When Minmin Qu designs books in his role as chief editor, he is often acting more like a product developer, to use a job description popular in China. “Editing a book is like directing a film. I participate in every step of the production process, from communicating with the author and coordinating the design to ultimately launching the book,” he explains. “It’s only when we have open and smooth communication with each department that a book can become the best possible version of itself.”
Dance by the Music of Dunhuang, designed by Qu and Jiang Qian, was a Golden Pin Design Award 2015 Best Design recipient. Aside from its awards success, it was also named one of “China’s Most Beautiful Books” in 2014. The book, critics often note, gives its readers–even those not trained in art appreciation–a sense of the mysterious past of Dunhuang; the book itself is an example of the Dunhuang art style and of huaren culture (the culture of Chinese-speaking, or huaren, communities).
“The content of the book showcases the culture of Dunhuang. From the perspective of the designer and editor, it’s first important to have a clear idea of what values we want to convey to the reader, what ‘face’ of Dunhuang we want to present,” notes Qu about the book’s design, textual choices, and layout.
“Nowadays, many people know about Dunhuang, and they’re aware of the many Buddhist classics and intricate paintings the famous caves contain, but very few people have experienced the power of the place in person, so how can we allow readers to feel the beauty and details of Dunhuang through a book? How can we allow readers to have a lifelike picture of this location in their minds through images on paper? These are the questions we need to think about as we’re designing and editing the book.
“We’re very aware of the fact that reading a book cannot replicate a real experience one hundred percent, but through showing one profile or a few fragments, we can give readers a feeling of the brick-and-mortar that makes up Dunhuang. In saying that, while we positioned our design to best showcase the local culture, we didn’t deliberately use Eastern elements in our design outside of what is already represented at Dunhuang.”
In Qu’s view, book designers should pay more attention to what is expressed in the text of a book. Even one fragment or one profile can offer the reader a view into the author’s intent. What designers should not do is start the process with a preconceived notion of the subject or the expectation that one specific style should be used. “We need to respect the content and the text of the product, and employ an appropriate style to produce a design that fits the specific feeling that product exudes. That’s how we can create the book designs that modern huaren readers need,” he determinedly notes.
The positive market response to Dance by the Music of Dunhuang has strengthened Qu’s confidence in his designs. Design is not simply about presenting an image; in essence, design is a means to clearly position the object–the product–that is being designed. It is only when a designer has a clear idea of the purpose of the product they are designing that the reader can clearly see the intent in the design and fully engage with the ideas of the author.
“I would never recklessly choose a specific identifiable style when I’m designing a book, even if the book has a huaren author and deals with huaren culture. Huaren culture is highly multifaceted and there’s no single thread running through it. For the designer, the most important thing is to discover the various huaren design styles, and decide which of those might be appropriate for each different book,” says Qu.
Always Thirsty for Learning, another book edited and designed by Qu, is about the author’s lifelong pursuit of learning. Qu met with the author, Zhou Xue, many times from the beginning of the project to the end. “Every time I went to Zhou Xue’s house for discussion, I would find him practicing calligraphy. He would go through sheet after sheet of paper, turning each one from white to black,” he says. “It seemed that calligraphy for him was an endless pursuit.”
This lead Qu to recognize that calligraphy was a form of thinking or learning for Zhou Xue: “Just as he spent his entire life learning and collecting art, his endless practicing of calligraphy was also a form of learning, and the essence of learning is dedication and repetition.” As a result, the pages in Always Thirsty for Learning alternate between black and white. This repetition represents the author’s attitude to learning and the central idea of the book–to always seek out yet remain humble in knowledge.
About Minmin Qu
Minimin Qu is an artistic editor at Phoenix Fine Arts Publishing in Jiangsu. His work has won numerous design awards in China and internationally, among them a Golden Pin Design Award, a Design for Asia Gold Award, a One Show Design Bronze Pencil, a Golden Bee from the Moscow Global Biennale of Graphic Design, two Graphic Design in China (GDC) awards, and two Tokyo Type Directors awards. Their works are held in the collections of the German National Library, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, and the Guanshanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen, and have been published in the Asia-Pacific Design Yearbook, BranD, NewGraphic, and Art and Design.