World Design Congress, Day One

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Beijing, People’s Republic of China, has gone all out for graphic design, and venues across town are hosting design programs and exhibitions. Banners (pictured below) announce “Xin” in honor of the Icograda World Design Congress being held here this week hang in Sanlitun Village, a hip new shopping area.

The venerable National Art Museum of China attracted both public dignitaries and students for the opening of the exhibition “Design as a Second Productive Force.” The spectacular titanium and glass “Egg,” meanwhile (below), floats in an artificial lake amid the angularity of Tiananmen Square, where today’s opening ceremonies and keynote talks were presented. Approximately 1,500 graphic designers are gathered here.

The vast majority of attendees are young Chinese design students. This morning, keynote speaker Patrick Whitney, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, spoke about the world’s “creative future,” using the iPod as an example of innovative design that is handsomely paying off. “Apple could have improved existing MP3 players,” he said, “but they looked instead at how to help people enjoy music. Now they have 70 percent market share.” He added that CEOs would rather not innovate, but now acknowledge that design can give their companies a competitive edge. This is a very good thing for designers, who are now being paid to think, not just to implement.

How much of this went over the heads of the one thousand young Chinese in the audience, listening to a translation though headsets—learning and beginning their careers in a country where consumer marketing is in its infancy—can only be guessed.

The students were all holding up cameras and snapping pictures, however, when Sol Sender of VSA Partners described how his team designed the Obama brandmark. Friendly and accessible, Sender—who showed concept sketches, the presentation, and how it all played out in across the U.S.—admitted how difficult it is to manage control of identity that’s in the hands of hundreds of vendors and ultimately in the hands of the people. “We were horrified and then delighted to see all the things people did with the mark, from putting their faces in it to children’s drawings of it, and now how it’s being used to criticize and attack Obama,” he admitted. At this evening’s opening, eager students gathered around Sender, asking his advice and taping his answers.

Afternoon speakers included Japanese designer Kohei Sugiuna, another crowd-pleaser, whose lush visual presentation of the many meanings of the ying-yang symbol was illustrated with elegant graphics of Chinese letterforms (above), the god Shiva, Mongolian kettles, male and female bodies, Japanese patterns, and elements from nature such as fish and birds. “Two in one, one in two,” he repeated, demonstrating the universality of symbols and urging the audience to move forward with the information “to recreate our one and only earth.”

Tomorrow morning, fortified by the evening’s events and food and drink, we’ll all be off to Central Academy of Fine Arts and its new design school—where most of the design for 2008 Olympic Games was created—for a day of sessions that promise to more specifically demonstrate how to accomplish that noble goal.

Read about Day Two.

Read about Day Three.

About Ellen Shapiro

Print contributing editor Ellen Shapiro is principal of Visual Language LLC in Irvington, NY. She has been designing for her whole life and writing about design for more than 20 years. Her website is all posts by Ellen Shapiro →