The Practical Artist

Illustrations by Idea Ink

It’s a stereotype that artists tend to be creative, flighty and unconcerned with the nitty gritty of a business. Not so for Chia Yee Hui, CEO of Idea Ink, an illustration studio specialising in graphic recording that has gained a lot of buzz and some seriously high-profile clients in the three and a half years they’ve been around.

Chia Yee Hui, CEO of illustration studio Idea Ink, always knew she wanted to chart her own path. Even though she is surrounded by friends who chose the ‘traditional’ Asian parent-approved professions– lawyer, banker, doctor– she knew that the conventional was not her calling.

That’s not to say this 29-year-old is a flighty, dreamy artist, because that would do a disservice to this sharp and savvy young lady. Chia, who began Idea Ink just three and a half years ago, is determined and direct in her thoughts and ideas, which has proven to be her greatest strength. 

In just the short time they’ve been operating, they’ve already made huge waves, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Google, the Infocomm Media Development Authority and GovTech Singapore as just some of their high-profile clients.  

Part of this is due to the fact that what they do is unique: taking ideas, thoughts, conversation and data and turning them into a visual experience that is all at once appealing and easy-to-understand. 

Their work, says Chia, is information design via hand-drawn graphics, designing visual summaries for events, conferences, and meetings. In fact, one of their biggest projects to date was the 2019 Singapore Fintech Festival x SWITCH, and they can even boast a personal recommendation from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for their work.

“I think the whole idea [behind what we do] is [we ask] how do we turn boring, dry, and complex content into something that is fun, engaging, memorable and exciting,” she says. “And what we do is very exciting for two reasons, first, you get to see your content summarised into a hand-drawn infographic whereas before you’d just see a hundred-page slide deck; and second, people love seeing their ideas being heard and represented as illustrations, and in real time, which also makes our work empowering if not inspiring.”

Chia says that she feels very lucky to have had this level of success  in the three and a half years since they started out with their tiny team of five. Yet underlying that is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, she adds. “My team is very frugal, we didn’t do any fundraising, and we’re very disciplined even though we’re creative,” she says. “We have to understand the business context, not just [focus on] pure self-expression and artform.”

She started Idea Ink by ‘bootstrapping’ it, using her life savings to start the company. For her, it just made sense to go at it on her own. “I am very practical. The question we ask ourselves is, what can we bring to the table, and what business problems we are solving to pay us fairly for the value we are giving to them?”, she adds. “We are very proud of being able to deliver ideas as innovation, beautiful solutions.”.

Chia emphasises the importance of balancing the creative with the practical. Her focus is on meeting the clients’ business needs whilst keeping the fundamentals of creativity and good information design in mind. “We ask: how do we filter out the noise, focus, and communicate complex [ideas] in a very short amount of time? And if we can close this communication gap for our clients, then why shouldn’t we be paid well for it? We have been very lucky, because in three months we were profitable, and cash-flow positive after six months.”

Even though her parents are accountants, Chia had no business background, only the sheer determination. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she jokes. “There were a lot of challenges, at the start, but all I knew I needed to rely on my people. When we started out, we were just trying to feed starving artists, one at a time!”

She credits her team for their discipline, pursuit of craft, attention to detail, and professionalism, in addition to also being passionate artists. “My team would take a two hour bus ride to Sentosa instead of a cab just to save $25 dollars. Every single incremental savings counted. I always say our business was built marker by marker, board by board.” 

With their success, where they are right now is a sort of sweet spot for Chia. “I think we are at an inflection point of growth, because in the last three and a half years I’ve laid a very solid foundation for our team to have a good internal system. Now we’re looking at expanding bilingual content (in Mandarin) and we’re working on visual intelligence at the workplace, and emerging technologies like augmented reality.”

Indeed, Idea Ink holds innovation at the heart of its business. “We are creating pioneering solutions, which blend the intersection of art and science. The technologies we use include: augmented reality, robotics, projection mapping, conductive paint, and more,” she says. “I believe our approach is fascinating, since we are able to shed off the traditional boutique agency costs of six-figure budgets, and three-to-six month production cycles – but also making content relevant by sharing complex information.”

She believes in staying nimble, and agile– by doing so, they can meet their clients’ needs with half the budget and timelines. “Our vision is to tell stories at speed and scale.”

Currently, Chia is honing in on their Art x Tech solutions, which focuses on commercializing emerging technologies — like augmented reality and robotics– into creative information design solutions.

She is also currently working on a book about visual intelligence tools in the everyday workplace, titled ‘Ideas, Inked’. Visual intelligence, she explains, is defined as the ability to communicate using visuals as a form of thinking, beyond creative self-expression. 

“We live in a very visual world, but many do not have the vocabulary to communicate visually in this world. So I’m writing the book, because good visual thinking is about having another set of tools to communicate good ideas. After all, I always say, if bad drivers can drive, why can’t bad artists draw?” 

Illustrations by Idea Ink