Locals Only: David Lai
Hello. Hello? Hello! The LA Egotist sits down with David Lai, originator of and partner in Hello Design, the hot hot hot cross-medium super shop in Culver City. Have a look-see, friends.
Who are you?
David Lai, CEO/Creative Director, of Hello Design–a creative digital agency I co-founded with Hiro Niwa back in 1999.
What is your creative discipline?
I am a digital designer, so anything in the digital space is fair game for what I do. I started out doing interface design for applications and that quickly led to creating interactive experiences for CD-ROM and websites back in the day. Our capabilities at Hello revolve around three core areas: strategy, design, and technology.
Our focus is on strategic thinking and detailed execution, which these days includes anything from mobile apps to social media to touchscreens to websites. We’ve also been shooting quite a bit of video, since storytelling is a really important part of what we do. The digital space is constantly changing - it’s living and that’s what makes it fun and challenging at the same time.
What town are you from?
I was born in Manhattan, Kansas, also known as “The Little Apple.” I grew up playing in the backwoods and in creeks–it was great. Then I moved to Boston, went to school in upstate New York, lived in Japan for a year and finally settled in Los Angeles. So I guess I’ve lived in the Midwest, East Coast, and now the West Coast.
What brought you to LA?
I didn’t really plan to move to LA. I had always thought I’d end up in either San Francisco or New York, as that’s where all the digital shops were. Then I discovered this interactive studio called “cow,” which was started by a group of Art Center grads in Santa Monica. They were doing award-winning work and I felt I had a lot to learn so I went to work for them. The beaches and sun didn’t hurt either, especially coming from the cold and rainy East Coast.
In what part of LA do you create?
When we started Hello, we couldn’t afford a space in Santa Monica. We found a place in the Helms “redevelopment zone” of Culver City and we’ve been here ever since. It’s been nearly 13 years now and Culver City has changed so much. We’re surrounded by designers, architects, art galleries, photographers, and everything in between. This place has always had a nice creative energy and I’m glad that hasn’t changed.
Describe your creative process and the product that results from it
I am a designer. It just happens that my focus is in the digital space but I’m passionate about all kinds of design from architecture to product design. At the core, design is about solving problems with ideas that can be realized. I think we do our best work when our clients empower and trust us.
Describe your workspace/studio: the environment you create in
We designed our studio ourselves. It’s a simple open space with lots of concrete, glass, and plywood. We’ve outgrown it so we’re a bit cramped right now. The good news is we’ve found a new space that we are currently designing and building out. It’s still in Culver City as we’ve grown quite attached to this place.
Where did you learn your craft?
My parents said that when I was a kid I never went anywhere without my scissors and glue. When I was in high school I started designing interfaces for software companies and had a chance to go out and work in Silicon Valley at Connectix for a summer. There’s nothing that beats learning by doing. I considered going to design school after high school but my parents convinced me to get a liberal arts education first. I think they secretly hoped being creative was something I’d grow out of and become a doctor. I went to work in San Francisco for Clement Mok at Studio Archetype in the early days of the dot com boom and was able to design one of the first web sites for Nintendo. Then I went on to cow where I ended up meeting Hiro Niwa, my future business partner at Hello.
Who/what is your greatest personal inspiration?
I’ve always been inspired by other entrepreneurs, so everyone from David Ogilvy, Steve Jobs to Richard Branson. There’s something inspiring about people who see opportunity where others don’t, and more importantly don’t give up along the way. It’s hard to keep your focus when the chips are down and their stories have always reminded me of the importance of that.
Who do you admire in your field?
I’ve enjoyed the work of Yugo Nakamura and Projector out of Japan but also a lot of designers outside of my industry, Dieter Rams, Kashiwa Sato and Masamichi Katayama.
Anyone else in LA that you think is doing great work in your field?
We like the work coming out of our sister agency, 72andSunny.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or success to date?
Being able to come to work at Hello for 13 years now. When I first started there were a lot of people who told me I’d fail. I was OK with that because I saw every day as an opportunity to learn something new. Succeed or fail, it was a win for me either way. I always feel like I just started Hello yesterday and I think that’s what keeps me going.
What is the best thing about your creative endeavor?
For me, it’s being able to work with such diverse clients like Herman Miller, TaylorMade Golf, Tillamook Cheese and Sony. I get to learn about everything from how to make cheese to seeing dinosaur bones.
The value of Hello is our ability to bring our point of view to the table. There’s a delicate balance between listening and doing whatever you want. I think the challenge for us is to make sure at the end of the day we deliver work that we are proud of.
What are your top 3 LA influences, inspirations or spots?
I love going to museums. People don’t realize how many amazing cultural institutions there are here. Din Tai Fung is one of my favorite restaurants (among many) but I love the fact that you can get all kinds of amazing food here in LA. Cycling up Mandeville Canyon is one of my favorite places to think and get away from it all. It’s a nice climb and the perfect place to just zone out.
Of all the places you could be creating, why LA?
For me to create, I need the right environment. LA is a place that just makes me feel happy.
What are your thoughts on the LA advertising/design scene? Is it viable? If not, what could make LA more relevant?
I think LA is definitely a creative center. The majority of our clients aren’t actually based in LA, but that has never been a roadblock for us in working with clients around the globe. I guess that means something when our clients are willing to work with us here even when they aren’t.
Do you have a philosophy and/or words to live by?
“Do good work and everything else happens.”