With the Olympics in China approaching and current exhibitions about Chinese art, we are asking once again: what’s happening now in the country where, until a decade or two ago, graphic design and illustration were the preserve of the propagandists. And more importantly, where can we see the fresh, hot stuff that the kids are turning out? Until now, they post it mostly online on their blogs, under the radar for a lot of galleries. However, last year, we showed you the exciting new photography in China. Now the same publisher, 3030, has another work of love for you: New Graphic Design In China. For that, Hong Kong-based editor Javin Mo of Milkxhake has gathered thirty Chinese graphic designers around 30 years old for your typographic pleasure. PingMag talked to Javin.
Written by Verena
Kids in China increasingly use Flickr and social networks to show their photo work. But how do people get to know upcoming graphic designers in China? Or in other words, how did you find these awesome designers for the book?
There is the Art & Design magazine from Beijing which is very popular, and there’s another one from Guangzhou called Design 360º. I know one of the Art & Design editors, and she recommended to me some of the young talents. For example, in the book there’s one guy from Guangzhou, Bai Ganggang, who does a record label called Vowelmusic. He is a music producer in his mid 20s, being part of a really energetic underground music scene in China…
Simplistic yet elegant CD packaging by designer and…
…which we like to get to know more! Where are China’s creative capitals in terms of graphics and illustration?
In Hong Kong, we started our graphic design history only in the 1970s. In mainland China, it’s been like ten to fifteen years maximum. And in the last seven years, I’ve seen a lot of interesting projects online by these 20-something people. I can see the freedom in spaces like Shanghai or Beijing, because contemporary art is super crazy there. These two art scenes are providing a really good atmosphere for graphic design. The kids can find magazines for their illustrations and open-minded clients for collaboration, especially when it comes to art- and culture-related product design. That’s quite different from Hong Kong where it’s pretty commercial: our art space is not as big as China’s right now. That’s why not many designers can just do art- and cultural-related things and survive…
… which is related to Hong Kong’s economic history. By the way, in an essay by Wendy Siuyi Wong titled Detachment and Unification: Chinese Graphic Design [read the full version here], it is stated that there was a unique graphic design movement in Hong Kong during the 1960s – until many American companies came and influenced them so that a kind of cross-cultural design could emerge. I guess Hong Kong still is different from the mainland…
Filigree kanji silhouettes! “A Hundred Flowers Blossoming, A Hundred Viewpoints Contending” poster by Jon Fong. Courtesy of Nth Power studio and 3030 Press.
The design history already expanded, so the ‘Golden Age of Graphic Design’ in Hong Kong was in the ’80s, or early ’90s. Lots of young people built up their own companies, pushing it to an international level. After 1997 brought an economic recession, the whole industry was affected. Many were shifting their mission to commercial design.
I see. Are there any non-commercial spaces in Hong Kong where artists can show their graphic works today?
We have a lot of galleries that are more like auction places. But there are some interesting happenings, like the new media art festival called Microwave I’m working for now. It’s a bunch of young people and right now they are doing an exhibition called “Act Local” where they are working with British UVA in collaboration with a local artist.
Ahh, United Visual Artists! Back to New Graphic Design In China: When you flip through the book, you cannot make out any characteristic Chinese style. Are there any traits depending on the graphic schools that folks go to?
First, in China, there are really interesting statistics about design students since the economic boom – because there are twenty to thirty times more design students and it’s increasing. However, this is not really healthy, because they employ all of them. I would say that, for example, China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing has a quite different graphic design style from other colleges.
“San He / Illustration” by Liu Yong. Courtesy of LY_D Design Studio and 3030 Press.
“A Hundred Flowers Blossoming, A Hundred Viewpoints Contending” poster by Liu Yong. Courtesy of LY_D Design Studio and 3030 Press.
In what way?
They are famous in fine arts, and started their graphic design degree only seven years ago. Since then, they opened a lot of different streams, like product design, web and new media. I saw their graduation exhibition catalogues two or three times, and the students are doing quite well compared to others in terms of conceptual thinking.
A traditional Chinese ‘inventory box’ comes back to life! “Heilongilang Box – Qiu Xiaofei” by MEWE Design Alliance. Photo courtesy of MEWE and 3030 Press.
Traditional Chinese binding with a new look: “N12 NO.4″ book by MEWE Design Alliance. Photo courtesy of MEWE and 3030 Press.
Tell us about the most exciting young graduates!
For example, the MEWE Design Alliance. They are nearly the same age as me and all three are very good friends. They are conceptually specific in doing book design, publications and also editorials. You can tell they are from China, from the material they choose, from the papers, from the printing effect…
Please explain a bit…
Take their “Heilongiiang Box – Qiu Xiaofei.” That box is really old-style in China and Hong Kong. When you go to the old Beijing bookstores, you can buy this type of box, like the invoice box if you need to write a bill, a receipt, and give it to the customers. This kind of old, Chinese-style binding for giving receipts to customers is standardised. And the booklet is poster art paper, like a wrapper for vegetables or fish in China. MEWE are really interested in this kind of history and treat it contemporary.
What other Chinese traditions are influencing modern illustration or design?
It’s quite mixed. For example, our book cover is by Li Xinlu, a graphic and motion designer whom I met last year. She has the same hair as the lightning babes in her animation, actually! You can tell by her style that it is like the old-style illustration with really simple lines, and a really shiny colour. Lots of young talents are also inspired by the West, and especially by Japan.
This poster really says a mouthful…”The Pit” poster and brochure by Imagine Wong. Photo courtesy of Imagine Wong and 3030 Press.
Some cool, words-as-art design. “Learn to Design” poster by Jiang Hua. Photo courtesy of Jiang Hua and 3030 Press.
Regarding influences, Shanghai used to be a great capital of graphic design in the 1920s and 1930s because it was such an international city. Later on, in the ‘50s, ‘60s and during the Cultural Revolution, of course, there was no commercial graphic design apart from political propaganda. I wonder how people started from scratch in the ‘70s and ‘80s… When searching on Amazon, surprisingly there was only one book about Chinese graphic design – from 1990!
Again, it’s just been ten years! The young people born in the late 1970s and 1980s, like me, had a really strong Western influence. Before, people did not have many imported design books. I talked to one designer from Shenzhen, and he told me that there is a strong community of graphic designers right now. But since they can’t read English, every time they get a magazine, they ask the translation company to translate it to Chinese to circulate it to designers they know.
Magazines like, for example, the Japanese Idea?
Actually, it was the Italian Duomo that has a Chinese version, and I heard that there is a Chinese version for Frame also.
What Chinese design blogs would you recommend?
There is one from the south called ad110.com from Shenzhen focusing on all the big design happenings, including industrial. They feature critiques for logo design and design news. For the north, there is chinavisual.com. There are quite a lot of blogs, but these two are the biggest and they are pretty good among design schools. And then, there is also Get it Louder, of course. It’s a shame that, in Hong Kong, we don’t have a big community website…