China is credited with two mainstays of graphic design - paper and movable type - yet the concept of 'graphic design' barely existed there 30 years ago. With China's government beginning to replace the insular thinking of old with a more outward-reaching approach, and the Olympics making the country the focus of global attention, a new generation of Chinese creative talent has emerged, marrying traditional Oriental aesthetics with contemporary methodology and style. An entire nation's design industry is being forged, and there's the potential to tap into a massive and lucrative new market. But beware: many Chinese designers are starting to look outwards and thinking exactly the same thing.
The West's rich background in design stretches back many decades. So it's hard to imagine a country where graphic design barely existed a generation ago. But in China, the words for 'design' or 'designer' only started being used in the early 1990s, and creative graphic design didn't exist at all before the 1980s. Although the country has a strong history in calligraphy, its long period of being a centrally planned economy meant there was little demand for truly creative design. Output was generally functional, aiming to advertise products in the most basic and brutal sense. Even during periods of great political reform, craftsmanship prevailed over creativity, and only recently has this started to change.
Now aiming to become a major player in the global economy, China is beginning to understand the value of independent thinking when it comes to design and branding, particularly relating to products for export. "However, despite rapid development, China needs to catch up with the world in the field of design," says designer Han Jiaying, whose classic poster series 'Mouth' and 'Beauty' for Frontier effortlessly blended the old and new in Chinese design. A good starting point, he thinks, would be for China's design world to fully integrate with the international community: "We must broaden our vision to an international scale, with our thousands of years of historical and cultural background as a foundation."
It's clear that some Chinese designers already think along those lines. The Victoria & Albert's China Design Now exhibition (open until 13 July) showcases contemporary Chinese design works, including those by relatively old hands Han, Chen Shaohua and Wang Xu. What's interesting is how many of the posters on show were intended for international exhibitions. It's through these international forums that many Chinese designers discovered an audience interested in Chinese characters and imagery, and became informed by outside interest.
A new generation of Chinese designers is keen to capitalise on pioneering work by the likes of Chen and Han, and one notable success is Ji Ji. Arguably a superstar of Chinese design, he's graced TIME, been interviewed by numerous publications, and his iconic Hi Panda figures are conspicuous throughout much of the V&A show.
Despite fronting Poledesign, Ji Ji is almost becoming a brand himself - a marketing machine with a desire to take on the world, selling toys, T-shirts and more. Crucially, while his work appeals to China's new urban youth, it also strikes a chord worldwide.
Design by type
While Ji Ji's most celebrated current project embraces China's most popular animal, the panda, it's Chinese lettering that most resonates with Western audiences, albeit often in stereotypical fashion. Chinese characters are popular with designers aiming towards the exotic, and the tattoo industry seems to thrive on them.
Within China, too, traditional elements remain fairly popular. Chinese calligraphy continues to inform contemporary art and design, partly because those heading government organisations and large companies are slow to adapt and embrace design reform, and partly because of historical reasons. Designer and illustrator Zhang Jing notes that calligraphy was once considered a very important skill. She adds: "Although it's no longer necessary, it's still valued because it reveals one's personality."
Zhang notes that other elements of Chinese culture remain apparent in some modern work: "Chinese art was mainly influenced by Buddhism and nature, with elements being similar across many paintings. There's more emphasis on curves and lines, rather than colour, which sets the Chinese aesthetic apart from that of the West." Illustrator Xi He also considers a sense of underlying harmony intrinsic to the Chinese aesthetic: "The thinking of Taoism combines opposites to form balance, and this still influences Chinese creative output. As per Taoism's yin-yang symbol, objects represented in Chinese design are often carefully combined and harmonised."
Other designers argue that ancient concerns no longer fully apply to contemporary work. New York-based art director Qian Qian uses modern design methods to reinterpret traditional aesthetics, or as he describes it, "revisiting traditional culture from the ruins". In a sense, the China of old is considered little more than a toy box, akin to a musician's bank of samples, rather than offering methodology to be revered and adhered to.
This home-made spirit almost mirrors the UK's punk movement during the late 1970s, and perhaps points to a time when the old will be trashed entirely. "I don't really think there's a particular 'Chineseness' that makes Chinese art unique," reveals designer Gary Chen, founder of webzine Pigstyle.net and head of creative group Design By Guangzhou. "I can already see the 'exotic' elements fading from the Chinese design scene, and much outstanding Chinese design today has no apparent Oriental features."
Imports and exports
Chen argues that several factors instigated a shift from traditional imagery, most of which are grounded in a desire to experiment and evolve. "The Chinese are becoming more concerned about the world we live in, and the prevailing ideologies in society," he says. "Perhaps this awareness and consciousness now build our identity." Han Jiaying reckons this is merely a symptom of the country's late entry to the world of graphic design. It's only natural that many modern Chinese designers are heavily influenced by the West - not just in terms of design, but also its values and culture.
However, there are pros and cons to this. Tommy Yen, a commercial graphic designer and instigator of his own T&Y brand, says: "On the one hand, this is a good thing because it enables Chinese designers to think in a more liberated way, and to find the means to go beyond what they already have. But from another perspective, there's the danger of Chinese art and design becoming Westernised." However, he adds that new graduates are more aware of originality as well as the importance of traditional culture.
The constant desire to make something new and unique means trends come and go with alarming speed, removing any doubts that Chinese design is stifled by a desire to be functional rather than creative. Shanghai-based illustrator Chun Guan thinks that Chinese design is transitioning away from its roots towards a more creative and unique conclusion.
The struggle ahead
Passion and rampant creativity are fantastic for design, but China is still plagued by output, industry and political issues. John Millichap's 3030 Press imprint is dedicated to profiling the new generation of Chinese creatives, and he's discovered that although young designers take risks, their brands and projects rarely impact on the international scene. "Large domestic companies remain cautious about how they present their products, and as a result often imitate successful foreign brands, rather than ask a designer to come up with something new," he explains.
Additionally, there are rights issues, with plagiarism and theft still rife. There's also a language barrier that stops Westerners truly appreciating Chinese output and hampers many Chinese when communicating with the outside world. "The infrastructure is weak," says Zhang Hongxing, curator of China Design Now. "There's little living space for young people, and a huge volume of graphic designers graduating. Many are forced to work in advertising, with little space for creativity, and competition is increasingly fierce, which reduces the value of work."
Without the government undergoing a major shift in attitude, Zhang reckons most Chinese designers will continue to struggle: "Until the whole platform, including education, infrastructure and manufacturing, becomes more supportive of independently minded people and the value of independent design, I think the language and style of Chinese design won't be very distinct, dominate or even be on a par with Japan."
Despite this negative prediction, it's clear that changes are happening, and only relatively small adjustments are required for China to become a design powerhouse. Its designers have the impetus, the skills, the desire and the drive. Even with his misgivings, Zhang concedes that within the next ten years Chinese graphic design will likely be a part of global design culture, even if it's not entirely distinct.
But once a number of shifts occur - the Chinese government investing in infrastructure, more Chinese designers becoming conversant in English, the gradual replacement of today's cautious generation - there's a good chance the design landscape could change forever. While China's creative explosion inspires Western designers with its brashness, stark colours and recycled propaganda, a future China might pose stiff competition when countless hungry, educated, skilled designers start looking outwards, rather than in.