Always consider the cultural meaning behind a design – Andrew Wong

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The advent of the internet and mobile technology has exposed many designers to an overabundance of visual stimulation, observes Andrew Wong, founder of Onion Design in Taipei, Taiwan. This has created a “Pinterest Generation” that heavily relies on visual references.

Although this approach is not wrong, it is missing a crucial component of design. “Dutch master of design Gijs Bakker believes that concepts are much more important than aesthetics. Designers can create much deeper works by going beyond visual beauty to think about the culture, history, and context behind design. A lot of Droog designs are not focused on aesthetics, but they become classics because they have very strong and subversive concepts that are much more powerful than visual beauty,” he notes.

Wong has been fascinated by typography for nearly a decade; he thinks that typography is intriguing in its intricacy and subtlety. “Words convey semantic meaning, but typefaces can convey specific feelings and concepts through careful design and arrangement,” he says. “It’s a non-verbal form of communication. For example, some luxury brands use their typefaces to convey an opulent and upscale images; some typefaces feel feminine, gentle, or elegant in their character; some other fonts can convey the weight of history. This is the magic of typography.”

Chinese writing poses a major challenge for typography; however, compared to the relative straightforwardness of most European languages, Chinese offers more possibilities in terms of layout and composition. Most European languages are limited to a left-to-right, top-to-bottom text flow. On the other hand, Chinese allows for right-to-left text and even text that flows vertically.

All of these different orientations can even be combined in the same layout. With thoughtful arrangements, the text could be easily readable without being incongruous. “When a layout requires both Chinese and a European language, the two writing systems provide interesting possibilities for composition. This is the fun in Chinese typography,” says Wong.

Wong also believes that concepts can sometimes be conveyed through storytelling. For example, his Grammy-nominated packaging design for the album Formosa Medicine Show was based around the concept of a jug band in early 20th century America that travels the countryside selling medicine through music. The design integrates visuals from the 1900s through the 1920s in Taiwan, the USA, and Japan.

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The main visual for the album cover takes its inspiration from early medicine packaging, and the lyrics booklet is designed like a pharmaceutical instruction booklet. The dominant color is orange, a color often associated with medicines of the era. For the typeface used on the cover, Wong sought to preserve authenticity by first finding a typeface similar to those used in the period, then taking it apart and adjusting and remaking it, resulting in a unique new typeface. The entire design for the album was deeply nostalgic and intercultural.

Turning to the topic of huaren design, or design created for and within huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities, Wong believes that designs for the huaren market and by huaren designers can both be considered under the umbrella of huaren design. Such designs, he believes, do not require the use of huaren elements and can be cosmopolitan in look and feel. “Do you want to embrace huaren signifiers, or stay away? Or do you want to integrate them somehow? The answer will depend on what kind of product you’re designing, and how you’re positioning the brand,” he says.

As Wong points out, the huaren design world underwent a period of fascination with “the East” in the 1980s, incorporating many Eastern images and symbols into visual communication design. But now, thirty years later, we must ask if there are possibilities to “transform and recreate” these Eastern elements and internalize the Eastern spirit in design concepts.

Wong gives an example in his brand identity design for Yii, a branding concept adopted by the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. The “Y”–and the two lowercase “i”s that sit side-by-side next to it–are skillfully manipulated to evoke a hexagram from the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching, known in English as the Book of Changes, as well as bamboo, a common material in the East.

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In the design of an Yii exhibition in Milan, Italy, the Eastern image of “spilled gold” is deconstructed to become an organic representation of gold fragments on a black card. Another example is the brand identity for Han Gallery; the logo seems minimalistic and modern, with three simple letters–yet from another angle, the viewer might recognize 玉, the Chinese character for jade. These two examples both demonstrate a clever use typeface design that integrates huaren elements in new ways.

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With the emergence of the huge China market, huaren design has today been receiving more attention. The West is looking to the East for inspiration, and the market is changing rapidly with a surge in demand for excellent design thinking. The market is now calling, says Wong, for bilingual people who have Western training and design approaches, but who were born and nurtured in the Chinese-speaking world. The door seems wide open for Chinese-speaking designers to enter a golden era. Wong is interested in how to internalize the ancient soul of the East into the face of modernity.

About Andrew Wong

Andrew Wong is the founder of Onion Design Associates in Taiwan. Born in Hong Kong, he worked as a tour guide for a travel agency for five years and only began formally studying design in the US after he was 25, where he graduated from the University of Houston with a major in graphic design. His work on the album Formosa Medicine Show was nominated for Best Album Packaging at the 57th Grammy Awards and the 25th Golden Melody Awards. In addition to his design work, he also teaches a class on typography at the Xue Xue Institute in Taiwan. He also creates installations and curates exhibitions with Tien Tien Circle. His work includes the Black Town Music Festival, thee Hacking Ikea exhibition, and the Village Taipei platform. Together with Sasson Kung, he also curated the Typephoon Taipei exhibition and the Hanzi Making Movement exhibition in Taichung’s Qinmei Underpass.

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