How Chairman Ting Industries became the spray-painted, doodle-wrapped bridge between art and advertising
Carson Ting is a man who doesn’t know what he wants — because he wants to do it all.
One minute, he’s fantasizing about spending all of his time painting in a studio. The next, he’s planning an interactive documentary, a crowdsourcing app and an art project that explores the sartorial oddities of elderly Chinese women. Moments later, he talks about creating custom digital illustrations for major brands.
“I don’t think I could do one thing constantly,” he admits.
It’s this creative impatience that led Ting to strike out on his own after more than a decade as an art director for some of the country’s most prominent advertising agencies.
Ting and his wife Denise Cheung started Chairman Ting Industries because they needed a home for his side projects while he worked for Rethink and Blast Radius. By 2012, the couple had attracted more assignments than Ting could handle, and when Ting was laid off after Blast Radius lost its Nike Jordan account, he decided to become his own boss. Cheung, an MBA, looks after the specifics of running the business.
Ting calls his company a “creative studio,” a definition abstract enough to encompass the broad scope of his work. After all, he’s not just an art director, although he frequently freelances for ad agencies. He’s not just an artist, but he’s often commissioned to create murals for tech companies and illustrations for magazines. Rather, Ting is a hybrid, discovering in his newfound independence his full potential as both an ad man and an artist.
Ting’s studio is in a 95-year-old former mattress factory in Vancouver’s grungy industrial district. The floor is littered with spray paint cans and clumps of masking tape. The walls are lined with metal panels that he will combine to create a giant mural for Henriquez Partners Architects, a local firm. He pulls back one of the panels to reveal a painting of a red-faced man in goggles and white bunny suit. It’s just a doodle he drew while taking a break from the mural, he says. “I would get bored and do a little piece on the wall.”
His studio is a glimpse into his inner world — one bursting with colour, creative ideas and a fantastical cast of characters. The humanoid clouds with fat lips, crazy kids and surprised rabbit (modelled after his own pet, Bella) are among dozens of imaginary personas that come alive in Ting’s pieces.
“It’s like there’s a world out there that’s Carson’s world, and every time you give him an assignment, he gives you a glimpse into that world,” says Ian Grais, founder of Rethink and Ting’s former boss.
Ting began developing that world as a boy growing up in Toronto, when he spent hours after school doodling and dreaming up comic books to put off doing his homework. “I was a bad student,” he says with a laugh.
By the time he started his first year at the Ontario College of Art and Design, he was more focused on drawing the “muscular men” he saw in his comic books than advertising. But while in school, he quickly fell for the allure of the ad industry’s fast pace and ideas-driven work. He joined the college’s Communication and Design stream and taught himself how to create designs on a Macintosh computer.
Ting’s passion for the work landed him a job right out of college at the now-defunct Toronto agency ACLC, designing tray liners for Harvey’s and car-lot brochures for Honda. Every few years, he traded up to a new agency with greater prowess and more desirable clients such as Sony, Nike Jordan and Science World.
It was while he was working for Rethink that Ting landed one of his most exciting clients to date: Science World’s Treasures exhibit.
Ting and his partner Rob Tarry hit the books, searching for treasure-related facts to act as the base of an advertising campaign. That’s when they discovered that just two ounces of gold could cover 200 square feet. “It was natural for us to think, ‘Oh, wow. You can cover a whole billboard with this,’” he says. So they found a gilder to build a gold billboard, hired security to guard the ad and watched the media attention roll in.
Creating Chairman Ting
While the ad agencies were thrilling, Ting always had designs on starting his own company. However, it would be more than a decade before he had cultivated a large enough client network to build a sustainable business.
Today, Ting estimates about 80 per cent of Chairman Ting’s clients come to him through word-of-mouth or his website, requesting work ranging from an interactive documentary for the National Film Board, to a mural for tech giant Hootsuite, to a window display for adidas Originals’s Shanghai store.
Ting has even attracted clients through social media. Last year a creative director from the Cartoon Network, drawn to his signature illustrations, approached Ting through his Instagram account, wanting to commission him for two short animations that would air between shows.
The network assigned Ting the “T” and “A” letters from “Cartoon Network,” then gave him carte blanche to develop them as characters, even encouraging him to inject more quirkiness when they saw his initial sketches and script. Ting’s final creations were of a personified “T” decomposing, and of a humanoid “A” bursting through a hole in a wall.
Ting has found creative ways to work his characters into his other commercial design work, too. In 2010, Chairman Ting Industries was invited to create a window display at adidas Originals’s Shanghai location to promote the launch of the company’s winter collection. The display featured a chorus of Chairman Ting characters riding in adidas sneakers as if on bobsleds, grasping onto snowflakes branded with the Adidas name.
Commercial vs. Personal
While these commissions are lucrative, Ting says his goal is to focus more on what he calls “personal” art and less on his commercial designs. He’s already working on a documentary about the side projects of creative professionals, as well as an exhibition exploring the Chinese women who live near his studio in Vancouver’s Stratchona neighbourhood. “I find them really fascinating because they’re always picking up empty bottle cans and they always have the craziest outfits,” he says. He’s even co-designing an app called Votee, which allows users to create polls and invite their friends to vote.
Incidentally, Ting says the move toward personal art will help him attract more commercial commissions.
“Clients love artwork that’s not associated with other brands, because it’s fresh and it’s stuff that they can tap into,” he says. “And I’ve found a style that I’m comfortable with where I can say, ‘This is my own.’”
Elizabeth Hames is a Vancouver-based freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous Canadian newspapers and magazines.
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