Design should not steal the show – Joe Fang

方序中 Joe Fang

Type design holds an indispensable place in the Chinese-speaking design world. Chinese characters are derived from pictographs, ideographs, compound ideographs, and phono-semantic compounds. They are generally more complex and richer than the spelling systems in the West, and therefore enable more creativity in design.

Nominated four times for Best Album Packaging in Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards, Taipei-based Joe Fang seems to have the ability to stun the world with any new work. Visually, he has achieved a plethora of innovative breakthroughs, and in his typographic and layout work, he often conveys deep meaning by eschewing traditional approaches.

In an exhibition curated by Fang, “These Flowers: In Between the Doors and Memories Hometown Photography,” held in Taiwan in September 2015, the designer sought to raise awareness of the important of the military dependents’ villages that once dominated the island’s rural and urban centers in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. He was inspired to focus on the topic when he witnessed the demolition of similar villages in his birthplace and hometown, Gonghe New Village, Donggang, Pingtung. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim, and the curatorial design and photography won Fang a coveted Golden Pin Design Award 2016 Design Mark.


Chinese characters look less like “symbols” than English letters do, Fang notes. They are more challenging to incorporate into a layout due to their complicated strokes and full forms. As a result, Fang often creates, transforms or carefully selects characters in an effort to find the best possible font to fit his work. For example, the font used in the visual curation of the exhibition “These Flowers” was his original creation.

“These Flowers” is a photography exhibition, and the medium is closely related to the concept of human visual perception. The best angle of view for the human eye is 120 degrees. Fang intentionally positioned the middle stroke of the Chinese character 小 and the lower-right stroke of the character 花 at a 120 degree angle, subtly reflecting the spirit that lay behind the exhibition. “The photographs in ‘These Flowers’ may seem ordinary, but just like the wildflowers we see along the roadside, they make you want to protect them. They may not be the most beautiful photographs, but they fit perfectly with the theme [of the typography design],” Fang explains.


In 2015, Joe Fang’s album packaging design for aboriginal Taiwanese singer A-mei’s “Faces of Paranoia” was nominated for the 26th Golden Melody Award. Fang’s creativity is expressed to the fullest in the layout design for the lyrics of each song on the album. For example, the Chinese character 狗 (dog) is separated out into three parts 犭口ㄅ, and one-fourth of the song title “這樣你還要愛我嗎” (“Do You Still Want to Love Me”) is cut off on the right side.


On the same page, some words are designed to be read from left to right while others from the top down. Joe Fang even used ten different “colors” of white and ten different paper densities for each of the ten songs on the album, creating a contrasting feeling of freedom and oppression, sanity and paranoia. Unsurprisingly, Fang’s design for the album was extremely well-received by the public.

Fang was involved with the production process since the album’s inception. He carefully listened to each song in order to better “feel” them. “I wanted to explore just how paranoid Faces of Paranoia really was,” he notes. “The font I used is actually quite common, but some words were partially cut off or separated. I chose to break the rules of tradition in order to create a feeling of discomfort and anger. By playing with various layouts and transforming existing fonts, I was able to convey a feeling of paranoia.”

Joe Fang has collaborated with many of Taiwan’s A-list singers and music groups, including A-mei, Mayday, and Jam Hsiao, but he still loves to work on small and low budget projects that aim to preserve local culture. In 2014, for example, he won a Golden Pin Design Mark for his design of the Hakka music albums “Tea-Picking Tune Album” and “Comic Dialogue Album”. The cover of the “Tea-Picking Tune Album” features the layered, laser engraved blossoms of the tung tree–a tree commonly planted in Hakka villages across Taiwan–as a major visual element.


As Fang explains, the typically reserved nature of Taiwan’s Hakka population combined with the more subdued way people in that community express their feelings through “Tea-Picking Tune Album” is behind the choice to laser engrave and layer the cover imagery. “It’s like when two people begin to fall in love, you need to strip away all those layers to really know what the person’s like inside,” says Fang.

Many designers have their own distinct style, and their “marks” are found everywhere in their work. However, despite having designed more than a hundred music albums, Fang does not consider himself to have a distinctive personal style. “The purpose of album packaging design is to serve the music and help it stand out [in the marketplace]. I try very hard not to impose my style because it’s not the design that should steal the show,” he adds.

With the emergence of downloadable music, CD sales are now in decline, but Joe Fang is more focused than ever on his album packaging design, as it shows consumers the effort musicians put into their work. “I pay a lot of attention to the details. I hope that the moment you open up a CD case, you notice the way the song lyric booklet is folded and its texture; you start to ‘feel’ the music album not only when you listen to it, but also when you see and touch it. This is something the digital world can’t offer,” he explains.

According to Fang, the work of Chinese-speaking, or huaren, designers should be closely related to culture and customs. Today’s huaren designers are so familiar with their own culture that it is often taken for granted. “In the past, it was viewed as old-fashioned to incorporate Chinese cultural elements into design, but now they have become popular. Through the process of transformation, cultural elements can become valuable treasure,” he says.

Young and contemporary huaren designers are passionate about digging up these gems, and while the global design industry is still dominated by symbolism and values from the West, Fang believes that in the foreseeable future, huaren designers will play a critical role in the international market.

About Joe Fang

A graduate of the Arts, Crafts & Design Department at National Taiwan University, Joe Fang is currently the creative director of JOEFANGSTUDIO, visual director of Sense30, and person-in-charge of clothing brand FEVER. Fang’s album packaging design for The Way Home, hush!’s “Psycho Love”, A-mei’s “Faces of Paranoia”, and Matzka’s “Vu Vu Reggae” were nominated for Best Album Packaging at the Golden Melody Awards 2013 through to 2016. He also won a Golden Pin Design Award Design Mark for his design of “Tea-Picking Tune Album,” “Comic Dialogue Album,” and the photography exhibition, “These Flowers: In Between the Doors and Memories Hometown Photography”.

Known in his homeland of Taiwan as the “Maestro of Album Packaging Design”, Joe Fang has collaborated with well-known singers and groups including A-mei, Rainie Yang, Stefanie Sng, Jam Hsiao, and Mayday. In addition to album packaging, he was in charge of the visual design of the theatre production “It’s Hard to Disclose”, Public Television Service (PTS) Taiwan’s drama “A Touch of Green”, the 27th Golden Melody Awards, and the 51st Golden Bell Awards. He works in a variety of fields including event curation, brand planning, installation art, and music video production design, making him one of the most active mid-career designers in Taiwan. In 2015, JOEFANGSTUDIO was selected by Taiwan-based Shopping Design magazine as one of their “Taiwan Design Best 100”.

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