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

This week's Feature is the last 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.

The Interview continued

What were your student days like at Yale University? What were your impressions of Paul Rand, Armin Hofmann and Bradbury Thompson?

I was a graduate student at Yale University in the late 1980s and feel very fortunate to have studied graphic design under these three great masters, who had very different teaching styles and approaches. Paul Rand was quick and sharp; Brad Thompson was genteel and patient; and Armin Hofmann was always witty and wise.  I learned a lot from them, not just how to do good design, but also how to think about design and be a good design educator.

How has your educational training in Europe and the United States shaped your design language?

Who are we and what we do is very much determined by our learning experience. In my case, after growing up during China's Cultural Revolution period and learning how to use colour and form first by painting the portrait of Chairman Mao onto a rural village wall, moving on to study design in a Chinese art school, and then going to Europe and the United States, each learning experience added to another to shape my design language today. I had a solid training in Western design principles and extensive work experience both at Adobe and Square Two Design, but my Chinese cultural sense and sensibility stays with me as who I am and definitely influences my design today.

What do you see as the mentoring role Alvin Eisenman, director of the Yale University graduate graphic design programme played, both there and during his typographic advisory role at Adobe?

For over 40 years, Alvin had given all his time, passion and energetic devotion to the Yale University graduate graphic design programme and made it into a world-class educational institution.  To me, Alvin is not just a mentor, but also a role model and, as an educator, a fatherly figure.  I think that my decision to come back to China and teach at CAFA had a lot to do with Alvin's influence on me.  When I visited Alvin in May of this year (2007), it became clear to me that it was his big heart, broad vision, love for typography, passion for teaching and care for students that made the Yale graphic graduate design programme the home for me and for many faculty and students in all those years.

What was your teaching role in the Yale University graduate graphic design programme? Did it include using beta versions of Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop?

From the late 80s to the late 90s, I taught courses at Yale University graduate graphic design programme. My teaching focused on two fields: 1. cross-cultural design and Eastern typography and 2. digital image making.  In 1989, with colleague Charles Altshul, I taught the image workshop, using Adobe Photoshop, which was still a Beta version at the time.  Students used Photoshop to make collages and manipulate photos, and came up with many experimental images that were not possible to compose using traditional tools. In my cross-cultural design and typography course, I taught students to experiment how to incorporate Asian letterforms into their design by using Adobe Illustrator and an early version of the Kanji fonts.  For most Yale students, this was their first exposure to Asian typography.

What are the differences in design between China and the United States of America?

This is to big a question to talk about in just a few words. There are not big differences in terms of design disciplines such as colour, form and use of computer technology today, but there are definitely differences in cultural context, content and comprehension.

How much were you able to use the language of design, through use of type and image, during the Cultural Revolution in China? Was the computer an integral tool for the cross-pollination of messages? There was publicly little to no commercial design being generated during that period.

The computer was not available at all in China during the Cultural Revolution period.  Commercial design was non-existant.  Design then was mostly used as a medium for political posters, books and pamphlets. In fact, the word 'graphic design' (ping mian shi ji) was not introduced to China until the early 1980s, together with China's economic reform and open-door policy to Western influences.

What was your experience and what were the challenges, particularly the method of digitizing fonts at Adobe Systems in 1986, given the technological spread of the personal computer?

It was a great time at Adobe in the mid to late 1980s when Alvin Eisenman was on the typographical advisory board and Summer Stone was the Director of the Typography Department.  They, along with the best type designers, spearheaded the effort to bring fine typography into the desktop age. Their dedication to high standards of typography and their contribution to the revival of classic typefaces into digital forms stimulated the desktop publishing revolution of the '80s. As a young graduate student from Yale, I was having a free hand and great time in applying these new typefaces to create designs on the computer.  Most of the work that I did stayed with me in my office as I changed work from place to place, but it recorded an exciting period in our lives, combining art and design with new technology and making an impact in the world we are living in now.

What did Adobe Systems think their mission was then and what do you think they are doing now, buying up most of their competitors and making the applications bloated with auto features?

Adobe started as a company that put its technological innovation and application in a very focused field that was the '80s and the early '90s. As the company expanded over the years, with the fierce market competition, the demands of growing as a public company and the introduction of new technologies, the company moved more towards the direction of new markets, and new industries. There is nothing wrong with the company, especially for its stockholders, but for typographers, for type designers and designers - people like Summer Stone and me - the golden age of the 1980s has passed.

Do you think Adobe Systems are producing better quality fonts now?

I wouldn't use the word 'better', but I can say that Adobe always has produced high quality fonts to meet the market needs and remain in the forefront of combining high technology and design, or the other way around.

Why did you leave Adobe Systems in 1998 to start your own design firm, Square Two Design?

I started to work for Adobe as an intern in 1986 when the size of the company was around 30 people and worked all the way through as a senior designer, senior art director, and then design manager in charge of the company's design department and team. I learned a lot in these years, such as corporate marketing and communication, branding, interface and web design, etc. However as a designer, I never had an opportunity to run an independent design studio of my own.  In 1998, the dot com boom was on in Silicon Valley. Eddie Lee, a former schoolmate of mine at Yale, offered me the chance to join Square Two Design as a partner. It was a time when I was looking for a change in my life and work, and it happened.

When did you decide to return to China and for what reasons?

After studying, teaching and working in Europe and the United States for twenty years, I made the decision to come back to China to focus my work on two things: design education and design for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

In less than ten years, China has quickly added more than a thousand design schools and programmes that enroll hundreds of thousands of students at the university and college level.  How to teach design in China, and how to learn from but not to copy the West, and how to find design expression in an Eastern aesthetic sense and sensibility, these have become big questions.  I came back to China intending to face, ask and solve these questions.

As a Chinese designer educated both in China and the West, I feel very fortunate to be the current Dean of the School of Design at CAFA, a position that enables me to make an impact in the field of design education in China today. The students at CAFA will be the future leaders and educators in China's design field tomorrow. It is in them that we invest the hopes and the directions of design in China and in the future.

If you were to identify the strengths and weaknesses in Chinese graphic design education, what would you include?

The strengths of China's design education comes from its market demand and job opportunities for students. We also have a large pool of enthusiastic and talented younger-generation students who are eager to enter the field. However, our strength is also our weakness. We are in great lack of good design teachers and design education became very commercialized, short-term, utilitarian and technically driven. Everyone wants to get results or rewards fast, and a good and solid design education and design curriculum cannot be based on that.  Except for a few top schools and design education departments, many schools - despite their lack of teaching staff and curriculum development - quickly expanded their student enrollment or added design departments and majors. The result is the production of a line of graduates who do not understand good from bad design, original creativity from copying, and even some basic principles and concepts of graphic design. Thus, I think that design education is a fresh, confused and chaotic field right now. The quality of design education varies greatly depending on schools, departments, faculty members and student recruitment.

What do you envision as the next development in Chinese graphic design, particularly with the ever-expanding economy in mainland China? Are you optimistic about the future of Chinese graphic design and the younger generation of graphic designers?

We consider ourselves as the 'older' generation of Chinese graphic designers, coming to the forefront as a result of China's open policy to a market economy and reform in the last 25 years. The top team of Chinese graphic designers, people like WangXu and some others in Zhenzhen, as well as a group of very talented younger-generation designers - people like Chen Zhengda in Hangzhou, Miwi Studio and Jiang Hua in Beijing - are recognised by the international design community today and their work is just as excellent, sophisticated and individualistic as many other top graphic designer's in the world. However, compared to many western countries, as well as some Asian countries like Japan, the overall design education and design standard still fall behind.

Design for the 2008 Olympic Games is a great opportunity for us, through which we can combine design education with real world practices, blending East and West, and Chinese tradition with international modernity. The challenges we face and the solutions we are finding in design for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, to a large extent, reflect the challenges and solutions Chinese designers face today. I hope, through the high exposure and good quality of design, we not only bring Chinese designers to the world platform, but also bring the best international designers to China.

I applied to Icograda (The International Council of Graphic Design Associations) to host the Icograda World Design Congress in 2009 in Beijing and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) will be the main organizer. The conference should attract around 3,000 attendees. It will be a great event for designers fro all over the world to meet with Chinese designers, to exchange their ideas and their works.

Images from Baseline Magazine online.