The cover of the HUGO Create challenge book Image Credit: Supplied

It's no more than PR shtick, I yawned, placing the behemoth of the HUGO Create challenge book aside. No, actually, heaving it aside. The hard-back volume was heavy both literally and in content. It was all about the brand, the fragrance, yada, yada… I couldn't see the merit. How could I? On every page was an image or reference to the brand.

I flipped through the book, pausing to see how beautifully the iconic HUGO Man fragrance bottle has been interpreted. It was a sensory overload.

Each graphic design was a canvas in itself, showcasing a concept in ways only creativity would permit.

Still, it was the brand's very own page-bound horn-tooting exercise.

Until I spotted names of people who weren't directly associated with the brand. Some were professional designers, others design enthusiasts. There's your story, said my editor.

The HUGO Create challenge was launched in February 2008. The brief of the competition was simple: apply your creative vision to an original graphic design of the HUGO Man fragrance bottle. The original design referred to was the flacon in the shape of a hip flask. The winning design would make it to the shelf in the form of a limited edition HUGO Man fragrance.

The challenge attracted more than 13,000 entries from 108 countries, where the Howard Roarks of the graphic world conveyed their artistic vision. More than 100 designs werehonoured - for their wit and uniqueness - and are printed in a book: that same hard-back behemoth I had dismissed with a peremptory sigh. (It was released earlier this year.)

I interviewed six of the winning designers to gain insight on their graphic creations.


Stefano Merlo, Treviso, Italy

Merlo is accustomed to having his work published and displayed at exhibitions. With a proclivity for creative pursuits, he regularly enters design competitions and, as such, found it hard to pass up the HUGO Create challenge.

In the past, he has won the Gandia Blasco International Outdoor Furniture Design Contest. (The company, Gandia Blasco, supports young designers and students with furniture ideas and outdoor lighting proposals.) So, with the HUGO Create challenge, he was only too familiar with the rigours of entering a competition. He says he always approaches a project with discipline. "Each [project] has defined limits. The illustrator has to begin from this defined limit and use his creativity to go beyond… I consider illustrators to be interpreters and translators of limits and ideas."

His immediate reaction to the competition was that of curiosity. "I researched the brand and the topic. The latter was to design a music poster. I allowed my instinct to guide me. I wanted to communicate a feeling of freshness and relaxation through delicate and fresh colours, and I linked it to chill-out music.

"I was also inspired by the adjectives associated with the brand including energetic, powerful, fresh, breezy, clean… To me, these were like taking a walk by the seaside early in the morning," says Merlo.


Christian Sisson, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Sisson, 34, is a digital artist, but wasn't always one. Until 2003, he worked as a vet in a clinical pathology laboratory. In 2004, his wife Bárbara invited him to join her as a partner in her graphic design office; and they began to run Sisson Studio.

The timing of the HUGO Create challenge couldn't have been better. It was the year he'd started dabbling in digital art. A competition, he felt, was the perfect vehicle to display his work and express his creativity. He decided to submit an entry.

The first step was to purchase the fragrance. The second was to choose a theme; he chose ‘City Sounds'. "The first thought that came to mind was that sound is the opposite of noise," says Sisson. Again, fortuitous circumstances guided his inspiration. He had wanted to watch Martin Scorsese's movie Taxi Driver again. So he did. And while watching the film, an idea began to cement itself: "During the first scene, set against US composer Bernard Herrmann's music, something powerful happened. I realised that his saxophone notes were the city sound. I got my friend Miguel Angelo to help me with the sheet music, and I used that as a layer on which to build my inspiration."

Sisson calls his entry visual poetry. He built layers of different graphics to get an "aged film effect", and as he worked, he listened to Herrmann's song "non-stop".


Rosario G. Solis, Dubai

There are two influences that reflect in Solis' work - her father's paintings and her belief in minimalism.

She found herself drawn to the world of design as she watched her father paint, and later completed a professional degree in Fine Arts. As a graphic designer, artist and illustrator, she immediately saw potential in the HUGO Create challenge. "I started designing right away. I didn't spend time contemplating whether my designs would be picked," she says. But two of them were. And both, under the theme ‘Festivities', stay true to her design principles.

"I don't use too many heavy graphics. I prefer to keep it clean and conceptual, embodying the principle of ‘less is more'. The concept is very important. The idea behind the image and how it is interpreted visually is important. The process isn't just about technical expertise."

Her first task was to narrow down the sheer number of festive associations. "I started brainstorming. I thought of elements that could transmit the message of Christmas. I thought of symbols, icons, ornaments and colour schemes. Finally, I short-listed two symbols: a scarf and lantern," says Solis.


Matt Needle, Cardiff, UK

It isn't enough that people notice his work. Needle, 22, wants them to stare, and try to work out the message for themselves. And he is unapologetic in this aspiration.

Even for the HUGO Create challenge, he wanted "a sense of mystery and an abstract aesthetic style".Needle has been freelancing since the second year of his university course, and now works full-time and holds exhibitions of his work in his country and in Europe and Australia.

"I love what I do - to get paid for making pictures. I am inspired heavily by films and music, and would love to work within the movie business one day," he says. He calls his working style experimental. "There is a lot of trial and error in the creative process. I do a lot of sketching in the early stages. Then I move into the digital part where I experiment further with typography, colour, shape, alignment and arrangement. Eventually I bring it all together to create the final piece."

For the competition, his theme was ‘Vinyl Cover And Music Poster'. Speaking of his design, he says, he had a few strong ideas, and wanted to give it depth and abstraction. "I wanted people to really think about and analyse what they are viewing."

Juha Jukarainen, Kuopio, Finland

Jukarainen decided to create a "feeling of a skyline" without delineating it in the archetypal, familiar manner of celestial bodies and lighting.

He designed an image of a night skyline with city lights and allowed the hip flask with its silver screw top and green canvas strap to remain in the foreground. He subtitled his entry ‘The skyline is the limit'. He says, "My starting point was the bottle. Then I worked on how to present it with dignity." He chose to interpret the theme ‘Music and Nightlife'. This was easy given the fact that Jukarainen, 27, finds inspiration in nature and music. He has always been fascinated with images during his growing years and this fascination continues as a graphic designer; he works in a marketing agency in North Helsinki, and undertakes freelance projects.

He happened upon the HUGO Create challenge after clicking on a banner on a design website. "I usually don't [click on competition links]," he says. The challenge piqued his interest. "I also had free time to enter [the contest]," says Jukarainen, admitting illustrators tend to be called mavericks and nomads. "It's so true," he says.

Alex Tass, Bucharest, Romania

"An illustrator should have an individualistic style," says Tass, 24, referring to how behaviour and imagination are part of the process of creating an artwork.

Vibrant colours define his style. Though there are instances where he has to adapt to a client's brief, he also believes companies will contact a designer if he has an original, recognisable style. When he submitted his entries, he didn't have to worry about client briefs; he chose the theme ‘City Sounds' and began to think of how he could illustrate it.

"I used an outline of a city skyline to give an urban feel and mixed it with a bridge of sound waves with the bottle in the background," he says. And he made sure it had his signature colour style. "Generally, I tend to use lots of colour. I try to bring about a warm and joyful feeling in those who interact with my projects," he says.

Tass co-owns Nocturn, a freelance design studio that provides branding, graphic and web design services. The company website doubles as his online portfolio. "As I submitted more than one entry [for the competition], I've put them all on my website."

Limited edition design

The winning entry was submitted by Marvin Pedro, 39, from the Philippines. His artwork made it as the special limited edition of the iconic HUGO by HUGO BOSS fragrance (pictured).

To celebrate the illustrious bottle, HUGO also invited Karim Rashid, one of the most prolific designers, to design an exclusive Limited Edition bottle for the HUGO Man fragrance. The bottle and packaging is adorned with unique digital data-fluid graphic effects signifying a rocky terrain and a flowing topography.

The bottle is encased in a spherical package made of injected ABS plastic. There are only 1,000 bottles available in less than 25 flagships worldwide, and 150 bottles available in Dubai.

Rashid, born in Cairo, has won more than 300 awards; several of his pieces are displayed in permanent collections of 14 museums including Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).