Innovations of Graphic design in China

    Printmaking and papermaking innovations that influenced the development of graphic design

China innovated the key features of graphic design, printmaking and papermaking. Both of these inventions were essential to the development of graphic design. Without them the development of the written word would not of developed from writing on stone and other materials, which don’t have the same qualities as paper, and the development of print and moveable type meant that the mass production of written communication such as books and propaganda could happen creating vital elements in the history of graphic design.

In AD 105 the invention of paper was cited and reported to the Chinese emperor by an official of the imperial court, Ts’ai Lun. However recent archeology discovers show the invention of paper in China to be around 200 years earlier during the reign of Emperor Wu. Whether Ts’ai Lun invented paper is for debate but how developed it as a material revolutionized China. The main development was using a smooth material in the mold covering this meant the mold could immediately quickening production. Other developments included adding yellow dye that acted as an insect repellant and using starch as a sizing material creating a stronger material overall.

Printing in China was developed long before it was developed in Europe some of the earliest examples of woodblock printing text, images and pattern originated in China early 220 A.D. These surviving woodblock printed fragments are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Hans Dynasty and in the mid seventh century the earliest example of woodblock printing on paper was also discovered in China.

China was ahead of Europe in developing printing and colour printing by hundreds of years. They also developed the first moveable type. Bi Sheng developed moveable type in China in 1040 using porcelain. He used clay type but this broke easily, but Wang Zhen later carved a more durable type out of wood in 1298. He developed a complicated system using revolving tables and number association with written Chinese characters making the process of typesetting and printing more efficient. Woodblock printing remained the main method in use in China for a long time due to the hundreds of Chinese characters. Copper moveable type was developed in China in the twelfth century and was used on a large-scale to produce printed money in the Northern song dynasty.

In 868 the Diamond sutra was the first completed printed book and printing on paper had taken off. A skilled printer could print up to 2,000 double-page sheets per day and by the tenth century 400,000 copies of some sutras and pictures were printed. In the British library amongst the Dunhuang manuscripts the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra and it is the earliest version of a dated printed book. By the beginning of the eleventh century moveable type was being used to produce longer scrolls and books making books widely available in the Song Dynasty.

The earliest dated printed book

Printing spread of China and Japan countries that used Chinese logograms and developed for other scripts into Vietnam and Turpan. But it didn’t reach the Islamic world.

Moveable type eventually made it from China to Europe and in 1450 Johannes Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg press and introduced what was seen as the first system of moveable type in Europe. He was the first to create type pieces from alloy lead and steal the same materials that are still used today. Aldus Manutius developed his book structure and this became the foundation for western publications. This era of graphic design is known as Humanist or old style.

Gutenberg bible

These innovations relate directly to what I study as a Graphic design student from editorial and typography work to large-scale imagery and photography. If this wasn’t developed communication on a large-scale would not be possible and it all developed out of China and has created the modern design industry.

Designed in China

A country so involved with ancient traditions and culture, China has had to learn to adapt in the 20th century.  Modern China looks at art very differently then those in the West. For Western artists and designers, styles and techniques are built upon artistic movements preceding them. Each generation passes on its findings to the next. However, when it comes to design, China is only beginning its journey. It was only in 1992 that the first Graphic Design exhibition took place in Shenzhen, China. Chinese designers cannot look to their past for reference because there is little to expand upon. Designers in China face the difficult challenge of creating a foundation that future generations can benefit from

For Graphic designers in China, being innovative and resisting western influence is imperative. In an interview with The New York Times, Liu Zhi Zhi, a graphic designer from Beijing elaborates on the distinctions between the East and West, “An important difference between China and the West is that we respond to things instinctively,” he said. “Westerners often want to understand things by rationalizing them, whereas we just feel and know. Our relationship to visual culture is intuitive and fluid.” Coming from the 798 zone of Beijing, a vast growing community of artists, Liu Zhi Zhi is an emerging designer who utilizes artistic techniques rooted in Chinese culture and then applies them in contemporary ways.  As part of the new artistic generation of China, Liu is paving the way for other young designers. Only in his mid 30’s, Liu has already made a name for himself in the art world. Liu agrees it is difficult for today’s designers to be recognized in the public eye. He aims to reach people on a broader level.





















Though Graphic Design is not in the forefront of mainstream China, its popularity is increasing daily. Many companies and organizations are beginning to promote the arts as well as Graphic Design. Endorsed by many Chinese government organizations, Beijing Design Week has become an assembly of new and emerging talents in China. The fact that the Chinese government encourages this event says a lot about the direction in which art is going. Years ago, Graphic Design was used for propaganda rather then fine art. Although many designers are still “underground,” events like Beijing Design Week showcase what modern China has to offer creatively. A space where designers can freely create art is paramount to modern China’s culture.

According to Javin Mo, founder of the Hong Kong based Design Company Milkxshake, Hong Kong is at a different speed then mainland China in terms of graphic design. He believes there is more freedom in for self-expression in Beijing and Shanghai. In Hong Kong, designers are limited and only have the means to produce commercial art. When Hong Kong experienced an economic recession in 1997, many designers were left with no choice but to work commercially in order assure financial stability. Today, It is on the Internet that new designers can begin to share their expressive art without restraint. As the creative director at Milkxhake, Javin Mo is set out to bring young designers to light. Javin Mo is affiliated with the new media art festival Microwave, where young artists can exhibit their non-commercial graphic design work.














Graphic Design’s presence in China is flourishing but is still very new. Both Mainland China and Hong Kong are pushing for self-expression to mass audiences. Aric Chen, a design critic and curator, mentions that because design has only recently been introduced to the Chinese culture, Chinese designers benefit from “working with a clean canvas.” Chinese graphic design has great potential for originality and complete innovation.

Graphic Design in China

We’re all very familiar with graphic design from the west, particularly in the US and UK. Graphic design from other areas like China, is a bit different, but still very aesthetically appealing. Graphic design is still fairly new in China, only being about a decade into its exploration. Graphic design is starting to be applied to everything instead of just being used for political propaganda. So what is actually happening now in the country? China has started to become modern and the youth of China are starting to explore and push more boundaries. Most of the graphic design work that is going on now is done by these fresh, new 20/30-something year olds. In Shanghai or Beijing contemporary art is becoming very popular and these new art scenes are becoming a good environment for graphic design. “In China, there are really interesting statistics about design students since the economic boom – because there are twenty to thirty times more design students and it’s increasing. However, this is not really healthy, because they employ all of them.”

China is booming with creative energy but yet holds a strong sense of nationalism, so it’s no surprise that modern graphic design still employs the same design elements found in traditional Chinese art. Many of the styles of the Chinese graphic designers combine old-styles with simple lines and colors. A lot of the work has been inspired by the West, and especially by Japan. “A huge range of influences, from Japanese Manga and western pop to traditional folk art underline this generation’s struggle to create a fresh sense of Chinese creative identity while also highlighting the dramatic changes that have transformed the practice of design in the country over the past few years.”

An artist named Hei Yiyang founded his own design firm, SenseTeam in 1999 and is still the creative director. SenseTeam has been an emerging design company through the past few years. Hei Yiyang himself has been said to “already be a noted pioneer of cultural exchanges in China.” He has focused his works on branding, exhibition planning, environmental design, and publishing. He has won numerous competitions and gained more than 100 international awards. Hei Yiyang devoted himself to putting different mediums, including graphic design together to make his works interesting, meaningful, and valuable. His book design is absolutely notable but also his works using fluorescent lights are particularly unique. He is a perfect example of this fresh outlook on graphic design. Hei Yiyang has been featured in a book that samples new graphic art in China, from print, packaging and logo design to award-winning graphic design, 3030: New Graphic Design in China, along with 30 of China’s brightest young designers.

Xiaoyong has also been a key figure in Chinese graphic design. He is a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and is well known in the field. Xiaoyong has been awarded more than 40 times and has been chosen as a jury member in many major Chinese national graphic design competitions.  His most notable work has been working for the Beijing Olympics. For the 2008 Olympics, he designed the Olympic Medals. This really allowed his name and work to get out there and be known. He has done a lot of other logo and poster work as well and works with many different companies in China.

It is becoming obvious now that graphic design does not belong to the domain of the propagandists anymore.  China still has a fair way to go before it can claim to be a creative hub, but the work coming from China certainly shows that its emerging generation of young graphic designers is on its way.