We've had China on our list since the beginning of the series, knowing full well the vast country and its design community can't be easily summarized. Guang Yu and Nod Young, founders of the Beijing-based creative studio, were quick to enlighten us. Design in China is still relatively new and with that comes unique challenges and opportunities – including design education, finding perspective on globalization, and making an effort to challenge one's own narrowness. Let's get into it.
Nod: We used to work in a four-people studio called tomeetyou Graphics. About three years ago, we two started the current studio A Black Cover Design, focusing on brand design. The other two former partners also set up their own studio, focusing on life aesthetics.
Guang: We got to know each other very early. The first time I saw Nod's works was at the first “Get It Louder” exhibition, and I really appreciated it. After working together, we have more trust in each other, and we've found that our understanding of design is also very consistent.
Nod: The situation in Shenzhen is quite special. In Shenzhen, there is an organization called Shenzhen Graphic Design Association which can be joined through recommendation, voting and other links. Although this organization contains "Shenzhen" in its name, its members come from different parts of China.
I feel that in China, graphic designers receive much attention as exhibitions and cultural exchanges are frequently organized. The graphic design community is also very big, attracting sufficient attention from society. We two are relatively self-independent in China and basically do not join any organization.
Guang: Apart from some local designers in Beijing, we don't have much contact with designers in Shenzhen and other areas. There may be only a few ones. Neither of us really likes frequent communication in the industry. The way to release one's voice is through one's works. I believe that you are interviewing us today not because an association recommended us, but because our work was displayed on a certain platform, and the impact of our work is being felt.
Nod: I think designers should communicate with the public through the normal “application” method, such as commercial sales. Either communication via associations and agencies or “internal communication” belongs to communication between designers.
Nod: Ten years ago, no one cared about graphic design in China and the social economy would not tilt toward graphic design. In the recent decade, especially in the past five years, graphic design has received unprecedented attention for reasons such as economic development, technological innovation, increased consumer awareness among common people, and importance attached to design by companies and brands.
Guang: The previously “quiet” situation in the field of graphic design was because everyone's demand remained on a shallow level, and there was no competition between brands. At that time, everyone did not have brand awareness and did not need to maintain a visual image. Just as in a time marked by extreme material scarcity, it would be very nice to have a military coat. You would not consider what brand it was, you just needed to ensure your mere subsistence.
Now that the problem of mere subsistence has been solved, everyone can take time to pick style, texture, color, brand and design, which is a kind of satisfaction for spiritual needs. So the development of graphic design is directly correlated with the improvement in people's living standards. And be it the fierce competition in other commercial fields or graphic design being valued nowadays, it is actually a manifestation of improved living standards.
Nod: The local culture of the Chinese nation basically exists in people's living habits. For example, the age distribution in China's current society is featured by a majority of middle-aged and elderly people, so their living habits will affect the overall social environment. However, these middle-aged and elderly people may not always conform to the tradition. They differ in cultural literacy, and most of them are even deficient in this respect. They have special preferences. For example, they like the bustle, red color, gorgeous clothes, etc., thereby affecting the visual reality of Chinese society. By contrast, the proportion of real traditional cultural factors is very small, especially on the application level. Most people only have a smattering understanding of these factors.
So look at the work that graphic designers are engaged in today. Take me and Guang Yu as an example. We can be counted as more of an "urban type.” From the perspective of the scope classification all across China, our style and mode can't be ranked as 5%.
Guang: We don't have any special "Chinese style" to share with you but rather, being Chinese, what we are doing now is a kind of Chinese style. What I mean is in today's globalized world, we don't want to use the "Chinese style" to pursue design. The design we output is neither the Eastern nor Western style. Instead, it is a solution to the problem.
Nod: For example, today we use a Chinese-style "moire pattern.” Who is it intended for? How many people on earth will have an inner yearning for this pattern? We don't know about it ourselves, so we can't make a judgment. Another example: A dragon is a Chinese symbol known to the entire world. However, what different responses will the dragon trigger when consumers see it? I think every person and every case is different.
Nod: China is indeed a very stubborn country. During the Qing dynasty, foreign envoys hoped to establish diplomatic relations with her, yet the emperor's reaction was that such relations were unnecessary. I think this was not only caused by the backwardness or isolation, but also by the Chinese people's reluctance to communicate with the outside world.
Today, it has become quite different. For example, in the Wangjing area, Beijing, you may find yourself getting in touch with the Korean culture. However, the Chinese people's psychological aspects still remain the same. For example, the way they get on with others. So in my opinion, this issue should focus on what changes "globalization" will bring to the Chinese people.
Guang: "Globalization" is a boon. Some people may think that this is a threat, which goes against my understanding. Doesn't the U.S. president always stress the China Threat Theory in his speech? It seems that there are idiots everywhere. The influence of “globalization” can have both good and bad impacts on design. It makes everyone share something in common, such as aesthetics and expression method. But at the same time, some of the individuality disappears, and life and design become monotonously the same.
Nod: Calligraphy is not just a kind of character. It is a fine art and an image with text as its carrier. So when we appreciate calligraphy and Chinese paintings, we will feel an unrestrained feeling because it has no boundary: craze, grace, individuality and commonality can all possibly exist from the perspective of emotional expression. I can't say exactly what affect calligraphy exerts on design. It may exist as a gene does, instead of just a reference to a method.
Guang: I think calligraphy is great. Many designers will get in touch with the style or elements of calligraphy, but we won't deliberately refer to it in our work. Some designers around us would use the elements related to calligraphy for design. It can be said that calligraphy is still en vogue today, and the artistic conception of calligraphy is something I appreciate.
Nod: Take an example: The Dutong Tie (Stomach Ache Calligraphy Copybook) by Zhang Xu in the Tang Dynasty is a copybook to describe his stomach ache. It is also a kind of design to some extent because the calligraphy conveys his feelings about an incident – the way the calligrapher wields his brush, the character shape expresses the stomach ache he suffers from at the moment of writing. As is the case for many Chinese designers when doing their design. There will always be some content for emotional output, expressive of a certain situation in the image.
Guang: In foreign countries, there are special environments and facilities to put up posters such as a poster column. However, it is forbidden to put up posters in the street by laws and regulations. In China, the design community likes to make posters for the sake of making them. A poster is more like a personal work. Previously, posters were one of the main ways to convey information. At present, due to the sophisticated network and widespread use of smartphones, the form of posters is no longer limited to paper printing.
Nod: "Haibao" in the Chinese language does not entirely overlap with the word "poster" in the English language. Posters in China may manifest themselves more as a banner of a website, or an image matrix composed of nine pictures clicked open in a mobile phone. These are Chinese-style posters that I can easily find. So this is very different from the way foreign posters are presented. A poster may not need to be printed and the audience it addresses may not be the same, because the event it describes may happen in a remote place, not in the vicinity. For example, today I saw a poster on my mobile phone and the event it described happened in Tianjin.
Guang: The reason why thousands of designers graduated at the same time is related to China's huge population base and to the demand for design. As for whether it is difficult to find qualified instructors, I think this is a problem arising in design education. First of all, I don't think basic education is doing well. In addition, schools are not clear about what kind of population the future graduates should serve. China's design education lags a little behind, in my opinion.
Nod: I agree with Guang Yu's view. In China, people outside the education system are indifferent to education, resulting in the shortage of educational resources. In foreign countries, education is an important topic. As in today's interview, educational issues may emerge, indicating that everyone cares much about education. If a society cares little about something, then it won’t develop.
I don't think there is something wrong with Chinese teachers. Rather, they are isolated. The reason they are isolated is not that they are doing poorly. The conditions involved are complicated. For example, Guang Yu and I don’t converse with those who teach design courses in school. They may not know us. We are designers, but who are they? This is the estrangement caused by the social system's indifference to education.
Guang: Another point is that design education in school focuses more on the form of the image, which I think is a bit worse. If students taught in this way only care about the form of the image and do not touch upon the genuine needs, then I think it will always create a contradictory situation. Everyone is airing his own view without paying attention to others' ideas – meaning, I just say my needs and you provide your design. It's difficult for us to meet each other halfway.
Nod: I can't answer this question because I don't have a survey data in hand. As far as I know, one of my students does a poor job in design. However, he makes a good fortune by cashing in on the shares of the company after it goes to public, and can quit the design business at any time. But this is an individual case. If I were him, I would have made it, or at least tried.
Guang: I also know that after graduation, some young people go to a Party A company, where they enjoy a nice income in a stable environment. But some people choose to come to studios like ours or even set up their own studios directly. These are personal choices on which I will not comment, as they are choices based on personal values.
"I think design should serve the public, not the minority. If it is really to serve the minority, then we can pursue art at any time."
Guang: Why are power aesthetics more mainstream in China? I think everyone knows that it is not necessary to answer this question. Neither "elite" nor "power" design is what I go after. Maybe we set one foot on the boat of "elite design," because we're working hard enough in design. It's not that we only know how to make designs that look beautiful and win us awards instead of serving society. On the contrary, we are noticed because we've made excellent designs that serve society.
Nod: We can talk about phenomena, pursuit, ideals, but what is the reality? It is what Guang Yu once summarized. We don't pursue "power" or "elite" at all. We just do well what falls within our capacity, this is our pursuit. I think design should serve the public, not the minority. If it is really to serve the minority, then we can pursue art at any time. Today, we choose design as our career with a purpose of improving people's living standards a little, even if only ten thousand or a hundred thousand people benefit from our designs. This is my ideal.
Nod: One is your horizon, and the other is your understanding of the times. The former is about how big the world is in your eyes. For example, Sichuan people should not think that except Sichuan cuisines, other cuisines are rubbish. The latter is our understanding of the era in which we live, whether you are willing to follow the changes in the situation and economic development to generate new design aspirations, motives and methods. I can hardly find the above in Chinese designers. Most of them are still designing things 15 years ago and haven't changed at all, though the world has already changed.
Guang: I can't speak for designers around me. But I do think that they, including myself, are challenging their own narrowness.
Nod: We are also trying to make ourselves less narrow-minded and more open-minded. This is also a challenge for us.
Nod: The government's support for the design industry is tangible. Take, for example, actions such as planning a special area as a creative park. Or providing convenient conditions for young people related to creativity and innovation when they start up their businesses, through reduction in rent and other policy support. But the government won't make a person grow. What it provides is the convenience for such growth. Whether a person can do well has nothing to do with the government. I myself haven't had direct contact with the "government" in the real sense, because I don't know who the "government" is and where the "government" is. For me, it remains to be a concrete existence.
Guang: I was once invited to design by a relevant government department, but I did not follow it through because the cost of communication was too high. I think the government's demand is not specific enough compared to that of the company. By contrast, a company has its own employees and competitive pressure, and it will tell me its demand and let me know who I am to serve. In my experience dealing with that government department, the person from the government department was always stating his personal opinions and understandings, but I didn't really care whether he liked it or not. What I cared about was which group of people would like or dislike my design. So nothing came out of it finally.
Nod: When I first operated my own studio, I targeted overseas customers which accounted for more than 80% of my business. At that time, there were not so many domestic customers and the domestic market was in a state to be further explored. At present, China's market demand is very robust. Many companies have begun to pay attention to design and attach due importance to design, and feel that design is a part of brand competitiveness. Currently, our studio focuses more on domestic design, having no time to take care of foreign markets. Besides, I am more willing to contact Chinese customers as I understand this market as well as the psychology of customers. So naturally, I take more initiative to get in touch with domestic customers.
Guang: When local designers deal with local customers, in most cases, they are more competent than overseas designers in every aspect. So are Chinese companies. In most cases, they are willing to cooperate with local designers, and meanwhile Chinese designers are gradually maturing.
Nod: I think social media plays a big role. Social media is not the same as “socializing.” For example, I myself have trouble with socializing. If you put me in a party, I will feel ill at ease. If you ask me to post something on social media, I will be very pleased. So social media is not simply used for socializing, but as a way for an individual or a team to output and display itself, and in turn, reap an all-around understanding of itself from the outside world.
However, we do not use it as a channel for obtaining customers. Our situation is basically to obtain new customers from old customers' recommendations. The designs we have made for our customers are seen by more people, providing a commercial model for them. I have never published my works on Weibo. I have only a few words about my works, but more opinions and ideas about phenomena and events.
Nod: I think a good design is "neat,” which does not refer to the material aspect.
Guang: I thought that you would comment on “good design” from a commercial perspective. However, you said what it looks like.
Nod: It's really hard to say, as there are different angles to describe. A "good design" that I identify with makes it possible for more people to improve their quality of life. Even if it is improved a little, I think it is a good design. Ikea, Uniqlo, McDonald’s, Nike... all produce good designs through the joint effort of the designer and enterprise.
Guang: I see eye to eye with him but because I used to focus on art design, I am not weary of niche design as it has its own audience. I feel that there will be problems if all designs are purely commercial in a country. From the perspective of having a good influence on both the country and community, there should be an abundance of design in different categories. Then design will be rich and interesting.
Nod: This question is also particularly relevant to what one cares about. Who I care more about are not those who are also designers like me, but the audience. When it comes to the impact on the country, I think it definitely exists. The brands we participate in have all gained attention in the industry. The success of business means to serve the public, which is equal to serving the country.
Nod: Mei Shuzhi and 702 design.
Guang: From a commercial perspective and understanding of customers, Mei Shuzhi is a new type of designer. He is a person with a sense of service, not just focusing on personal expression. In addition, designers who specialize in a specific category include Ma Shirui, Roujiang.
Nod: UDL Studio is also quite good.
Nod: I think "exhibition" is the best way. Two designers, like two people who practice martial arts, should stage a set of boxing techniques for the purpose of communication, instead of empty talks. Just as two masters should put on a genuine fight when exchanging blows. Similarly, works are displayed together to judge their respective value, which, I think, is the best way. In addition, we can also conduct some open dialogues on the scene.
To be frank, there is no good medium domestically that only deals with design as it is too narrow.
Guang: I think competition is also a very good way. As Nod says, works are on display so that the ideas and techniques are compared, to see what can be learned from them and what experience can be drawn on as well.
Nod: It is not difficult for foreign designers to look for opportunities here in China. Of course, they should be proficient in Chinese. But customers all over the world, including Chinese customers, prefer to choose a well-known designer. So maybe you are famous abroad. However, no one may know you domestically. In view of this, you need to establish prestige for your work in the local area and give customers a reason to choose you. In my opinion, in China, it won't happen that a company or brand does not choose you as you are a foreign designer. But its reason to choose you may not be so sufficient.
Guang: You are recommended to read Details, from which we can learn about some information and special reports on art and design.
Guang and Nod, thank you so much for your time! I appreciate your straightforward, no-bullshit answers – this interview has been illuminating for me.