Proad Identity’s president and creative director, Jennifer Tsai, says that huaren designers should not focus solely on trying to prove themselves against work coming out of the West. Instead, they should pursue differentiation and place an emphasis on the style and aesthetics of huaren design. Only then will they be able to achieve visibility on the world stage.
Tsai is the first graphic designer to be recognized as a Pride of Taiwan recipient, an honor bestowed by former president Ma Ying-jeou in 2011. Between 2007 and 2016, she has been the recipient of 75 international design awards, including trophies from the Golden Pin Design Award, the Pentaward, the Red Dot Design Award, and the iF Design Award. Tsai’s designs are rich with huaren sensibility, and she uses huaren cultural elements in clever and transformative ways, never descending into the kitsch or the cliché.
What lies behind her employment of this particular style? Tsai says that the emergence of the internet has led to greater globalization and homogeneity. Everyone has an iPhone; the same cars and the same architectural styles can be found all over the world. Globalization has made life more convenient and has allowed us to communicate with each other faster, but “design should come from life. Design that has a true soul should take root in the underlying richness of a culture, not in imitation. We should show the world what makes us different, instead of telling the world that we can be just like them.”
Tsai believes that huaren has rich cultural heritage that designers can draw upon and transform using contemporary design language. “Only design rooted in this underlying cultural richness can set itself apart from Western design, and only then can the beauty of huaren design become visible on the world stage.”
Drawing on the huaren cultural treasures means going beyond computers and internet searches. Proad successfully developed a brand strategy and design for the Chinese restaurant group Jardin de Jade. During the process, Tsai led her team on a field study in Suzhou that lasted over two weeks. They observed and studied the cultural aesthetics of Suzhou, including the gardens, sculptures, embroidery, printing, and traditional crafts. “The Jiangnan region that Suzhou lies in was a major producer of fish and rice, representing the wealth of China’s past. Jardin de Jade aims to represent Jiangnan aesthetics in miniature. All of our designs are an embodiment of Jiangnan aesthetics using creative and contemporary methods,” explains Tsai.
Each of Proad’s three packaging designs for Jardin de Jade went on to win international awards for the company. The packaging for Lunar New Year cakes drew inspiration from the huaren saying, Nian nian you yu, or “Something left over every year” in English. Using a fish as the main visual element (yu can mean either “leftover” or “fish”), the design uses elegant and simple lines to convey the fish’s movements in a lifelike way. The design received a Red Dot Best of the Best award in 2014.
The packaging for a pork knuckle product features a Chinese door fastener as the main visual focus; embossed paper is used to give the feature a three-dimensional feel. The design won an iF Design Award in 2014. Gift box packaging celebrating the Lunar New Year evoked the Chinese tradition of painting with embroidery, a speciality in Suzhou, which also took home a 2014 Red Dot Design Award. Each of these awards represent more than just a trophy to grace a shelf; they indicate that designs inspired by huaren culture have already won widespread international recognition.
In addition to designing for Taiwanese and Chinese brands, Tsai also has many years of experience helping guide Western brands as they enter huaren markets. For example, Tsai designed the wedding gift box packaging for the Belgian chocolate brand Godiva in 2014. For the main visual theme, she used the peony flower, which symbolizes happiness, passion, and good fortune, in conjunction with Eastern ink painting. She then added red, a color that symbolizes good luck in Chinese culture, to create packaging that evoked an “elegant Western lady wearing a Chinese qipao.” Skillfully bringing together the East and the West, this gift box sold extremely well in the huaren market, proving that design aimed at local tastes is good business.
“Red and gold are colors that are part of the huaren DNA,” she asserts. “They symbolize luck and nobility. There’s nothing wrong with using these two colors; the important thing is how you use them.” While her 2016 mooncake gift box packaging design for the Ambassador Hotel featured an entirely gold outer shell, it felt classic and elegant rather than tacky, and the 50,000 limited edition gift boxes sold out within two weeks. Tsai felt proud to have played a part in such astounding sales.
In addition to helping clients plan their brand strategy and design, Proad also has its own brand. Called Baijuyue, the brand offers tea sets that incorporate the phases of the moon and its relevance to Eastern sensibilities. The full, new, and gibbous phases are used to evoke Eastern aesthetics and the spirit of cha dao, or tea appreciation.
Everything about the design, including the arc of the water when it is poured, the size of the teapot’s opening, and the line between the spout and the handle have been carefully considered. “The arc of the water looks better when the handle is on top, and it requires less strength to hold,” says Tsai. “The opening is a little larger than Japanese teapots, so it won’t get blocked. I love tea myself, so our biggest consideration in the design is how we create a teapot that customers like and that feels good to use.”
As a leader in huaren design, Tsai laments the lack of confidence among huaren designers. They fawn over Western designs while ignoring the treasures of huaren culture. “Taiwan used to be infamous as a country of knockoffs, but we were able to shed that image through design. I really wish that company owners could recognize the importance of huaren design and give huaren designers a chance to show their talent. A country can only win respect around the world when its capability for design is high,” she advises. As the huaren market is rapidly growing and maturing, huaren design is also growing in importance. Tsai believes that huaren design will become mainstream in the future: “As long as we can produce our own unique work instead of pale imitations, we’ll be able to leave some great treasures for the future.”
About Jennifer Tsai
Jennifer Tsai is the president and creative director of Proad Identity. Experienced with graphic, product, and interior design, Tsai is best known for integrating Eastern aesthetics into modern product designs and for the use of huaren cultural elements in her work. In 2011, she was recognized as the design world’s “Pride of Taiwan” by former president Ma Ying-jeou. Between 2007 and 2016, she has been recipient of 75 international design awards, including recognition from the Golden Pin Design Award, the Pentaward, the Red Dot Design Award, and the iF Design Award. She has won more iF Design Awards than any other Taiwanese designer, and she has judged many important international design competitions. She is also an Asian member of the European Packaging Design Association and an international strategic partner for the Global Design Source strategic alliance.