Design is not inherently universal—David Hu

David Hu

As a first-generation Chinese-American, David Hu, the Creative Director of Hu Yuwen Design, has taken interest in his cultural heritage and applied it to his design practice across the fields of product, furniture, visual identity and branding design, and in critical writing. Previously a Consulting Design Manager for Johnson & Johnson based in Shanghai, Hu has also gained insight into how Western brands can approach the huaren (Chinese-speaking) market in an authentic way.

Hu—who considers himself fully Taiwanese, Chinese, and American—takes issue with the notion that design is inherently universal. He argues that Western methodologies, such as “design thinking”, are hitting their limits in application because “they evolved from a fundamentally Western worldview—that is, these were the ways of exploring, analyzing, reacting to, and ultimately understanding the West’s own environment.”

These traditional Western frameworks are not always applicable in the huaren cultural paradigm. Hu argues that, as humans, “our brains rarely operate without deeply rooted biases that have been passed down and shaped over the years—the way children view their relationship with their parents, for example. As such, not all psychological and behavioral frameworks can be transplanted from one culture to another.”

Yet when it comes to defining what huaren design is, Hu believes that there are many questions yet to be answered, such as “What are the common struggles we deal with? How do we overcome them? What is innate to us huaren—because of the way we were brought up and understand the world—that makes us who we are?” In Hu’s words, the definition of huaren design “should not be a formula, but rather an ever-growing narrative about what being huaren means in any given time and place.”

Hu believes that huaren design “has quite a long way to go in terms of sophistication and broadening our own perspectives about design.” He is critical of designs which “resort to simply re-interpreting past Chinese artifacts” or “updating a period object via modern materials and processes for few reasons aside from nostalgia.” Hu argues that such designs “serve as perfectly acceptable products—and some are technologically very innovative—but they rarely provide a truly interesting perspective about huaren design.” In his own design projects, Hu prefers to go back to ancient texts such as Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Confucius’ Analects in order to “decipher how the roots of Chinese culture incorporated (or perhaps precluded) creativity.”

David Hu’s designs, which are driven by his in-depth consideration of what design means in a huaren context, “almost always incorporate an aspect of Chinese philosophy that can deepen [his] own thinking about design.” Hu mentions an example of one of his latest projects, a cup-and-saucer set for espresso coffee—which explores the concept of duality, “not in terms of balance but rather the necessity of co-existence.”

In his design, the cup and saucer are “integrated in shape but also a bit challenging to hold, thus emphasizing the fact that duality doesn’t necessarily mean harmony; duality also means learning how to accept something that is antagonizing to the point where you cannot live without it.” Through the espresso cup, Hu states that he “purposely introduced an element, duality, that is core to Chinese philosophy into an object most readily associated with Italian culture.”

箸影濃縮咖啡杯碟組 Zhu Ying Espresso Cup and Saucer Set箸影濃縮咖啡杯碟組 Zhu Ying Espresso Cup and Saucer Set

“I’m also recognizing how duality is a source of inspiration and, sometimes, of pain for us Chinese,” Hu explains. “By creating a conflict and then asking users to resolve it, I hope to inspire them to address similar paradoxes in their own lives.”

Hu almost always names his products using romanized Chinese because he feels it is “important to show that these objects represent a Chinese perspective; that is, these products are first and foremost meant to be judged as Chinese designs, not as Western designs with a Chinese perspective.” He also notes that “abstract concepts such as ‘flavor’ (), ‘reminisce’ (思念), and even ‘quieting of the heart’ (静心) are difficult to translate into English, and they have English connotations that would inadvertently invite discussions about East versus West, which is not the point.”

靜心矮椅 Jing Xin Low Chair味 調味瓶 Wei Spice Shaker

Hu also consults on a wide range of branding-focused consumer and retail projects, advising Western companies on their approaches in the Chinese market, which he describes as a complex and nuanced “market of markets.” While it “makes sense that companies would want to pay more attention to the way their brands are presented in a language recognized by over a billion people,” Hu asserts that it takes a “tremendous amount of human dedication and capital investment” to figure out the huaren market.

Hu warns that “many companies incorrectly presume that the China market is like the US market, and that their communication only requires simple translation—or “localization” in marketing speak—for the brand to resonate with consumers.” On the other hand, many companies make the opposite mistake by relying too heavily on local Chinese resources to understand the market, resources which, in his eyes, can be problematic as “there are rarely checks in place to see if those resources are accurate or even true.”

Hu initiated several visual identity projects for Western brands, which he considers to be “a statement of what could and should be done when translating a brand’s visual identity into Chinese.” On the premise that a Western logo “likely had a lot of history and personal stories behind it” and that the “Chinese version should reflect the same level of care,” Hu selected three iconic brands with wordmark logos, including Volvo, Nike, Disney, and Star Wars, and redesigned them with the huaren audience in mind.

Volvo Chinese LogoNike Chinese LogoDisney Chinese Logo

Star Wars Chinese Logo

“My main goal” he explains, “was to show that brands can adopt an authentically Chinese version that actually enhances their brand profile rather than diminishes what makes them so great.” However, he also warns that it is “easy to overdo ‘cultural philosophy’ in branding, and consumers will easily see through it as artificial, so my advice to brands is this: don’t try to ‘look’ Chinese without genuinely trying to ‘understand’ Chinese.”

About David Hu

David Hu is a Chinese-American designer based in the New York City metropolitan area. Although born in the US, Hu spent several years in his youth living in Taipei, Taiwan. He was educated in both mechanical engineering and industrial design with a passion for all things design but especially in a cultural context. Hu extended this enthusiasm for making a difference in Chinese design by working in Shanghai for several years, managing numerous domestic and global brands for Johnson & Johnson. Hu Yuwen Design is his eponymous design studio, focused on defining a new “philosophy of design for China.” The output of the studio spans product, furniture, visual identity, branding, and critical writing.

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