On the second day of the World Design Congress, CAFA, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, is decorated for the biggest party in China’s young design history. Banners with the “Xin” logo and conference graphics hang from almost every building on the spacious campus, which is dotted with information kiosks and tents (below) for tea and lunch breaks. A small army of helpful students is ready to assist visitors.
I’d come today expecting more intimate breakout sessions, but the conference is so packed that concurrent sessions are being held in five large lecture halls, each one full of eager-to-learn delegates, the majority of whom are students from CAFA and other design schools in China. One design professor in this morning’s “Design in China” panel discussion told us that China graduates 2.9 million young designers every year, and that there are about 70,000 applicants for each 2,000-member class.
The day included more than 50 presentations by an international cadre of speakers, so I decided to concentrate on people I hadn’t heard before and who I thought would have something significant to say about the state of design in China, how it’s developing, and where it needs to go. Chinese artistic expression has been based for centuries on imitation of the great, revered masters—that there is a right way to paint a landscape or do calligraphy. In this tradition, individual creativity is not encouraged.
How, then, does China develop a design culture that rewards innovative thinking? Panelist Victor Margolin, the Chicago area designer, writer and educator, warned the large, young audience not to come out of design school “educated in the old way.” And the Chinese design educators added that it’s okay to challenge your teachers, to ask questions, just like they do in Europe and the U.S. In the afternoon, Markus Schneider of “thismedia,” a German consulting company that provides “realtime visualization for architectural events and custom programming of integrated media systems.” It was all visually compelling. Yet, as Schneider (pictured two images above) acknowledged, it was very abstract and difficult for the polite, non-question-asking audience members who were trying to comprehend and absorb so much new information, some of which surely was lost in translation. LUST, a two-man design team from the Netherlands, was the highlight as Jeroen Barendse (above), who conducted the session with his partner, Thomas Castro, showed a range of their work, from random-printed exhibition catalogs to the identity for the Stedelijk Museum to turning the city of The Hague into an airport. Their work challenges even the most worldly and experienced practitioner to look at design solutions in a new way. (See also LUST’s ideas for possible marijuana packaging in Print.)
The day at CAFA closed with a gala book signing featuring the “AIGA 365” catalog and the Chinese edition of David Berman’s “Do Good Design,” and then the opening of a retrospective of winning entries in Foundertype’s Chinese Type Design competition (above). If the type designs are any indication, the character of Chinese characters—and visual expressions—is already changing in subtle and profound ways.