“Challenge what “beauty” means” With Emma Chiu

Challenge what “beauty” means: Conventional beauty standards are being uprooted as designers and consumers start exploring “anti-beauty” aesthetics. Be part of this conversation and re-evaluate what the new beauty standards could be. I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Chiu. She leads Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, the agency’s in-house futures and innovation think-tank. She curates all […]

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Challenge what “beauty” means: Conventional beauty standards are being uprooted as designers and consumers start exploring “anti-beauty” aesthetics. Be part of this conversation and re-evaluate what the new beauty standards could be.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Chiu. She leads Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, the agency’s in-house futures and innovation think-tank. She curates all content, leads creative consultancy, and provides strategic insight and trend consultancy for many Fortune 500 clients. In early 2020, she spearheaded the launch of the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence “Future 100” Report, which helps people prepare for emerging consumer behavior with 100 original trend predictions from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. Split into 10 categories, each trend delivers a digestible snapshot of movements so far, while clearly explaining why brands and marketers should pay attention. The report’s 10 trend segments are: Culture, Tech & Innovation, Travel & Hospitality, Brands & Marketing, Food & Drink, Beauty, Retail, Luxury, Health and Finance.

Prior to Wunderman Thompson, Emma was the former art director of Monocle, where she led the art direction and design for the international Monocle brand. She also headed up Monocle’s project collaborations with brands including, ANA, InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental, Turkish Airlines and UBS.

Emma is a member of the Color Awards 2020 judging panel and served on the board of advisers for the Digital Hollywood’s Influencer Awards 2018. She regularly speaks at international conferences, including SXSW Interactive, Pause Fest and Adobe Max.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I studied graphic design and I remember knowing early on that I didn’t want to be a designer forever. But as for what that career path would look like if I didn’t opt-in for the traditional path and aspire to be a creative director — I truly had no idea. For me, the heart of the graphic design is about communication, and that was enough to help carve out other potential career paths for me.

I now lead a global trends intelligence division that sits within a creative agency. A lot of this has to do with hard work, taking chances and luck. Early in my career, (to my benefit) the recession happened and I was quickly elevated from a junior designer to a senior position. From there a headhunter approached me to work for a trends agency. I took the chance and got the job. It was unfamiliar territory and I worked really hard to make sense of the new role I was given. But I am really grateful for that opportunity which has brought me to where I am today: communicating creative big picture thinking to global companies.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of my early internships was at a London-based design agency. The founders and all the designers at the time were men. I remembered having an open office conversation with one of the co-founders who put me on the spot to name successful female graphic designers. I named a few, but it was a struggle. That moment really stayed with me, because during my entire education I never felt a gender imbalance. However, early in my career the gender disparity was prominent and really drove me to do well in my field and support female talent. Thankfully we’re living in a time when the topic of gender equality is finally being addressed properly, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Hm, I think I’m still waiting for that “tipping point”… But in truth, I realize how lucky I am doing what I genuinely enjoy for a living and that is career success in my view. I recently had dinner with a group of university friends who studied graphic design with me. They have all taken a more traditional career path and they’re all dissatisfied. Hearing that made me realize I was able to evolve my path before I ended up hating it. I have always left a job when I started to feel it’s monotonous and no longer challenging. It is important to have a career that can not only allow you to grow professionally but also as a person. The takeaway that I have learned is to not be afraid of change and taking opportunities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people in their little ways have contributed to where I am today, it’s unfair to just name one, so I will have an Academy Award moment where I name a few quickly: My tutor, John Laing at university taught me to take criticism professionally and not personally — especially being in the creative industry, having a thick skin is a must. Martin Raymond, co-founder at The Future Laboratory was always really supportive of me and gave me the opportunity to move from graphic design into trend work. And Lucie Greene, who offered me a job that moved me from London to New York City, where I have been for the past five years.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. The beauty industry today has access to technology that was inconceivable only a short time ago. Can you tell us about the “cutting edge” (pardon the pun) technologies that you are working with or introducing? How do you think that will help people?

An area we are exploring more is how we can harness people’s information to provide hyper-personalized beauty experiences. Using the latest technology, brand and consumers alike are now able to easily access an individual’s DNA analysis, health data, day-to-day environment (pollution levels, sun exposure, etc), which can all help provide a more precise and bespoke beauty regime. The exciting part here is that it goes beyond beauty; it dives into our health and there’s potential to flag health concerns or help curb habits to better our wellbeing.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Indeed. Protecting an individual’s data privacy is an important conversation that’s happening, which no one quite has a handle on yet. A lot of thought is needed to offer the right exchange value for people when it comes to personal data. Across industries, there needs to be a rulebook for data ethics.

If we wanted to go there with dystopian-esque possibilities: the thought of handing over our information for artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret and predict our every move before we anticipate it is, on the one hand, an attractive convenience, but on the other hand, it’s rather creepy. The thought that a machine can know you better than yourself… Shivers!

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the “beauty-tech” industry?

  1. New-age molecular treatments are blending tech, data and biology to elevate the spa experience. Incorporating DNA and AI skin analysis into services is bringing about a whole new exploration into skin health. Based on the analysis, treatments and products will be able to target the individual’s specific needs and genetics.
  2. At-home 3D printed-skincare is an area to look out for. Companies are currently looking into cutting-edge 3D-printing technologies for bespoke and on-demand beauty products. Neutrogena’s MaskID is a great example; a bespoke face mask is personally formulated for each individual’s face shape and the ingredients are chosen according to their skin needs.
  3. Beauty in the digital realm is also a fascinating space as we increasingly blur our on-and-offline lives. AI beauty is taking these digital explorations to the next level, really challenging what “beauty” can look like. For example, Beauty_GAN is an AI algorithm that applies digital makeup, something difficult to explore IRL.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

Beauty can sometimes be a double-edged sword, here are some examples of that:

  1. The concern: Whilst social media is liberating beauty, there is a darker side that can potentially be dangerous. For example, at the end of 2019 a #piercingchallenge movement on TikTok had people cycle through Snapchat’s series of digital facial piercings with their eyes closed and the challenge is to then get an IRL version of whatever piercing they randomly land on — a roulette of body mods that calls to mind the dangerous Tide challenge.
    Let’s improve…: responsibility on social media. There needs to be a level of responsibility with actions such as these. There’s an opportunity here for social media companies or even beauty brands to step up and create a safe digital space.
  2. The concern: The beauty industry is increasingly blurring with health, but beauty experts are not health experts. There needs to be clarity around what beauty brands are advising and advertising when it comes to the connection to our health. Goop learned this lesson a couple of years ago by forking out a $145,000 settlement after being accused of making false/misleading health statements about products on its site.
    Let’s improve…: the distinction between beauty and health claims. Bring in scientific and founded research before making any health claims.
  3. The concern: As mentioned before, we’re increasingly moving into a data-centric world. But giving up our data is akin to giving up part of ourselves, put it into the wrong hands or not being used in the right ways can make people feel violated.
    Let’s improve…: Data transparency and ethics.

You are an expert about beauty. Can you share 5 ideas that anyone can use “to feel beautiful”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The concept of “feeling beautiful” is such a subjective matter, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people how to feel a certain way. However, here are some tips on how to make beauty fun, healthy and holistic:

  1. Wellbeing-first: A more holistic view of beauty wraps in health for the body, mind and more. It is equally important to feel and be healthy in order to look and feel beautiful.
  2. Experiment: We are multi-dimensional people, so why should our beauty regime or makeup style be any different? Euphoria on HBO is one example that’s paving the way for makeup with meaning, where makeup is the tool for self-expression.
  3. Beauty for every part of the body: Let’s not neglect intimate skincare — think vaginal health oils and butt masks.
  4. Cosmetics for good: Consider the types of beauty brands and products you are buying. If your choice can add value to you AND the planet, by being ethically sourced and made, ecological as well as effective, then the beauty benefits will be more diverse.
  5. Challenge what “beauty” means: Conventional beauty standards are being uprooted as designers and consumers start exploring “anti-beauty” aesthetics. Be part of this conversation and re-evaluate what the new beauty standards could be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think it’s important to nurture the next generation to be more responsible and think about their choices and actions having a bigger impact not only on themselves but to the community and even the planet. A lot of teens are already extremely vocal in this area, but it would be great to provide them with the right tools, education and support to elevate this positive behavior. If education could be accessible and affordable for all youngsters that would be a movement I would like to get behind.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Hm, I don’t really live by a life quote, but I do think the concept of “pay it forward” being important. I wouldn’t be in the position I am without getting support from others in the industry. Where possible I try to carve time out to support students and grads.

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