in Sandringham and Mt Albert - and then also in Grey Lynn, when it wasn't so flash in those days."
Wong began working at the family takeaway at age 10. That's where he learnt the lesson of hard work.
"It made me appreciate good work, and then it also made me work hard - I knew what hard work was."
As a kid, he was obsessed with comic books and drawing. He says his parents didn't know what to make of it at the time.
"I think my parents were a little bit freaked out. They thought: 'All he does is draw and watch TV,' and 'I really don't know what he's going to do when he grows up'."
It was at Mt Albert Grammar that he fell in love with art.
And it was there that an art teacher noticed his potential.
"Mr Shuker, that was his name, basically said: 'What are you interested in, here are some options around art and design schools, these are the best ones, there are all of these areas like photography, illustration, painting, sculpture', and so he was really influential in my life, especially in those days," says Wong.
"I didn't know that there was this thing called design, I didn't know that there was this whole creative industry that you could make a living out of."
Wong applied for various art schools including Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Elam School of Fine Arts. He got into both, but chose to do a Bachelor of Graphic Design at AUT.
He originally wanted to be a comic book artist, but later went on to become a graphic designer.
"When I went to design school I was exposed to typography, all the greats in design, and it opened up this whole other world of visual stuff so when I was quite narrow - set on illustration and comic book art - it was sort of like there was all of this other stuff and that's really what made it interesting. And that's why I majored in design because it was a lot more interesting and more potent in a funny kind of way - doing work for businesses, creating things that had a wider effect."
Since then Wong has worked for a number of design firms including 2020 Design.
Aged 26, he scored his first role at Designworks - and has been there ever since.
Four years later, he took a eight-month break to go travelling, with his job guaranteed to be waiting for him when he came back.
Travelling through Europe and America, he fell in love with Barcelona.
"Barcelona was pretty amazing, the design aspect of that, the Gaudí influence, and I loved Croatia - that was a surprise as I didn't know what to expect."
London was a favourite, too. He ended up working at a design firm there for the last couple of months of his trip.
Over his time at Designworks, Wong has worked his way up through four roles, before his current post as group creative director. The company now has offices in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.
"The great thing about Designworks, and why I probably stayed around, is that you're always learning something, always challenging yourself," he says.
"Designworks was always the place in my opinion, even before I worked here, the first true professional design studio at size and scale, and pioneered a lot of things such as corporate identity, understanding brands, strategy and identity standards."
On the job, Wong is responsible for a team of 70, overseeing large corporate projects for a number of specialised teams and steering creative direction.
He works on visual storytelling for companies such as Air New Zealand, Silver Fern Farms, DB Breweries and Fonterra.
For me, the beautiful thing about design is it makes stuff better but can also make you feel something - its more than just visuals.
Air New Zealand's well-known branding came partly from Designworks. While the firm wasn't responsible for the koru logo, it has worked on the airline's iconic font.
"We did that as part of a really big team with Kris Sowersby, he's a great typographer, and the Air New Zealand team who were pivotal in getting it right."
Wong says it took a "fair amount of time" to perfect.
"The interesting thing about that particular job, which was the word marking and the Koru, was recognising the history in it and the iconic nature of the koru. It was a privilege to work on it because you don't get to do that sort of thing every day.
"Sometimes designers get very excited when they know they're going to change something - change it for the hell of it - and we didn't want to do that. We wanted to respect what was already there."
He says all the work his firm does with clients is a collaboration.
His job is pretty demanding, so that means weekends are all about family, spending time with his wife and two daughters, aged 7 and 4.
"During the week I only get a little time for them but weekends are all them and I love it," Wong says. "It's great to see how young minds work.
"They keep me on my toes."
Wong has come a long way from the days of drawing comic strips, but, he says, "My parents are really proud of me, but they're still not sure exactly what I do.
"It's always been a funny sort of thing; they think I do advertising, which I don't."
Working on large projects for Air New Zealand, Fonterra and its Anchor brand is the easiest way to describe what he does, Wong says.
"My parents go, 'Oh you worked on that', and I give them examples like that."
Last night Wong and the Designworks team won two Purple Pins at the annual Best Design Awards, run by the Designers Institute of New Zealand.
One pin was for its work on Air New Zealand's Te Tohu badge, which recognises cabin crew who speak Te Reo Maori, and another recognising its work with the airline over the past 15 years.
Wong, a convenor for The Best Design Awards judging panel, says he was surprised and grateful that Designworks was named a finalist.
"We tried to enter [our work] into things that were reflective of our multidisciplinary approach rather than traditionally a lot of entries into graphic [only], and we're doing that as a reflection of our studio and where we're at."
An avid movie fan, Wong says he loves the creativity the design industry enables.
"For me, the beautiful thing about design is it makes stuff better but can also make you feel something - its more than just visuals.
"Everyone thinks design is just logos, but we don't see it like that. [Design] is one of the best industries you can get into, I reckon, because you get the opportunity and the privilege to learn something new all the time," he says. "You start working with a meat company and you start learning about things you don't usually do, or an airline, and that's a real privilege. And then you're making and creating stuff which is a great and satisfying thing to do - it's fun, and that's why I love it."
Nurturing talent among the team is one of his favourite parts of the job.
"I genuinely love seeing talent grow, and learning off of my team," he says.
"Sometimes people say 'you've been here too long', like it's not a good thing, but Designworks' influence on me has been massive. And I hope whatever young talent comes through, that their time will be really positive.
"Its been really positive for me in terms of my growth and how I've developed, not just as a person, but as a designer as well. All the opportunities it has given me I still appreciate to this day.
"I know you don't just get these opportunities all the time."
• Age: 44
• Born: Auckland
• Family: Married, two daughters aged 7 and 4
• Education: Bachelor of Graphic Design from AUT
• Last movie watched: Lion directed by Garth Davis
• Last family holiday: Hong Kong, Taiwan earlier this year