Huaren design must break free of the contractor mindset – Keng Liu

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Keng Liu, founder of the Bito design production studio and winner of a prestigious ADC award for advertising and commercial design, views Taiwan as 30 years behind the West in terms of motion graphic design. It is not because Taiwan lacks animation talent, Liu says. Instead, the OEM mindset is preventing Taiwanese designers in the field from proactively seeking answers and offering ideas. They must break free of this passivity before really cutting-edge and unique huaren design (design for Chinese-speaking communities0 can emerge.

Liu graduated from the Department of Entomology at National Taiwan University, and says jokingly that he spent “four years bug-testing” in college. After he received his degree, he decided to switch to a completely new career, and headed to New York to study for an MFA in Computer Art at the School of Visual Arts. He made New York his home for nine years, during which time his first animated short film, Travel Diary, received an Adobe Design Achievement Award. Through his animation work, he also became the first Taiwanese to be nominated for a Student Academy Award. Liu’s works have been screened and recognized at more than 50 film festivals and award shows worldwide, and his clients include renowned global companies like Facebook, Nike, MTV, the BBC, and Pepsi. He is, in short, a pioneering superstar of Taiwan’s motion graphic design field.

Seeking to raise the international profile of Taiwan’s animated works and promote motion graphic design, Liu returned to Taiwan in 2012 and founded Bito. He discovered that many clients were still unfamiliar with the concept of motion graphic design, confusing motion graphic design with animation. He also found that many were still stuck in the contractor mindset. “Everything that moves must be designed,” says Liu emphatically. “So a television network’s broadcasting packaging design, the opening and closing credits of a film, a commercial, a music video—all of this falls under motion graphic design. It’s really an enormous market.”

Liu found that many clients were unable to grasp this. Only foreign TV networks were willing to pay for packaging design, and many people he worked with even considered him a post-production director. “I hate being called a post-production director. We should be involved in the process from the very beginning. We shouldn’t be called in at the very end to do the visual effects and the animation. A lot of people consider a motion graphic designer some kind of handyman—an empty vessel for the director’s will, doing only what the director wants him to do. This is the contractor mindset, and it’s a serious problem.”

Liu says that Taiwan has outsourced animation work for Disney for many years, and that Taiwan has many talented animators; but if all they know is how to execute other people’s creative ideas, then Taiwanese animation will never take the next step. No matter how good the animation is, the credit will go to other people. “From the beginning, our education focuses on getting answers from other people. But designers have to be problem solvers. They have to find their own answers, and offer their own comments and ideas. If huaren design is to gain worldwide acclaim, it needs to break free of the contractor mindset and make something truly unique.”

Liu also encourages designers to try a variety of different styles. “In the beginning, my style was the same every time. But over time I discovered that to be a disadvantage.” Liu’s works now are now stylistically diverse. The Happy Paradise music video is colorful and childlike, while the animation for the Taiwanese film Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix has a distinct local flavor. The Birth of Acer Liquid X1, a promotional film for an Acer smartphone, brings together hi-tech and Eastern elements; Planet Gift, a Golden Pin Award nominee in 2015, has a warm and fantastical feel. Last year, he even made a foray into product design, producing four Bitoy figurines inspired by the Beatles. The figurines quickly sold out after a crowdfunding campaign on Zeczec. In the future, Liu says he will not limit his development to any particular field.

Talking about huaren design, Liu says that traditional Chinese characters are the pride of huaren culture. Integrating the characters into motion graphic design is a major challenge, and a future direction with great potential. “The English alphabet only has 26 letters, but Chinese has several thousand characters in common use. There is also a much narrower range of Chinese typefaces to choose from, and the characters are much more complex. You can’t have too much text on screen at once. So it’s pretty difficult to balance aesthetics and information in design. This is definitely something we can work harder on studying in the future.”

Liu believes that huaren designers actually possess some major advantages. Taking himself as an example, he says that his work experience in New York has given him a greater understanding of Western ways of thinking and foreign terms and vocabulary. When Taiwanese companies try to break into international markets, he is naturally their number one choice. But he also understands huaren culture and markets, so Western companies find communicating with him equally as comfortable. “We do have the talent. The important thing is to take a good look at ourselves and know who we are. We can’t rely on foreign references, we need to dig into huaren culture. That’s the only way we can create works that truly belong to us.”

About Keng Liu

Keng Liu holds a BA in Entomology from National Taiwan University. He later went to New York and earned an MFA in Computer Art at the School of Visual Arts. He lived in New York for nine years before returning to Taiwan in 2012 to found Bito; he is now Bito’s creative director and president. His first animated short film, Travel Diary (2006) won an Adobe Design Achievement Award; he is the first Taiwanese person to win the Adobe Design Achievement Award and be nominated for a Student Academy Award.

During his time in New York, he was an art director for the renowned studio Suspect. His work has been seen in films, television, brand images, commercials, music videos, and illustrations. His clients include renowned global companies Facebook, Nike, MTV, BBC, and Pepsi. In 2012, he was commissioned by Facebook to direct a global promotional video in nine languages.

In 2010, his music video Rebirth, produced in collaboration with singer Cheer Chen, was recognized in the 50th Communication Arts Illustration Competition. In 2015, he was recognized in the 94th ADC Motion Awards in New York for his opening film for TEDxTianhe, Road to Different. His works have been shown and recognized in over 50 film festivals and awards worldwide, and have been played at TED in New York. He is a pioneer and important promoter of motion graphic design in Asia.

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