Civi Cheng, the award-winning assistant professor of Fu Jen Catholic University Department of Applied Arts and art consultant for Keystone Design, says that commercial design must consider the tastes of the market and the user. A design can realize its potential only if the designer is knowledgable about the objectives of the product or project and can accurately assess the needs of the client, the consumer, and other design professionals.
As Cheng notes, market preferences are made up of different tastes. For example, in Taiwan, international cuisines such as Japanese and Italian are infused with flavors that are more familiar to local consumers. Design works in a similar fashion: different aesthetics and design concepts are employed for different markets.
Cheng, in describing his experiences in designing album covers for the Taiwanese world music label WindMusic, notes that ensuring that the source of the talent is clear to the consumer is the key to marketing East Asian music globally, especially in Europe and America. For this reason, Cheng often employs “elements of pan-Asian aesthetics.”
A classic example of this approach would be Tathāgata, a world music album by Master He Suntan that was nominated for Best Recording Package in the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards (2010). For the packaging design, Cheng was influenced by the concept of emptiness described in the poem: “Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree; the bright mirror is also not a stand. Fundamentally there is not a single thing – Where could any dust be attracted.”
The album cover features a translucent leaf of the Bodhi Tree in Nepal, which is placed in the center of the cover to represent the zhongdao (‘middle path’) and overlaid with Sanskrit written in English and the Chinese title of the album, rulai ruqu, a phrase that is similar to the popular English idiom, “Easy come, easy go.” The text was in turn overlaid with gold, a favorite color in huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities. The pages within the accordion-like album package are modeled on ancient Buddhist scriptures.
However, such “elements of East Asian aesthetics” are often not so favorably received in the local market. For example, stereotypical Western notions of “East Asian” aesthetics include almond-shaped eyes and long, silky black hair, as well as Chinatown souvenirs such as lanterns and chopsticks. In contrast, people in huaren communities would find these cultural symbols to traditional, too obvious. “These ‘elements of pan-Asian aesthetics’ must be used and represented in different ways to accommodate the differences in Chinese, European, American, Taiwanese, and other markets,” Cheng notes.
An example of this approach is the Taiwanese indigenous music album Nandao Vali, which won Best Recording Cover (traditional music category) in the 24th Golden Melody Awards (GMA). Civi Cheng and the music producer decided to play down the use of traditional indigenous symbols in the design of the album cover in an effort to attract wider market attention. Instead, he uses pictorial features common to the broader Austronesian cultures, while traditional Taiwanese indigenous symbols are used subtly and sparingly.
The above two examples clearly illustrate how market and consumer preferences exert their influence on design. However, design is not just about fulfilling market desires. “You must understand the goal of the design,” Cheng explains. “Do you want to help the client make more money and see success in the marketplace, do you want to challenge your own creative abilities, or do you want to gain recognition from the design industry and win awards? Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be able to accurately assess the needs of consumers and your clients, and you will be able to better gauge your own level of professionalism.”
Chinese design is gaining recognition on the international stage as the Mainland Chinese market continues to grow. Cheng believes that Chinese design should refer to all designs that have been influenced by Chinese culture; the field should not be restricted only to profiling the work of designers of Chinese descent. German design is heavily influenced by the Bauhaus school, while Scandinavian designers are famous for their minimalist approach. Japanese designers focus on zen. What defines Chinese design today, and what will define it in the future?
Cheng notes that while today it is difficult to define Chinese design, Chinese culture has long been influenced by the three religious philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Though these three schools of thought are seemingly at odds with one, it is possible to find ways in which they also integrate with one another. This syncretism can be seen in Chinese art, literature, design, and overall aesthetics. “If you really want to ask me to define the aesthetics of Chinese design, I can tell you that the principles of Middle Way (zhongdao 中道), yin and yang (yinyang 陰陽), ‘virtual and tangible’ (xushi 虛實), ‘romantic charm’ (shenyun 神韻), and negative space (liubai 留白) have a strong influence, especially in the graphic design field,” Cheng concludes.
About Civi Cheng
Civi Cheng is currently working as an assistant professor at Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Applied Arts and is an art consultant at Keystone Design. Cheng specializes in designing album covers and visuals for the performing arts field, and he has established a unique style rich in culture and artistry. Longterm clients include WindMusic, the National Theater and Concert Hall Taipei, Cloudgate Dance Theater, and GuoGuang Opera Company. Cheng is considered one of Taiwan’s leading designers, and his works have won numerous accolades.
In 2009, the album packaging for Tathāgata was nominated for Best Recording Cover at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards (2010). Other awards include Best Album Cover in the Traditional Music Category in Taiwan’s 24th Golden Melody Awards (2013); Best Recording Cover Design in the 13th Independent Music Awards (2014); one Platinum and two Gold awards in the Packaging Design Category of the Taiwan Visual Design Award (2014); and Best Design of the Year Category Award at the SD Taiwan Design BEST 100 (2015).