The Graphic Language of Min Wang
In the summer of 2008, the eyes of the world will turn to Beijing, China as the city becomes host to the spectacle that will be the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Hosting the Summer Games will be one of many firsts for the fastest growing nation in the world. One of the leading programs in China’s debut at center stage of global tourism and sports is the development of the Beijing Games pictographic symbols, identity program and applications. Designer Min Wang is the creative force behind this extraordinary undertaking which began three years ago in a country that just 30 years ago had no word for graphic design.
Min Wang is the Design Director for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, a position to which he was appointed in 2006. Since 2003, he has also been Dean of the School of Design, at China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. At that time, he created a unique working group in the Art Research Centre for the Olympic Games (ARCOG) at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Under his leadership, the Centre’s design teams, including CAFA students, have developed an elegant and comprehensive design system for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Their work includes the athletic pictographic symbols, the Beijing Games Emblem, and its applications. All of these efforts address design planning through the development of extensive design standards manuals for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and reaffirm the Olympic spirit and significance of this international multi-sporting event.
Wang’s efforts, and those of his design teams at the Art Research Centre, follow in the tradition of Olympic pictogram designs developed by art director Masaru Katzumie, who invented the first system of pictograms for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Katzumie, working with his graphic design team, was concerned with the social importance of graphic design and focused his research efforts on an internationally standardized signage system. (*1) Their unique system of icon-based signage became the model that influenced Lance Wyman for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics. A noteworthy event occurred in 1966 when Aicher met with Katsumie and collaborated on underlying design standards and a more streamlined pictogram design based on the 1964 Tokyo Olympic pictograms. The Olympic wayfinding efforts since Katzumie have also become landmarks in the advancement of design systems for major international events and universal public visual design systems. (*2)
The Beijing Olympics and the spirit the Chinese government hopes to create are not without controversy. Few Olympic Games, since 1936 when Jesse Owens won four track and field gold medals in front of an irate audience of Third Reich leaders, have been free of socio-political issues. In the United States, at least, the atmosphere has already been heated by articles on China’s human rights record and its investments in Africa, to name a few issues. At stake for the Chinese in 2008 is nothing less than the opportunity to be perceived a full-fledged member of the world community. To that end, China has invested heavily in the games and its identity—from architecture to graphic design—and surrounded it all with sophisticated public relations.
The Olympics design program has been developed in a relatively new design education environment and business environment, as China rapidly expands and begins to blend Western design with its 5,000 year-old artistic traditions.
The designs of the Olympic Emblem and its applications, athletic pictograms and Olympic color scheme standards are elegantly presented in three large format, white, perfect bound design standard manuals: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Emblem Usage Manual, Pictograms of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and Dancing Colours: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, The Colours. The design and writing, created by ARCOG teams, is the equal of any multinational corporate branding effort in the West. Each manual elaborately presents a facet of the standards management process. In the Usage Manual under a positioning statement entitled “Core Design Concept of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Emblem” the Olympic Emblem is named “Dancing Beijing” and is declared to be “the seal of the nation”, “the signature of Beijing” and “the spirit of the individual.” In conclusion they state ”Dancing Beijing is an invitation—a hand extended to welcome the world to China for a celebration destined to unite humanity as never before.”
Min Wang arrived at Yale University in 1986 after studying at the Yale Summer Program in Brissago, Switzerland in 1985 under graphic designer Armin Hoffman and industrial designer Richard Sapper, and after completing his art education at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Fine Arts). While a student at Yale University Wang attained a pivotal design position at Adobe Systems in late 1986 just as the digital revolution came to the desktop with the introduction of the first-generation Macintosh computer. Wang, along with fellow graduate student Brian Wu, had the task of digitizing Kanji typefaces (Japanese fonts) using a beta version of Adobe Illustrator on the first generation Macintosh computer.
Shortly after graduating, Wang joined the faculty of the Yale University graduate graphic design program where he taught a typographic workshop. He joined a graphic design studio in New Haven, Connecticut, and continued in his many roles as Graphic Designer, Senior Art Director and Design Manager in the Creative Services division at Adobe Systems. In 1998, Wang left Adobe to form Square Two Design with design partner Eddie Lee, establishing offices in San Francisco and Beijing. Square Two Design clients include Adobe, IBM, Intel, Netscape, and Stanford University.
Wang’s work at Adobe and Square Two Design illustrates the influences of his Eastern and Western design education and his fusion of elements of contemporary Western design and traditional Chinese arts. For example, his typeface Mythos, based on legendary mythological beasts from Eastern and Western cultures, includes both the unicorn, with predominately Western roots, and the dragon, originating in East Asia, both united within the Roman letterforms. Other examples include his logo design for the US & Korea Trade Association, where he merged the stars and stripes of the American flag with the Taegeuk symbol of the South Korean flag, as well as the Adobe Stone calendars, where he integrated Roman letterforms into the design reminiscent of a textural Chinese brush painting. Some of Wang’s work, such as his Bird House logo, a bird symbol merged into the counter of a Roman letterform are reminiscent of his Western education, while other designs, such as the freehand calligraphy on his Forbidden City t-shirts appear entirely Eastern.
Wang has been a visiting fellow in Germany at Akademe der Bildenden Kunste, Munich and Hochschule der Kunste, Berlin, and was appointed Honorary Professor by Shanghai University, Fine Art College. Wang’s work has been exhibited internationally in showcases such as the Biennial of Graphic Design, Brno; the Graphic Design Show in Beijing; the Type Directors Club Exhibition in New York; the International Poster Biennial, Lahti; the collection of Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg and the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich.
(*1) Graphic Design A Concise History by Richard Hollis, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1994
(*2) Otl Aicher by Markus Rathgeb, Phaidon Press, 2006
Left: Inscriptions on the Gui bronze vessels, Right: Pictograms of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
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 program and the look of the game 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) as their expert on image and identity. Meanwhile, I took an offer as 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 (ARCOG), which has served as the core team for coming up with many major Olympic designs. Here is a partial list:
Identity Guidelines / Color System / Pictograms
Medal / Emblem of Paralympics / Way-finding System
The Core Graphic / The Look for the Torch Relay
The Looks of the Game Guide
The Centre 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 be 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 successfully use the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games 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. To create a new look of the city that will bring the world into China and to bring China into the world. Therefore, in the design process, we have to constantly 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 can we create a look that is uniquely Chinese in color and form?
How can we create a look that touches hearts and minds of the people from all over the world?
Let me give two examples of design solutions we found:
First, 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 known to all world athletes and spectators, and at the same time 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 inspirations 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 the rubbings have made it 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 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, knows as “bi.” In ancient China, people wore Jade as a decoration to symbolize nobility and honor. This cultural tradition continues today, people wore jade to wish for good health and luck, and to symbolize 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, an inlaid piece of Jade in a ring shape, with the emblem of Beijing 2008 engraved in the center. Jade and gold, symbolize honor 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 honor 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 had a wide influence on the graphic arts in China. 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 an ex-patriot designer in Hong Kong, Steiner’s design work has to constantly deal with cross-cultural or inter-cultural themes. As a result he published an excellent book, titled "Cross-Cultural Design: Communicating in the Global Marketplace" in 1995. 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.
Bird House Logo / US Korea Trade Logo / Eaton Food Logo
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 the 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 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 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. And even till 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 overly elaborate dragons in Ming and Qing-dynasty-style suggest a hint of vulgarness. I therefore chose the Han-styled dragons instead.
The Forbidden City Logo
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 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 flare to the Chinese dragon.
Paul Rand and Min Wang
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 study 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 we are 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 learned how to use color 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 to Europe and United States, each learning experience adding to another to shape my design language today. I had a solid training in Western design disciplines 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 influenced my design today.
What do you see as the mentoring role Alvin Eisenman, director of the Yale University graduate graphic design program played and 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 program 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 become 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 program 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 program. Did it include using beta version’s of Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop?
From late 1980s to late 1990s, I taught courses at Yale University graduate graphic design program. My teaching focused on two fields: 1. cross-cultural design and eastern typography and 2. digital image making. In 1989, with colleague Charles Altschul, I taught the image workshop, using Adobe Photoshop which was still a Beta version at the time. Students used Photoshop to make collage, manipulate photos, and came up with many experimental images that were not possible to compose by 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.
U.S.-Korea Trade Relations Conference, Poster 1988
What’s the differences in design between China and the United States of America?
This is too big a question to talk about in just a few words. There are not big differences in terms of design disciplines such as color, 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 or has the computer been an integral tool for the cross-pollinization 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-existent. 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 the western influences.
Artists from the People’s Republic of China poster 2, 1990
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 Sumner 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 stays 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.
Book Cover series, 2004
What did Adobe Systems think it's 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 expanding over the years, with the fierce market competition, the demand of growing as a public company, and 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, for designers, people like Sumner Stone and me, the golden age of the 1980s had 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 then and all the way through as a senior designer, senior art director, and the 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. But as designer, I never had an experience 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. And it was a time I was looking for a change in my life and work, and it happened.
Circles and Squares in Beijing, Discover Asia poster, 2002
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 programs that enroll hundred of thousands of students at the university and college level. But how to teach design in China, how to learn 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 being 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 today will be the future leaders and educators in China’s design field tomorrow. It is in them, we invest the hopes and directions of design in China and in the future.
Chinese Student Poster
If you were to identify the strengths and weaknesses in Chinese graphic design education, what would you include?
The strength 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 of 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 line of graduates who do not understand good design from bad design, original creativity from copying, and some basic principles and concepts of graphic design. Thus, I think that design education is a fresh, confused, and a chaotic field right now. The quality of design education varies greatly depending on schools, departments, faculty members, and student recruitments.
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 Wang Xu and some others in Zhenzhen, as well as a group of very talented younger generation of designers, people like Chen Zhengda in Hangzhou, Miwi Studio and Jiang Hua in Beijing, are recognized by the international design community today and their work is just as excellent, sophiscated, and individualistic, like any other top graphic designers 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 and 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 had applied to ICOGRADA (The International Council of Graphic Design Association) to host the ICOGRADA World Design Congress 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 from all over the world to meet with Chinese designers, to exchange their ideas, their works.
Address: No. 8 Hua Jia Di Nan Jie, Chao Yang District, Beijing 100102, China
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Text: Richard B. Doubleday and Stephen Goldstein