René Chen is the Managing Director of the Shanghai branch of Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR), a global design agency based in London that was founded in 1990. The company, which also has offices in New York, Shanghai, and Singapore, focuses on brand identity, packaging design and advertising campaigns for international clients. A native from Hong Kong, Chen left in her early teens to study design overseas, and later gained professional experience in Toronto and in her home city of Hong Kong. In 2007, Chen relocated to Shanghai to continue her pursuits in the design profession.
Chen is excited by the momentum of change currently taking place in the huaren market, and finds it to be a very dynamic and stimulating experience. “It’s very fast; people are changing every minute. I love the flexibility; every day you are experiencing something new,” Chen comments. “It’s not about following the rules, but creating your own.”
Chen believes that huaren consumers are very open-minded and receptive to new ideas. Since the development of a middle-class is still a relatively new phenomenon in China, Chen argues that “ultimately the China market is developing, no matter how advanced it is.” This means there is a lot of scope to explore and experiment. But is there a downside? Due to the fast pace of the market, there can be pressure to release products to the public that are “only halfway there” in terms of development.
Despite the dynamism of the huaren market, Chen also feels that the huaren design aesthetic is still in its infancy. “Design is absolutely a Western word,” she states. “Modern design in China didn’t exist thirty years ago. In Chinese history there was no design—it was all about craft.”
Due to this lack of a huaren design legacy, there is a tendency to draw inspiration from Western design, an aesthetic that Chen describes as “rigid, disciplined, and scientific in a sense.” She feels that the Western aesthetic is “hard-wired” in people’s minds as “good design,” and somehow Western design is seen as “the standard, the thing we need to go after.”
With her firm conviction that design is both a “reflection of a culture” and must “solve a particular culture’s needs,” she sees it as only natural that huaren design should reflect huaren culture, which is “much more fluid, expressive, and loud.” She sees a strong parallel between huaren culture and Chinese calligraphy, which is “very random to a certain extent, and quite spontaneous.”
She encourages her team to draw on the wealth of huaren culture for inspiration, such as philosophical texts, calligraphy, art, architecture, and films. These become the “touch points” for their design projects and help them to forge a new identity for huaren design. For example, the team recently submitted a design proposal to an internet portal company for the redesign of their mascot. By drawing on Chinese philosophical concepts, the team had strong ground on which to generate ideas instead of just “going from whether it looks cute or not, whether the color is bright or not.”
However receptive her team and the huaren consumer market may be to this new style of design that embraces Chinese culture, there are stumbling blocks. Some clients are very conservative and find it hard to be daring enough to break away from the Western design aesthetic.
Chen has set it as her mission to make her clients understand that “globalization doesn’t mean Westernization,” and reassure them that drawing on the rich and vibrant aesthetic and philosophical heritage of huaren culture can lead to commercial success. She insists that “very soon people will be running out of inspiration from the West. It is very obvious that people should be coming back to their own roots and trying to make it modern.”
Chen’s hope is that one day people will celebrate and admire huaren design in the same way that Scandinavian or Japanese design is appreciated now. She acknowledges that presently, there is a negative connotation to huaren design, partly because it is “so loud and so messy,” and that is not what people are used to.
The negativity stems in part from China’s copycat reputation, but in Chen’s mind this tendency is also culturally ingrained. Whereas the Western mindset can be defined as an “innovative style” of creativity where the goal is to be “radically disruptive,” the huaren cultural approach is to “build on top of things” in a more “adaptive style” of creativity. Chen suggests this explains why there is a three thousand year long tradition of calligraphic art in China, whereas in the West, modern art is characterized by short-lived and drastically different movements.
Considering the novelty of modern design in China, however, Chen concedes that copying is an inevitable starting point. She also argues that “ultimately everyone copies everyone, because basically under the sun nothing’s new.” In Chen’s view, when it comes to aesthetics, “the more you see it, the more you think it looks okay, to be honest.” She looks forward to the day when people realize that design does not have to just be “simplistic, quiet, or very rigid and disciplined, but can also be blossomy and expressive.”
About René Chen
A native from Hong Kong, Chen left her home city in her early teens and has studied and lived in the UK, the USA, Canada and Italy at different times. Chen obtained her first Diploma in Graphic Design from Sheridan College in Canada. She also holds an MA in design from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Starting in Toronto, then heading back to Hong Kong, Chen has accumulated over twenty years of professional experience in the industry. In 2007, she relocated to Shanghai to continue her pursuits in the design profession, taking on the role of Partner and Managing Director of JKR Shanghai. Over the years, Chen’s clients have included Mars, Mengniu Dairy, Liby, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Wrigley, Johnson & Johnson, Bacardi, GlaxoSmithKline, Anheuser-Busch InBev, UnionPay, and Ritz-Carlton. Chen has also led her team to win global recognition in the A’ Design Awards, Red Dot Design Award and the ROI Awards that celebrate design excellence.