I interviewed one of the leading retail store designers in Hong Kong for the client’s internal magazine with a circulation of 25,000. The article was well-received and used in additional media and marketing efforts.
An Opportunity to Stand Out
CallisonRTKL’s Shirley Cheng has traveled the world while building a remarkable retail design portfolio
By Claire Propsting
Shirley Cheng has always seen opportunity where others see challenges. This attitude has served her well in her two decades as a designer and has led to her success directing CallisonRTKL’s retail projects across Asia. Along the way, she has worked with some of the most famous brands in the world, including Hollister, Porsche, Williams-Sonoma, Nordstrom, Stuart Weitzman, Vivo, and Tesla.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Shirley grew up admiring I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building on her hometown skyline. After completing her diploma in industrial design in Hong Kong, Shirley was accepted into the architecture program at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she completed her undergraduate and graduate work. Her first job out of school was with Callison, where she says she began to form her philosophy and work ethic as a designer.
“The great thing about working for a large firm is that you can learn about every aspect of our industry by just working on a few projects. From my first days at Callison, I was able to work on projects in major cities with major clients, seeing every phase of the design and project management lifecycle. That is where I began to see how many opportunities there are to do interesting work.”
Her early years in Seattle are also where Shirley began to see that her design philosophy is very solutions and service-oriented.
“Our corporate culture has always been about maintaining long-term relationships with clients. We do that by understanding what our clients need and what their goals are as the first step of the design process. Then, we go from there.”
At the moment, Shirley’s travels have taken her full circle. She recently moved to Hong Kong to expand the CallisonRTKL retail footprint in Asia and support the growing team and body of work there, but not before spending a number of years in China building the practice’s portfolio and high-profile client relationships.
“The market in China and even the rest of Asia is very different to what we see in the United States,” Shirley says.
“Working in China and Hong Kong has given me so much experience that I’m not sure I would get in other parts of the world. Everyone in the market wants to do something new, it’s such a dynamic environment, and there is an expectation of having a very quick turnaround for stores. Being able to work on so many varied projects in just a few years has been amazing,” she continues.
She is particularly proud of her work with Porsche.
“We cultivated our relationship with Porsche for a long time. We work very closely with their China team and we have a genuine respect and affinity for each other.”
The relationship is so strong, in fact, that Porsche China turned to Shirley’s team to design and implement new concepts and initiatives in China with the Porsche headquarter in Germany.
“For Porsche and other international retail brands, we provide on-the-ground solutions and local experts in China and Hong Kong. We become their design eyes on the ground, making sure that the local build-out upholds the brand’s international standards. There has to be a great deal of trust there.”
When asked about challenges, Shirley says her main difficulty is finding the right team. But when she gets it right, she says it’s one of the best things about her job.
“It can be hard to find people who have international experience and are bilingual who also understand local requirements. Taking the time, growing our team from zero and seeing how successful we’ve become has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career.”
Shirley doesn’t claim that everything has been smooth sailing and without a doubt, it has taken an incredible amount of work to get where she is. She credits her colleagues at both CallisonRTKL and Arcadis, as well as the design industry with being a welcoming place for people with different perspectives.
“On the other hand, when I’m involved in key meetings with our business partners or the construction side of things, I’m often the only woman in the room,” she says, but she’s quick to point out that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I see it as an opportunity to stand out. I do think it might be harder for women to succeed in some industries in China and Hong Kong, but it’s never stopped me from pursuing the projects and career that I want.”