In Chinese Characters, Designers Seek to Marry Text and Image

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The Mobile Design Agency. A retrofitted sanlunche 三轮车 (three-wheeled motorized cart) (all images courtesy of LAVA Design Beijing, and copyright LAVA Design 2014)

BEIJING — For the recently concluded Beijing Design Week (BJDW), senior designers from the Dutch design agency LAVA Céline Lamée and Johan Nijhoff explored the origins of visual communication by designing a new set of symbols. Their “goal [was] to make a symbol that would be understood by Chinese because of [its relation to] the [pictorial Chinese] character, and by Westerners because it’s like an [iconic] symbol.” LAVA’s In a Simplified World is quite unlike Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground, where the Chinese artist scours social media platforms in an attempt to collect and harness the communicative power of contemporary symbols (think emoticons) for storytelling purposes. Rather, LAVA attempts to re-create symbols and the collective definitions assigned to these icons, making a new visual language of sorts. However, the ways by which a visual language builds a collective understanding of images, creating a symbol-to-definition relation, is not as universal as expected — it is heavily influenced by the differing rationales that arise from linguistic structures in textual languages like Chinese and English.

Shop Owners Filling Out LAVA-designed Logo Survey
Shop Owners Filling Out LAVA-designed Logo Survey

Starting their research by dissecting Chinese characters that display traces of their original meaning (i.e. water 水, tree 木, good fortune 福), Céline realized it became “too forced to take the Chinese character and always combine it with a Western symbol.” As such, they shifted their focus to redefining contradicting poles such as rich and poor, East and West, public and private, then and now. By placing two arrangements of one set of shapes (e.g. two lines and two semi-circles) in relation to another (e.g. a rice bowl with chopsticks representing the East and a hamburger representing the West), the viewer can deduce the new symbols’ meaning via a contextual relativity.

For BJDW, the LAVA designers placed these symbols into a local setting by drawing the symbols onto white undershirts and underwear and then hanging them onto random laundry-lines in the city center. Both the locals and designers felt the appropriation of laundry and other common household goods to insinuate meaning “was perhaps too far fetched”; the symbol had no relation to the clothing or the environment where they were being contextualized. It was as if the image of a Chinese takeout box was used as part of an Italian restaurant logo — the message was mixed, and as such audiences were unable to draw new associations connecting image to definition.

Left, Kung Fu School's Owner and Logo, and, right, Bookshop Owner and Logo
Left, Kung Fu School’s Owner and Logo, and, right, Bookshop Owner and Logo

Perceptions of visual languages are influenced by memories of previous encounters with the iconic image — as such, new symbols must be defined by providing an experience that rationally equates the symbol to meaning. However, given the vast difference between the circular rationality arising from the pictorially-driven Chinese character and a linear logic as seen in Western languages like English and German, determining the most appropriate way to connect symbol to definition in a systematic manner can prove quite difficult. Nevertheless, this unique work-in-progress, which attempts to deconstruct a pictorial language and redefine communication as utilized by the collective user, illuminates the design work that is heavily influenced by the cross-cultural dialogue prevalently seen in Beijing.

Left, Dongbei (Northwestern China) Restaurant Owner and Logo, and, right, another store owner and his new logo.
Left, Dongbei (Northwestern China) Restaurant Owner and Logo, and, right, a halal restaurant owner and his new logo.


Céline and Johan are the duo currently running LAVA’s Beijing studio. It was just two years ago that Céline, along with project manager Charlotte Bergmans, founded LAVA’s China outpost. LAVA’s Amsterdam office has been the winner of several esteemed design awards, including the European Design and Red Dot Awards. With a strong minimal style that is inherently Dutch, LAVA has been invigorating the Beijing graphic landscape with fresh designs for slews of organizations. While not busy crafting up new publications or visual identities, the design firm is often working on their own research projects that they present at BJDW.

For the 2013 edition of BJDW, Céline and Charlotte purchased a metal three-wheeled vehicle, or sanlunche, a tuk-tuk–like conveyance that commonly provides an alternative to and quicker mode of transportation than the Beijing taxi. Naming and labeling their new sanlunche the “Mobile Design Agency,” the duo explored old Beijing alleyways, stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants with antiquated signage.

Left, a laundromat owner and his logo, and right, a frame shop owner and his logo.
Left, a laundromat owner and his logo, and right, a frame shop owner and his logo.

Serving as both pro-bono community service as well as an exercise for Céline herself, the Mobile Design Agency attempted to research the ways by which local business brand themselves. By distributing a form that asked shop owners to identify their brand identities, Céline was able to deduce the direction shop’s visual fate. The result was seventeen handcrafted logos that revamped these mom-and-pop shops with a clean aesthetic. The novel project earned BJDW Organizing Committee’s recognition as the “Best Creative Project”; while BJDW awards are not acclaimed in the same manner as those from Red Dot, for example, it still indicates innovation in an already creative Beijing landscape. This year the Mobile Design Agency went to Chengdu, a mountainous region of Western China where they created another seven logos for local businesses.

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Celine Lamee working on Mobile Design Agency logos as local school children watch

While the designers implementing these research projects stem from a long line of design heritage, LAVA’s China presence is still nascent. It will be interesting to see whether they are able to fully adopt Chinese rationales and modes of understanding visual language.

‘East’ vs. ‘West’
‘Then’ vs. ‘Now’
More examples of ‘Then’ vs. ‘Now’ symbols
Left, Printouts of new symbols for "In a Simplified Word," and, right, 'East' vs. 'West' hanging on a laundry line.
Left, Printouts of new symbols for “In a Simplified Word,” and, right, ‘East’ vs. ‘West’ hanging on a laundry line.
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