China’s rise hits graphic design

After decades of inward-looking central planning, China is joining the international community. On the eve of a major exhibition at the V&A, how are the country’s graphic designers responding to the sweeping changes of reform? asks Zhang Hongxing

After decades of inward-looking central planning, China is joining the international community. On the eve of a major exhibition at the V&A, how are the country’s graphic designers responding to the sweeping changes of reform? asks Zhang Hongxing

CHINA HAS a long-standing tradition of the visual. Chinese calligraphy continues to inform contemporary art and design, while China is also credited with a number of technological inventions (such as paper and moveable type) that became primary components of graphic design. It seems surprising, therefore, that modern graphic design is a new notion in post-reform China.

China’s decision to open up to foreign investments in the 1980s –and moving from a centrally planned to a market economy – has resulted in massive changes in graphic design practice. In the prereform planned economy, there were simply a handful of meigong (art-workers) or meibian (art-editors), operating as designers in stateowned companies and publishers. Until the late 1990s only a few Chinese universities offered modern design courses. There was limited work for trademark design and book design, and packaging design was virtually non-existent.

That changed as the Chinese government became eager to export products to global markets, and realised that this was impossible without adapting to international expectations for packaging standards. Hence, state-sponsored packaging design was the first new discipline to emerge. Meanwhile, the privatisation of state-owned manufacturers and rapid growth of the private sector combined to help create a huge market for visual identity design. Most smallsized Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) – entrepreneurial communities based in rural areas – resorted to design to compete in a market that had previously been monopolised by state-owned companies.

By the mid- to late-1990s, packaging design and visual identity design were the most popular disciplines, attracting the largest number of design students, and giving rise to a graphic design fever. This produced the first generation of nationally famous designers, such as Chen Hanmin.

This graphic design movement started out not in Beijing or Shanghai, but in Shenzhen, China’s newest manufacturing capital, which only 30 years ago was a cluster of fishing villages. Since 1979, it has become one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, and remarkably, the average of its ten million population is a youthful 27 years of age.

The pioneering generation of Chinese graphic designers, living through this period of change from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, were those who were brave enough to give up their ‘iron rice bowls’, set up their own design outfits and live on commissions from commercial clients.

What was extraordinary about these pioneers was their idealism despite ‘jumping into the commercial sea’. Alongside their everyday commercial work, designers such as Wang Xu, Wang Yuefei, Chen Shaohua and Han Jiaying set up China’s first independent professional association in 1995. By organising regular competitions such as Graphic Design in China, and using international designers as jury members, they promoted the concept and worldwide status of graphic design in China.

China’s economic reform gradually spread to media and publishing during the mid- to late-1990s, whereupon propaganda-free entertainment TV channels, weekend newspapers and lifestyle magazines rapidly emerged to serve a booming urban readership. This gave rise to a more updated practice in book, magazine and newspaper design. While copyright co-operation with international publishing companies became a model of updating the business, state-owned publishers also began to transform their design units into semi- or fully independent design studios. Among the earliest book design studios of this kind is Lu Jingren Studio, set up in 1998 at the China Youth Publishing House.

Over the last few years, new technology, global alternative youth culture and lifestyle have begun to take root among China’s urban youth. Privately funded art and entertainment venues such as bars, clubs and galleries have appeared in major cities, providing a public space for such new culture to grow. This has enabled the younger generation of graphic designers to expand their craft beyond China’s mainstream design practice.

Typical work by young designers includes catalogues of young artists’ works, low-budget magazines, CD covers, flyers, music videos and animations. Some of them design products, such as toys and dolls, skateboards, trainers and T-shirts; others create their own websites, webzines and blogs. All these young designers operate outside the framework of mainstream media and the publishing industry, and many take an interdisciplinary approach. A good example is Ou Ning, who is a book designer, magazine art director, documentary filmmaker and freelance curator. Another designer, B6, is also an electronic musician.

A number of design collectives have formed, held together by a shared belief in interdisciplinary design and the cross-fertilisation of creative ideas. The more traditional collectives tend to be small design studios, with perhaps two or three members. The Beijing-based graphic design studio MEWE Design Alliance and the Shanghai team Perk – established in 2002 and 2004 respectively – belong to this category. Their members work either collaboratively or independently on individual projects.

Other groups are more experimental in nature, existing more like a network or a loose connection of many individuals. They come together through exhibitions, small gatherings and self-published magazines, or through the Internet, like the art and design collective Green School that was set up in 2003.

Looking to the future, Chinese graphic designers face numerous challenges. While the development over the past two decades vividly reflects young Chinese graphic designers as fast learners eager to absorb global influences, there are no distinctive Chinese global brands or well-known Chinese designers. But as the country is stepping up in making itself part of the world economy, it doesn’t seem too fanciful to predict that ‘Designed in China’ will appear on everyday images and objects in the world in the years ahead.

China Design Now runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW1 from 15 March until 13 July

Zhang Hongxing is co-curator of the China Design Now exhibition and senior curator in the V&A’s Asian department

Latest articles