Design has cultural difference, but it is always about people — He Jianping

Jianping He

Coming from southern China, He Jianping is deeply influenced by the landscapes of his childhood. It cultivated his affection towards calligraphy and Chinese painting, and became his favorite medium for representing his hometown.

Jianping tells us, he had a huaren design epiphany while he was studying in Germany. When he first arrived in Germany, he had already forsaken the Chinese traditions. At that time he was obsessed with Western art, such as Dadaism and pop art of the 20th century. Following his interest in contemporary art, he took new media classes at Berlin University of the Arts. However, as his artistic style matured, he began to realize that he could not create art like Westerners.

“I just couldn’t do that kind of art, so why should I try to pursue it? Instead, I decided to pursue whatever felt right in my heart,” says He.

As a designer, he tries to satisfy both his customers and himself. He always tries to satisfy his customers’ desires without forgetting his task as a designer, and at the same time as he tries to satisfy his own taste without making art for art’s sake. He finds it most difficult to satisfy himself, and he considers himself in the process of searching for self-satisfaction.

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“When a person becomes a designer, they associate the syntax of design with daily life,” says He. “Design becomes a natural manifestation of one’s own life, saturated with the happenings of one’s daily life. If I could achieve such a realm, of living in design, my work would become an eternal creation.”

“A designer should be dedicated to the study of target markets,” says He. “However, if a designer only works with the findings of market analysis, who will design for people outside of the target market? Is profit the only motivation for design?”

Chinese people fully accept, sometimes worship, brands that have a feel of Western design. It is a knock on effect from the segregation of its market for over thirty years. However, such worship will inevitably die down, and people will return to the question of good or bad design.

Philosopher Liang Shuming suggested, “Culture is everything people rely on in everyday life.” Immanuel Kant believed, “Human and culture are nature’s ultimate goals.” This proves that the Chinese philosophical outlook is in agreement with Western philosophy.

“Humanity is the object of concern, reflected in design,” says He. “Simply speaking, the creation of a visual syntax originates from people, and a humanistic spirit that complies with nature. Although there are certain differences between the formal language of the East and West, they can be introduced and translated. If a designer tries to differentiate Chinese and Western design, it is merely a manifestation of lacking confidence. Perhaps, such a differentiation comes from changes in consumer market ratio.”

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These should not be factors that create problems for a designer. Great issue cultivate great design, and design thinking sets no limit. Since the ancient times, Eastern cultures have been influencing the art and design of Western cultures, and vis-versa. For example, late 19th century French posters were influenced by the Ukiyo-e of Japan. The impressionistic paintings in this period were also influenced by Eastern paintings, just as the Bauhaus was influenced by African arts, which developed a school of design suitable for production in the post-industrial era. Asia has also benefited from Bauhaus’s radiation. As a profession, design must be avant garde. Some works, which are not accepted today, may foresee the coming era.

“The major difficulty for professional designers is not cultural difference, it is the self,” says He. “Blocking oneself with the expectations of past works, or achievements made, is the major barrier to professional pursuit.”

He does not think about the concepts of Eastern and Western design. He believes this hinders the growth of a designer. Design thinking should have no boundaries. Regional concepts are the beginning of controversies.

“It is impossible for us to see which kind of philosophy has influenced Shigeo Fukuda,” says He. “Nor can we see any Eastern influence on the logo for the Olympic Games in 1964, which was designed by Kamekura Yusaku. Interestingly, the HSBC logo, designed by Henry Steiner, is filled with Eastern wisdom. Josef Müller-Brockmann’s design is deeply influenced by the Zen of Japan.”

It is also conveyed in the ‘Schriftbilder – Bilderschrift — Chinesisches Plakat – und Buchdesign heute’ exhibtion, held at Museum Folkwang in Essen, June 2016. Co-curated by He Jianping and Rene Grohnert, it exhibited posters and books, designed by about seventy artists from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Schriftbilder – Bilderschrift is an album specifically designed for the exhibition. It employs the specific folds of traditional Chinese books, to create an unevenness in height, constituting a trapezium shape. In the folds, other messages are hidden skillfully to adapt the ordinary layout of bilingual books. The book is also printed with a kind of special ink, and most of it is hand-bound, reflecting contemporary design and printing craft. This book surpasses the boundaries of any ordinary, rectangular, symmetrical book. Instead, it uses a trapezium to explore the possibilities of a book.

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Design should be concerned with the meaning of existence. He recommends the three design concepts of a Japanese-American designer Eiko Ishioka (1938 – 2012) — timeless, revolutionary and original. Among these three concepts, Jianping thinks that being ‘original’ is the easiest and the most achievable. A designer can accomplish this goal, simply by not copying. Regarding ‘revolutionary’, the major difficulty a designer faces is to go beyond the self, as discussed earlier. Being ‘timeless’ is the most difficult part because it is related to a person’s cultivation.

“Chinese designers intend to retain the advantages of Chinese philosophy, interrelationship, and aesthetics of everyday life,” says He. “In fact, these elements are circulated in the West through other cultural means. With today’s information overload, it is impossible even for the most conservative people to guard over the pure, local culture. There are more and more designers living in the East. In the assimilation process, or globalization, more new cultures are being created.”

About He Jianping

He Jianping is a graphic designer, professor, and publisher. He majored in liberal arts. He attended China Academy of Art and Berlin University of the Arts, which granted him a Master’s Degree. In 2011, he earned a PhD degree at Frei University, majoring in cultural history. He taught at Berlin University of the Arts. He is now a professor and PhD supervisor at the China Academy of Art. In 2002, He established his own design studio and publishing house in Berlin –  Hesign. Currently, he is a member of the AGI.

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