Rick Poynor | Essays

Getting Louder: Chinese Design on the March

When someone suggested that I might I like to attend the opening of the "Get it Louder" exhibition in Shenzhen, in southern China, I had no real idea what I was signing up for. I was in Guangzhou for the opening of "Communicate", an exhibition about independent British graphic design that I have curated. Still, this other exhibition of work by young Chinese designers sounded promising, so I joined two bus-loads of local design people making the two-hour drive to Shenzhen at breakfast time on Saturday morning.

"Get it Louder" — subtitle: "Lifexperience 2010" — is billed as the first exhibition of its kind in China. It has been curated by a team of designers for informal venues, rather than official museums, and it covers graphic design, fashion, product design, architecture, multimedia and music, showing the work of more than 80 designers. It will travel on to Shanghai and Beijing and, as its title suggests, it aims to generate some noise. The lunch-time opening was attended by perhaps 200 people. One by one the curators and participating designers took the stage. The show is the culmination of a process of assimilation and development that has been under way for some time. Its sponsors include Chivas whisky, Epson and Ikea. If not for the sticky heat, requiring steady use of the mouth-shaped "Get it Louder" fans supplied by the organisers, we could have been anywhere. The audience had the usual haircuts, shaven or spiky, and the same tastes in branded designer gear.

The exhibition occupied a big warehouse space at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. The floor was marked out as a series of rooms — theatre, living room, bathroom — a bit like the town in Lars von Trier's Dogville and you entered these spaces to look at hanging works and projections. Again, it was striking how many of these pieces spoke in the lingua franca of young international design — the designers' average age is 25. They showed the same concern with graffiti, T-shirt designs, doe-eyed cartoon figures, cute toys, robots and illustrations based on whimsical doodles. Although some of this work was produced outside China, its inclusion was clearly an endorsement of this imagery.

More interesting was the work that seemed to have something to say about China today and where it stands in relation to its past. A set of skateboards was decorated with images of smiling workers and the slogan "The People's Republic of Skateboarding". A T-shirt by a designer based in Shanghai bore the legend "Worker, Peasant and Soldier" (in English) next to a drawing of the trio. The worker and the peasant appeared to be kissing, which would never have happened under Chairman Mao, while the soldier looked the other way. In the US, Shepard Fairey's "Obey Giant" campaign regularly parodies the heroic poses seen in communist propaganda, while books celebrating original propaganda posters find a keen audience among western ironists. The extraordinary photographs in Red-Color News Soldier have exposed the hidden history of the Cultural Revolution. It's hard to see how the graphic allusions to communism in "Get it Louder" could be read without irony, but I'm still not sure that irony is quite what is. Earlier in the week, I saw a magazine picture showing a hip-looking Chinese film-maker posing in his home next to a large painting of Mao's face. I asked whether this was meant ironically. My companions, fashionably dressed journalists from the magazine, seemed mystified at the suggestion. Politics remains a highly sensitive area in China and I didn't pursue it.

Ou Ning, one of the show's curators, notes that, "When doing the selection, we especially avoided those works that use Chinese elements on purpose." In his mid-30s, he is the very model of a restlessly mobile, boundary-breaking contemporary design person. He works as a writer, music promoter and graphic designer — his art direction for Modern Weekly magazine, displayed in the show, is excellent. He is also the founder of U-thèque, an independent film and video organisation. Ou Ning argues that since China's social and political reforms began in 1979, there have been three generations in Chinese design. Until the early 1990s, the first generation still created mainly handmade work as there were few computers in the country. The second embraced the Macintosh and began to absorb international design influences. The third, represented in "Get it Louder", grew up in the age of the Internet with access to information not available to earlier Chinese designers. They have an international outlook, often completing their education abroad, and they share the "independent DIY spirit" found in young designers the world over.

In a recent article for Modern Weekly, Ou Ning draws a picture of the new China as a nation of dedicated conspicuous consumers. "Luxury goods have become the latest obsession," he writes. "The Chinese new rich, with vanity and sheer emptiness, are exhilarated by European brands." In the words of one recent American book title, there are "three billion new capitalists" in the east and 1.3 billion of them live in China, the most populous land on the planet. Ou Ning suggests that material seductions have diluted political passions and led to a decline in civic consciousness and a growing indifference to public affairs. It's exactly the same complaint, of course, that we hear so often in the west.

Some of the most telling exhibits in "Get it Louder" are photographs that document the phenomenal pace of change in the Special Economic Zones where unrestricted capitalist development holds sway. Guangzhou photographer Zhu Ye's pictures show factory chimneys in the Pearl River Delta belching smoke. In subtropical Guangzhou, a thick pall of pollution, visible even at night, clings to the city and the sky is permanently grey. Photographs by Sze Tsung Leong, a New York artist and one of the editors of Great Leap Forward by Rem Koolhaas and his Harvard students, document the "maelstrom of modernization" — as the book terms it — with a meticulously objective eye. Leong contrasts the few surviving older buildings with the new and shows the ravages of demolition alongside sleek emerging structures thrown up by the Chinese economic miracle. Shenzhen itself has grown from little more than a village to a wealthy modern city in 20 years.

If there is cause for hope, for Ou Ning it lies in the Internet, which he sees as a new form of public space, and if that sounds a little starry-eyed, look at it from a Chinese point of view. "Large quantities of information are now able to break through the traditional system of information control," he writes. The Internet gives the Chinese an anonymous platform for opinions that cannot otherwise be expressed freely. He attributes a similar liberating power to DVD piracy, which has broken down cultural isolation by allowing the Chinese cheap access to previously unavailable films. Digital images, he suggests, are helping to create a new, more democratic order in Chinese society. While "Get it Louder" vividly reflects the aspirational "life experience" of its globally-aware young participants, it remains to be seen whether Chinese design will be able to confront social reality in more overtly critical ways. One thing is clear, though. This huge country developing at awe-inspiring speed is making itself part of the international dialogue and we will be hearing a lot more from Chinese designers in the years ahead.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Photography, Politics, Social Good

Comments [9]

Thanks Rick for a wonderful report.
The design in developing nations is a rather close topic for me.

I am 23 and originally from India. I plan to move back by next year and start a project on trying to find an Indian Graphic Design Identity. More than anything, i want to start contributing to the asian graphic design dialouge.

I think its very interesting that the audiences in countries like China and India are maturing and starting to be curious about design,cinema,music etc. and many of the young designers feel like the existing vernacular needs to change.

It's very encouraging for me to read articles like these, as it only fuels my exictement of being part of a generation and from a region of the world where new questions are being asked. No one knows where it'll take us.

But I wouldn't wanna be anywhere else.

Aashim Tyagi

They showed the same concern with graffiti, T-shirt designs, doe-eyed cartoon figures, cute toys, robots and illustrations based on whimsical doodles.

It's strange that "design" has come to mean this particular configuration of things, and that when this assortment is absent we say that design is absent from a country, and when it's present we say that design is present. One virtue of Vice magazine's recent satirical guide to design was that it reminded us that everything from glue-traps to home-made weapons is design, and that design isn't just something that follows Karim Rashid around like a cloud of scent. It isn't, in other words, an index of luxury, or of capitalist surplus.

Countries emerging from communism often go through a period in which they parody capitalism, and I suspect China may be doing this now. Personally, I think countries emerging from capitalism, countries in which a "post-capitalism" can be seen, might have more to tell us about the future. I'm talking about "Slow Life" Japan, for instance. These countries are interested in exactly the kinds of sustainable design, low-tech, cheap, elegantly simple, which are being abandoned in the glitzy showcase design conferences of India and China, although they survive in daily life, particularly away from the cities.

Actually, having looked at the Works featured on the Get It Louder website, I'd like to qualify that rather sweeping statement. In fact, most of this looks remarkably similar to what you'd see in Japan at similar events.



i understand how you're interpreting this because i've thought about the same issues a few years ago when a designer friend in taipei started 'cutting edge' designs, 'personal' designs -- which unfortunately dated itself from the moment of inception.

however, how can you cut short the discovery of rock and roll? it's very much an identity factor and by assimilating into the onedotzeros, the tokion magazines, the shift magazines -- what's wrong with that? it's like watching a foreign film, and as a teenager, you want that, you want to be there, you want to breath it -- but you can't because you are not them. isn't that your relationship with japanese culture? just because you teach, fuck, eat, sleep, see with nippon senses doesn't really make you a part of them. i think your journal entry speaks more about you than these post communist rockist designer kids.

3rd world

Well, that's an interesting point. I think the perception of places and their predominant styles as glamorous and also elsewhere is a powerful one. It's certainly my relationship with Japan, with design, with women... they are all in some sense exotic for me, and my continuing failure to merge totally with them maintains their power over me. But I think this kind of glamour (and if we wanted to be pompous we could name it something like "exoticism cathexis") is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is often embraced by its targets and recipients and becomes part of their self-image.

The "image" of a city like Tokyo or New York might well come from star-struck arrivistes rather than locals. I mean, we might associate New York with Andy Warhol, but he wasn't born there, and his status as the ultimate New York insider rests, paradoxically, on his continuing to see New York throughout his life with the eyes of an outsider.

So I certainly wouldn't say the Chinese don't have as much right to, say, skateboarding imagery or manga mascots as anyone else. They might one day be seen as the guardian curators of this imagery, and we might all forget it started somewhere else, just as we forget that hamburgers and skyscrapers are German!

It's rather arbitrary to conclude a Country's design overall from one event, especially one which in fact only represents a part of it. The curators stated that this event embraces different kinds of 'noises', and also noted their favor of young designers and not being picky in selecting items displayed. It's meant to be 'rebelious', 'diy' or even 'amateurish', in contrary to being elite oriented. One of the curators critically expresses his opinion on the 'master' complex in China, which is thought to be not only conservative and stale, but design being a kind of art exclusive to a small group of people.

Another thing to bear in mind is that contemporary Chinese design is merely out of its primitiveness, its total exposure to the modern design scene beginning not more than 20 years ago (Bauhaus did influence China to a certain degree prior to WW2 though). Mixed with the reminisence of its unique history, the rootedness of traditional art and design, and dominant western design influence, it is still exploring and experimenting with new ways in design.

The conclusion that countries emerging from communism tend to mimic capitalism sounds politically biased. I see a sort of stereotype being stigmatized unto the 'communist' countries. Isn't design a cross-cultural and cross-ideological thing, and doesn't that which belongs to one part of the world also belong to the rest of the world? Or... is it?

To me, it's just a matter of those falling behind in design trying to catch up by assimilating existing international design heritage or trash in a much globalized aworld, not to a level of sharp difference between idealogies or the narrow-mindedness of 'countries emgerging from communism'. It's only part of a process toward integrating good international values and regaining cultural confidence. And in that process, trial and error are often inevitable, and price has to be paid to learn lessons.

Get it louder. Probably make some grating noises. Go for it, countries/designers emerging from whatever society.
Du Qin

Du Qin raises an interesting point about the possible influence of the Bauhaus on Chinese graphic design before the Second World War. Information about the history and development of Chinese graphic design is hard to come by. Only one historical survey, now out of print, has been published in English, Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century by Scott Minick and Jiao Ping (Thames & Hudson, 1990), a husband and wife team then based in Paris (Ping was born in Shanghai).

They note that Chinese works of the 1930s were particularly influenced by European photographers and by Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. "Chinese photographers resolved that their medium should play an active role in the transformation of society. Their collaboration with the graphic designers of the Progressive Movement helped create compositions that broke with the academic traditions of the past." Designs for publications such as The Central China Monthly and The Ark, a magazine about family life, show a dynamic modernist integration of type and image quite different from the socialist realism that came later.

How much of this historical material survives today? "The speed at which such aesthetically significant materials are being lost is alarming," writes Minick. "As China lunges forward in an attempt to modernize, it is routinely disposing of many fine examples of its cultural heritage, much of which is unrecoverable."

For anyone interested in Chinese propaganda posters, Dutch sinologist and poster collector Stefan Landsberger's site is a superb resource, with excellent commentary on the images.
Rick Poynor

Thanks for all the details of covering this great show! Seems it has been ages such event is waited in Mainland China, but are more casual in HK, especially thanks to idn (international designers network) who want to develop events across Asia : Singapore, HK with Fresh Conference (since 2001), inviting international graphic designers and web designers.

The real revolution in this event, is it will take place in Shanghai. The first time this city, more famous for its business development. But the graphic designers in China still live with low ressources, it is bad considered and not very well-paid.

As French art director working between Paris and Shanghai, I really appreciate such event but hope it would also welcome more foreign webdesigners for lectures. When will can be able to hear Joshua Davis or even Japanese webdesigners such as Yugo Nakamura, in mainland China ? This will be the next challenge.


Very excited to see everyone's feedbacks and arguments. Thanks much for your interest in this event.

And nice to meet you here, Gabyu.

In my opinion, Shanghai once established its unique aesthetics of design in the 30's, which marks one of the most important graphic design references of modern China. The other would be the Mao's style that was invented after the founding of PRC, whose influence and heritage can still be seen at this 21st century's Get It Louder. It is a classic piece that built up in a total fantasy of communism, which still sometimes serve as an image and dream of China in many western people's mind.

Get It Louder is here to say and show that we are now in a totally new and unique situation where the new generations are creating, and hopefully establish a new China's image after quite some time. This image is not merely a graphic one, but moreover an image of culture, people, and a nation. It is almost a huge re-build project after the ruins of the Revolution. Now the image is so blurry, ambiguous, but passionate and even aggressive with expansive influences from all sources.

Personally, I feel a bit dazed besides much excitement, therefore "noise" became the subject . Hopefully, Get It Louder can be a good compilation record of what's happening now and serve as a great reference for the future.

Jobs | July 23