In the latest of a series of articles in TOPICS this year reflecting Taipei’s selection as the 2016 World Design Capital, six leading practitioners reflect on the role of designers and the state of the profession in Taiwan.
By Samantha Kong & Nina Sheridan
Ray Chen – Interior Design
Ray Chen has gained a reputation as one of Taiwan’s foremost interior designers and a leader in the minimalist movement. Among his acclaimed projects have been the design of various Eslite bookstores over the past 30 years, as well as the recent total redesign of China Airlines’ B777 cabins and VIP lounges. Other examples in Taiwan are the Palais de Chine Hotel, the Tea Room at the National Palace Museum, and the lobby of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Now Chen is shifting his attention from architecture to art. After concentrating for most of his career on working with – and satisfying – clients, he is moving on to a new phase of focusing on what pleases himself. At this stage of his life, he says, he has the opportunity to “delve deeper into my own mind” and come up with artistic expressions of his ideas.
As a young man Chen first studied chemistry, beginning his design education only after going to Japan as a student of architecture. Seeing many examples of architecture and great design in Japan made him “determined to learn and to pursue an architectural career,” he says. In search of more inspiration than he could gain in class, he bought two guidebooks – introducing eastern and western Japan respectively – and started taking trips around the country at every opportunity.
During his three years in Japan, Chen visited all of the destinations mentioned in the travel guides and absorbed the essence of Japanese aesthetics, which he found to be heavily influenced by China’s Song Dynasty, a period that he much admires. “Since Japan is very good at preserving culture, by visiting these places I could capture these aesthetic ideas in my imagination,” Chen explains.
Throughout his career, Chen has sought to bring the aesthetics of Japan and the Song Dynasty into his projects. As a result of technological innovations, our visual experience of the world is very different from that of past eras, he notes, and some of the appreciation of the beauty of our environment has been lost. He cites the invention of electric lights as an example. We no longer experience the interplay of light and shadows that candles provide, and that has greatly diminished one aspect of our artistic imagination.
In his design projects, Chen tries to make up for such privation by challenging the imagination of the audience. For instance, in some of his hotel projects he has purposely sought to make the space darker, out of belief that dim lighting forces us to use our imaginations to the fullest.
Chen defines design as a way to find solutions in life. He encourages designers to devote more attention to the practical side of design, which is where he says they can make an immense contribution.
He also urges local designers not to be limited by the Taiwanese penchant for humility and tendency to be satisfied with “small pleasures.” That kind of attitude “kills vision,” he says. Instead, Chen advises Taiwanese designers to “dream and think big” as the best way to achieve their goals.
Chen Shikuan – Sustainable Production
When thinking of the ideal employer for a designer, manufacturing giant Compal Electronics wouldn’t immediately come to mind. However, Chen Shikuan, head of a team of more than 200 design experts at the company, has found it a creative and challenging place to work, with the opportunity to design solutions for a broad range of clients.
Compal’s recent shift towards R&D has enabled the company to move away from the traditionally low-profit-margin production of low-cost goods. Now, Compal is ranked 15th by the iF World Design Guide for global creativity, falling narrowly behind brands like Samsung (2nd), Sony (4th), and Apple (10th). The company is creating a model for other Taiwanese manufacturers as to how global design consulting and manufacturing can be combined, and Chen is pushing for Compal to bring its new design expertise into other markets besides IT.
Through his experience as Vice President of Experience Design at Compal, Professor of Design at Shih Chien University, and previously Design and Account Director at Philips Design, Chen has come to view the main objective of design as creating products that emphasize simplicity, sustainability, and environmental friendliness. “If my design can eliminate two screw holes in a TV set, Compal would require one billion fewer screws a year,” he says. “Imagine the benefit for planet Earth if two million designers were thinking the same way every morning.”
Besides the role of companies in producing sustainable products, Chen also emphasizes the important of educating children from a young age about these issues. If youngsters come to appreciate that what they buy comes at the expense of a rainforest, they will be much more careful throughout their lives in evaluating what they consume.
Unlike designers who focus on appearance and production, Chen says his overarching principle is to “design more because I want to produce less.” To him, a design focus is the future of manufacturing in Taiwan and a way to limit the damage done to the Earth. “When I see wastage in a factory, I directly translate that into less and less blue sky and green grass for my children,” he says. Given the importance of design to the environment, Chen expresses appreciation of the World Design Capital initiatives in enhancing public awareness of this field.
Liu Keng – Motion Graphic Design
The field of motion graphic design was in its infancy in Taiwan when Liu Keng returned from New York in 2012 to open his studio, Bito. Wikipedia defines motion graphic design as a subset of graphic design that “uses graphic design principles in a filmmaking or video production context…through the use of animation or filmic techniques.”
At Bito, Liu employs graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, directors, and prop makers. He works with freelance composers in multiple countries, and has brought together an international assortment of talent, including staff from Taiwan, the United States, South Korea, and South Africa.
After graduating with a degree in etymology from National Taiwan University, Liu moved to New York and became involved in the motion graphic design industry there. He considers that his experience in New York has given him a strong appreciation for the need for all projects to be based on a definite concept or design philosophy.
That foundation has differentiated his work from that of most of his competitors in Taiwan. “Most young designers look at a studio like it’s a factory,” he says. “The boss tells you what to do and you just do whatever the boss wants.” In developing Bito’s office culture, Liu has tried to nurture a different mentality, one that doesn’t stunt the creativity of the young designers. He encourages all employees to have fun side-projects to work on, in addition to their more traditional tasks, and Friday afternoons are reserved for an array of talks and classes on subjects from wine tasting to music or coffee. “I believe that a good life makes good design,” he says.
Splitting his work 50/50 between U.S. and Taiwanese companies, Liu says most of the projects are related to advertising for corporate giants like Facebook and Disney, but he also enjoys exploring other aspects of design. A foray into the designer toy market led Bito to create limited edition Beatles toys that sold out in just two days.
While Liu notes that Bito’s “visual language is more Western,” he seeks to incorporate aspects of Taiwanese culture into his work, creating a new style that blends East and West. Most importantly, he wants to avoid simply repeating things that have been done before, and instead will continue experimenting with new ideas in order to have a real impact on the Taiwanese design scene.
Alice Wang – Critical Design
Alice Wang, founder of the firm Alice Wang Design, is a proponent of what is known as “critical design.” As described by Wikipedia, a “critical design object will often challenge its audience’s preconceptions and expectations, thereby provoking new ways of thinking about the object, its use, and the surrounding environment.”
Offering her own explanation, Wang says that what distinguishes critical design from more conventional approaches is that it “uses research and storytelling, and is more emotional.” She notes that “our goal for any project that we do, big or small, is to tell a story.”
Wang says she entered the field of design by accident. While she was studying art in England, she got into an argument with her sculpture tutor, which spurred her to consider the differences between art and design. “Art is what I think and what I like,” she says, while “design is more about how to communicate with the world.” She decided she preferred the latter and shifted her focus accordingly. As part of that communication, she places a high value on the audience reaction – positive or negative – to any design project she undertakes.
As an example of how critical design can prompt people to reflect on broader issues, Wang cites the “Rain Project” her team started in 2011. The project collected rainwater specimens from various cities around the world and used them to make attractively packaged popsicles. At each of six events held around Taiwan, 1,000 of the popsicles were made available to the public. “The popsicles would be gone within five minutes,” notes Wang, with virtually no one stopping to read the message on the package identifying the source of the ingredients. “This is why there are food security problems,” she says. “If something is packaged really nicely, you don’t care and don’t ask questions.”
The Alice Wang Design website draws another lesson from the project: “Taipei’s rain smells nasty. Tokyo’s rain tastes salty. Beijing’s rain has an incredible amount of debris floating within. After looking at and tasting [these samples], can we finally see what we have done to our environment? Are we finally willing to do something about it?”
Wang notes that “design in Taiwan is still a baby compared to Japan, the UK, or the U.S.” She expects the standard of design in Taiwan to improve over time, but challenges young designers to be more creative and innovative. At Yodex, the Young Designer’s Exhibition where Wang served as a judge this year, she found that most of the 9,000 projects were rather similar, with a lot of emphasis on tea- and coffee-making apparatus. Instead of choosing safe projects, often inspired by what they are seeing in the media, Wang would encourage design students to do more thinking outside the box.
Kevin Yang – Social Design
With an eclectic background in music, marketing, and finance, Kevin Yang in 2013 founded 5% Design Action, a non-profit organization focused on social design related to health, the environment, education, and the economy. He views design as a problem-solving tool to create new value in the objects around us, and has recruited some 250 designers and industry professionals who have committed to devoting some 5% of their time to the group’s projects.
Social design is defined as a design process that contributes to people’s well-being and livelihood. To Yang, education and mindset are the two crucial elements for becoming a successful social designer. He and his team are currently working with the Ministry of Education to redesign the education model for young designers to ensure that they have the opportunity for hands-on experience before graduation. Yang also stresses the importance of being open minded and having the ability to dedicate oneself to a given issue for an extended period. As social issues evolve, designers need to spend time following the trends and studying the issues. The goal is “not just to solve problems,” Yang says, “but also to redefine or reframe the problem and give new meaning to the issues.”
Yang says that being a parent has reinforced his desire to tackle projects that benefit society and will make the world a better place for the next generation. “If you can change your society or even your neighborhood, that’s a lot more meaningful” than simply earning a profit, he says.
Currently Yang and his team are working with the 2016 World Design Capital (WDC) organization on a project to develop ideas for enhancing the quality of life for the elderly in response to the rapid aging of Taiwan’s population. Besides personnel from 5% Design Action, the team also consists of designers from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany. The project focuses on health enhancement, health management, and health care, and involves collaboration with medical and long-term care institutions and such businesses as insurance and technology companies.
The aim is to forge an innovative ecosystem for long-term care in Taiwan, including the design of creative activities to allow senior citizens to be more active, both physically and mentally. Examples are gardening (including “mobile gardening,” or making garden boxes accessible to the disabled) and card games to provide mental stimulation and opportunities for social interaction.
The project will come up with eight new design concepts later this year for testing in Taiwan, as well as in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Xiao Qing Yang – Album Covers
Since album covers are the way consumers gain a first impression of musicians and their music, designer Xiao Qing Yang aims to make that impression a lasting one. With 30 years of experience designing album covers, Xiao has seen the recording industry move from vinyl to cassettes to H tracks to CDs and now MP3s.
He hasn’t let these changes in format hamper his business, though. He continues to create unique works with significant collectors’ value that have garnered international recognition. So far he has earned four Grammy nominations for “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package” and two Golden Melody awards (the Taiwan equivalent of a Grammy) for “Best Album Package Design.”
Xiao incorporates both Western and Taiwanese influences into his design. “I always listen to Western music, but I also want to showcase Oriental style and introduce Taiwanese music and culture to a global audience,” he explains. Sometimes his designs become better known than the music itself, bringing Western attention to the Taiwanese music and design scene.
Reflecting on the impact of new technology in this field, Xiao says that “what changes is only the medium and the tool – the love for the music is still there.” He therefore spends a lot of time with the musicians he is designing for and their families, listening to their life stories and attending their concerts. An important feature of Xiao’s award-winning work is that the design focus is not just on the cover, but extends to creating an entire album package that includes intricate designs on the liner notes and the CD itself.
His original album designs include a world map rearranged so that Taiwan is isolated in the east to express Taiwan’s current political situation, paper cut to look like lace, and the reimagining of various pieces of Eastern artwork. Over the decades, Xiao’s personal design style has become increasingly varied and experimental. In his more recent projects, he embraces new technologies and trends while staying true to his client’s vision. An example is his designs for the album “Story Island.” This project took 18 months and used the latest in laser cutting technology to depict some of the major natural disasters that have hit Taiwan.
Although Xiao’s style has changed with time, he explains that “my goal is to bring everyone’s attention back from the online digital world to the physical product.”
At this stage in his career, Xiao is hoping to transition from design to art in the near future. He sees design as having real impact by “making practical improvements in people’s lives.” It always has a purpose. Art, on the other hand, is “more on the spiritual level.” He views art as freedom – “just you and your interpretation” – and likens it to “a childhood dream.”