07 May 2008
Richard B. Doubleday and Stephen Goldstein
by Richard B. Doubleday and Stephen Goldstein

This week's Feature is the second of three parts of an interview with the Design Director for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Min Wang, who is also a member of the Icograda Executive Board and the Head of the Preparation Committee for the Icograda World Design Congress 2009 in Beijing. This article originally appeared in Baseline Magazine, issue 53, Autumn 11/2007 and has been reprinted with permission. Read the continuation of this interview with Min Wang in next week's Feature.

The Interview

What is the nature of your leadership role as Director of Image, Identity and Design for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the iconic identities that you designed or art directed for the 2008 Olympics?

In October 2006, I became the Design Director of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. My responsibility covers overseeing the image and identity programme and the look of the event from the present all the way through the Olympic Games in the Summer of 2008.

I became involved with the Beijing Olympics as early as 2001, when I was invited by the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee to design the Bid Presentation at the IOC meeting at Moscow. Beijing won the bid. Then in 2003, I was invited by BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad) to be their expert on image and identity. Meanwhile, I took up an offer to become the Dean of the School of Design at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and moved back to China after spending over 20 years in Germany and the United States. The first thing I did at CAFA was to start the Art Research Centre for Olympic Games (AROG), which has served as the core team for coming up with many major Olympic designs.

Here is a partial list: Identity Guidelines, Colour Systems, Pictograms, Medal, Emblem of Paralympics, Wayfinding System, The Core Graphic, The Look for the Torch Relay, The Looks of the Game Guide.

The center now has 20 full-time designers plus faculty and students who are actively involved with different design teams and projects. There are many design studios and ad agencies working on Olympic-related projects.  The design work I mentioned above is based on teamwork, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to lead such a strong team for the last 3 years.

How did you design the Olympic symbols and identity while straddling the line between West and East? What were the Olympic Committee's impressions of your designs?

Yes, all through the design process, we are walking along and across the lines between East and West.  It is a great challenge for Chinese artists and graphic designers to use the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games successfully to make a statement to the world, by understanding the 'global' needs and spirit, promoting that spirit in an artistic language, which will inspire both the local and the international community, and creating a new look for the city that will bring the world into China and bring China into the world. Therefore, in the design process, we have constantly to ask and solve these questions:
  • How can we create a look that combines the Olympic spirit and Chinese values?
  • How can we create a look that blends the traditional with the contemporary?
  • How an we create a look that is uniquely Chinese in colour and form?
  • How can we create a look that touches the hears and minds of people from all over the world?
Let me give two examples of design solutions we found:

First, for the pictograms of the 2008 Olympic Games, we knew from the very beginning that our challenge was to create the pictograms in a visual language that was known to all world athletes and spectators, yet at the same time was uniquely Chinese.  We came up with quite a few good design concepts and went through many internal reviews and selections as well as external competitions with other design institutions.  Finally we decided on the current, best solution.

Let's take a closer look at the original inspiration behind the creation of the pictograms.  The pictograms use the structure of the Chinese seal script as the basic form, while incorporating the charm of the oracle bone writing and the bronze ware script from over 2000 years ago.  We also used the rubbing form for the pictograms. The extraordinary form and force of expression of rubbings have made them a distinct form of traditional Chinese art.

Nevertheless, the overall look of each pictogram is also very modern and international. This effect is achieved by a fine touch of lines, shapes, curves, black and white contrast, and flowing motion of the sports - all elements of modern and Western design.  Thus, in this case, we successfully created an image that is not only uniquely Chinese, but simple, clear, and aesthetically appealing to a world audience.

Another good example is the Olympic medal design. The inspiration of the design comes from China's ancient jade, known as 'bi'. In ancient China, people wore jade as a decoration to symbolise nobility and honour. This cultural tradition continues today; people wear jade to wish for good health and luck, and to symbolise virtue and aesthetic value. The inspiration of the medal hook also derives from jade 'huang', a ceremonial jade piece with a double dragon pattern, often used as a hook to tie strings on.

On the medal's front side, we have to follow the standard design patterns and inscriptions required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), While on the back we add the Chinese element, and inlaid piece of jade in a ring shape, with the emblem of Beijing 2008 engraved in the centre. Jade and gold symbolise honour and achievement and are the perfect embodiment of traditional Chinese values and virtues.  When I presented the idea of adding jade to the medal design, the IOC responded very positively:

Noble and elegant, the Beijing Olympic Games medal is a blending of traditional Chinese culture and the Olympic Games. It gives the winners of the Games great honour and acclamation as recognition of their achievement. (quote from BOCOG website)

The American ex-patriot Henry Steiner, also educated at Yale University, seems to have led a wide influence on the graphic arts in China. What are your impressions of his work and influence?

He can be credited as the most influential figure in the early days of Hong Kong's graphic design that took off in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the Hong Kong designers brought that influence to mainland China. Being and ex-patriot designer in Hong Kong, Steiner's design work has to deal constantly with cross-cultural or inter-cultural themes.  As a result, he published an excellent book, titled Cross-Cultural Design in the mid-1990s. I really admire Henry's design work, as well as his contribution in researching and writing on cross-cultural design that has influenced a younger generation of Chinese designers.

What are your thoughts about identity and iconic design across cultures and how has that informed your work?

Cross-cultural design requires an extremely sensitive understanding of different cultures at a deeper level. Just adding a few Chinese characters to a work cannot necessarily elicit resonance in the Chinese people. Similarly, to add some English words on the package won't guarantee the sales of a product in the American market.

It is a precondition of cross-cultural design that designers have a profound knowledge of cultures on both sides.  It was my years-long experience in identity and branding design in the West and keen understanding of the Western culture and audience that led the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee to ask me to lead the design effort for Beijing's Olympic Bid Presentation in 2001 and now to work on the image and identity for the Games in 2008. To facilitate the understanding and acceptance of our design by a Western audience, we resorted to Western-style visual language and techniques. Our design is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and reveals strong Chinese messages.

Do you agree that the font Mythos that you designed in 1993, while at Adobe, composed of legendary beasts from different cultures, draws similarities to the graphic identity for the Forbidden City?

The two are not exactly the same. The graphic identity that I did for the Forbidden City was based on an earlier Han-style dragon from tile stone rubbings. The beasts in Mythos were based on classic European figures, but I may unconsciously have added an Asian touch to it that I was not aware of at the time.

It's very natural for me to choose the image of a dragon. In Imperial times, the dragon was the emblem of the Emperor. Even today, the dragon is also regarded as the symbol of the Chinese nation, and people will always find spiritual sustenance in it. Dragons are depicted in various patterns in the Forbidden City. However, the overlaying elaborate dragons in Ming and Qing dynasty style suggest a hint of vulgarity. I therefore chose the Han-styled dragons instead.

The graphic identity you developed for the Forbidden City integrates traditional Chinese arts and crafts forms into a contemporary visual language. Can you talk in depth about the development of this identity and the problems you faced during the execution phase?

Yes, the identity design for the Forbidden City clearly reflects my conscious effort to bring the elegant Han dragon alive to the modern world. Considering the audience can be both Chinese and international, I wanted to add a contemporary touch to it.  I was doing the Mythos type design for Adobe type library not long ago and it was quite possible that I could have unconsciously added that European flair to the Chinese dragon.

Images from Baseline Magazine online.