I recently sat down for an interview with the Creative Lead at one of China’s new-wave design firms.
I have a friend from the Czech Republic who told me a great story about going shopping after the country won independence from the USSR. Through the entirety of her childhood, there had only ever been one brand of yogurt in the supermarket. Then the country opened up, and one day she went to the grocery store, and there were two choices. What was the difference? She spent ages reading every word on both yogurt labels looking for some way to tell which one was better, and she said that most of her friends and family were equally baffled. They’d stand in the store for hours checking the nutrition information, reading packaging, comparing product weight... I think of that story every time I see evidence of Chinese consumption habits changing.
I don’t mean to paint a picture of China as some post-Soviet curiosity: it’s not. Major Chinese cities are as modern as anywhere, and the Chinese consumer is well past standing in a store poking yogurt. But I do mean to call attention to the phases that consumer societies go through as they navigate the process of choice in a market that is first devoid of it, then full of it, then saturated with it. At some point in that process, design starts to really, really matter as a differentiating factor, and as it starts to matter, companies start to value it and be increasingly willing to pay for it. In China today, it feels like we’re cresting the apex of that phase, and design companies here are starting to get a very similar vibe to design firms in, say, Europe (retaining local design characteristics, naturally).
It’s an amazing evolution to watch, and G’Day is right on the forefront of that new horizon. G’Day is a design shop based in Shenzhen, a mainland port city right across the water from Hong Kong and one of China’s epicenters of trade and industry. Early last year (2013), G’Day was selected as one of Creative Bloq’s most inspiring Chinese design firms. I got in touch with JS Chen (陈佳生), G’Day’s Creative Principal and Design Team Lead, to chat about some of their past projects and get his take on the Shenzhen industry.
Not only is Chen just a flat-out nice guy whose outlook on Shenzhen’s design industry will convince you that the rigors of the job are similar no matter where you are, but also what’s expressed here is emblematic of what is happening across every major city in China, as the country moves from a primarily industrial economy to a tertiary-sector economy.
So tell us a little bit G’day: how it got started and all that stuff.
I been into design since early on, and I’m super lucky that it’s now my full-time job. I’m intensely passionate about it, and that passion drives me to be better. We got kicked off in 2010, and we’ve got five people right now: three designers, one developer and a project manager. Our philosophy is that we design to identify problems. Once we do, we try to table new and creative thinking that gives rise to rational solutions to those problems, and ideally the final product results in an actual behavioral change.
We’re super loving the “Star Kiwi” project you posted on Behance - gorgeous colors. That’s a dessert company, yeah?
Thanks for the thumbs-up! Yes, Xingqiyi (STAR KIWI) is a shop selling fruit-based desserts. STAR KIWI was founded in 2005 and became famous for their fruit and cake. Originally, they were your standard brick-and-mortar store, but as the product line continued to expand and branch out, the old branding wasn’t adaptable to the direction of brand development. The new brand incorporates [as visual elements] the updated products themselves, combined with a “light dining” look-and-feel. We got this project through a personal recommendation from someone who also felt how deeply essential it was for this brand to have a more systematic approach and clearer brand definition.
Fruit and kitchens have a lovely relationship, really. You’ll find an amazing array of interesting tools in any kitchen where cakes are made, and fruit also comes in such a wonderful variety of fun shapes. When you array these things together, the consumer can experience the merriment and joy inherent in the process of creating these desserts, and at the same time they get an immediate blast of freshness, amusement and overall tastiness.
And how about the “Shenzhen” city work?
That was made for the CitID project, where designers from different cities all over the world were invited to create a unique city symbol based on their own experience living in that place. I was one of the designers invited to participate, and I took Shenzhen’s seaside themes, trees, boats, architecture, and put them in a simple collage of symbols that conveys our local atmosphere of diversity, youth and dynamism.
In my personal experience in Beijing, I’ve noticed that recently people have begun to place more value on good design than they did three or five years ago. What is your experience with the industry in Shenzhen? Do you find that more clients are willing to invest in design?
Shenzhen has always been both a forgiving city and a city that dares to innovate, but recently the value placed on design has really started escalating. Companies are becoming more aware that their development strategies and the quality of their brands are closely related. In the past, businesses only placed value on the product itself, but with the development of the internet and the ease with which consumers share products, the inherent qualities that may make a product competitive take less of a focus, and you can only really penetrate a consumer’s experience via design - that’s the pathway to more profits.
Are you selective about the clients that you take on, and if so, what is your selection process? Are there certain kinds of projects you won’t take?
I don’t like to choose based on the project, actually I enjoy coming in contact with a wider range of project types, and unusual projects give us a little taste of something challenging. Instead, we prefer to choose our clients based on whether or not we can work well with the people. We thirst for great cooperative relationships: the other party needs to respect and have some basic understanding for the design process, and we need to have some confidence in each other. We do really enjoy taking public service projects, which allow us to both help those in need and to get our name out there.
You’ve done work for both international and Chinese clients. What are the major differences you've found doing work for both Chinese and Western companies?
We typically find that we have a smoother process flow when we deal with international clients. Projects with local Chinese firms tend to require more patience.
What is your opinion on the current status of the web design industry in Shenzhen? Are there many talented designers or just a few, do you think?
Of course, web design is now a very hot topic and web design contributes to the development of web commerce, but I think that our familiarity with the ins and outs of web design over here isn’t quite up to snuff, and that limits our ability to express ourselves through that medium. A lot of time and effort is needed to really dig into, for example, responsive debugging, coming up with innovative design concepts, [approaching] product photography [online], understanding user experience, etc. But that said, there are a lot of talented web designers in Shenzhen, many whose work I love.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview - every time I do these I feel like I finally have some time to understand myself a bit, hah.