Discussion of the question ‘What is Chinese design?’ is just beginning – Zara Arshad

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Zara Arshad is the founder and editor of Design China, an online English-language platform dedicated to the documentation of design in China. An experienced graphic designer herself, Arshad came to Beijing in late 2008, where she worked as a freelance designer as well as a communications professional for leading design institutions such as Icograda and Beijing Design Week (BJDW). In 2013, she left China for London to pursue an MA – History of Design degree jointly administered by the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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“I view design as something that should be locally cultivated,” says Arshad. While she admits there could be a continuous element in design for huaren markets, perhaps as a result of shared culture, she also notes that the various huaren communities around the world may produce unique design works that would not necessarily appeal to the global huaren group.

She laments the dichotomies that are ubiquitous in conversations about design in China–China versus the West; new versus old; modern or contemporary versus craft; ancient skills versus new technologies. “I’m not sure that it’s conducive to the development of design in China to talk about these dichotomies, so I think the term ‘huaren’ is a more sensitive way of addressing, first of all, your consumers–who you’re designing for–and secondly, the contexts in which people might be designing, as well as those contexts they are designing for.”

When working as a graphic designer in China, one of the biggest challenges Arshad faced was finding the best ways to translate both visual and textual materials for a culture so different from those she grew up and was educated in. “Working for local audiences and global audiences might be very different. Something that you see visually as perhaps representing or being characteristic of one thing in one part of the world might be misconstrued or perceived differently by local Chinese audiences,” she explains.

Arshad has worked with a wide variety of companies and organizations interested in entering the Chinese market with their products and services. “Many are quite enthusiastic to tap into the China market, and quite rightly so, as there are huge gains to be made, but there’s also a misconception that it’s something that’s very easy to do,” she says. However, this is often far from the reality. As Arshad notes, “First of all, companies need to recognize what consumers in this region might want.”

A simple focus on surface details and specific colors, such as the well-known auspicious colors red and yellow, is not enough. Companies also cannot simply translate their marketing, informational, and other materials literally and expect them to have the same appeal in China that they do in their other, more familiar markets. “It’s about moving beyond that, and building trust and credibility around their products,” Arshad says. “There needs to be much more active engagement with consumers: companies need to be able to decipher what these groups are looking for in a certain product, what they want.”

Arshad set up Design China in 2011. She had been toying with the idea of creating a platform as a means of recording and deciphering her experiences in the design industry in Beijing and beyond since 2009, but was spurred into action when a number of international design journalists attending BJDW professed to her their frustration at the distinct lack of clear information on Chinese design in English.

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Despite the international interest in Chinese design from media and perhaps also others working in the design field globally, “one of the challenges many local designers have to overcome is the international expectation of what Chinese design is,” Arshad says. In the same manner that international companies try to tweak their designs for the Chinese market, perhaps with a shallow focus on imagery and color, uninformed international audiences may hold a similar cliched definition of Chinese design.

In an attempt to overcome this perception, she says, Chinese designers are now loudly proclaiming: “This is my design, and it doesn’t necessarily use red or yellow or look like a dragon. This is my reaction to my local environment, or to a problem that needs to be solved. I’m a Chinese designer, and this is my example of what Chinese design is and can be.”

According to Arshad, ‘What is Chinese design?’ is a question many younger designers in China are beginning to engage with. “Something that I hope will contribute to the decentralizing of design from a Euro-American core and create more awareness of what’s happening across the region is the fact that a large number of design students who have traveled abroad are now coming back home,” she notes. “It’s important to keep an eye on what these people do, and how they might drive innovation in the field.”

Though Arshad admits that design in China is still in an experimental stage, what is developing in Greater China today, and even in the East Asian region more broadly, could certainly impact on design education and the field in the same manner that canonical models like Bauhaus once did. However, she urges that the first step toward this possibility is to facilitate discussions around, for instance, what design for and within huaren markets might constitute, and how it might link back to the global community.

“There will be many more questions that arise, whether that involves looking at what ‘good design’ means in a Chinese context, or what Chinese design is in relation to wider issues or themes relating to culture, politics, and nationalism, or even philosophy. Different fields and disciplines will prompt an array of further questions before any answers are reached, if indeed there are any answers at all,” she concludes.

About Zara Arshad

Born and raised in the UK, Zara has also lived in Indonesia, Syria, and China. She is a recent graduate of the V&A/RCA MA History of Design programme, where she studied as the 2013-2015 Friends of the V&A Scholar, and holds an undergraduate degree in Design from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Since 2008, Zara has been practicing as a freelance graphic designer and writer, with clients such as United Nations Volunteers, Teach for China, The Library Project, Designers & Books, Interior Design, Icon, Change Observer, and AIGA. She has also worked at Icograda in Beijing, the British Council in China, and Beijing Design Week, and currently writes for Design China.

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