Thursday, March 26, 2009
Chinese Calligraphy and Modern Typography
Typography - the study of typefaces (or fonts, if you want to be a rube about it) seems to be a somewhat under appreciated discipline in the world of art. Most people don't think twice about the way a letter looks while they're typing in MS Word and probably don't know what sans-serif even is. However within graphic design having an eye for typography is not only helpful, but almost a necessity. Typography has even been around longer than modern graphic design, from the old hand drawn cursive of the 19th and 20th century to contemporary typefaces created almost completely digitally. Like an old shoemaker or watch maker, typography is all about the craft and precision, as well as an overall balance between design aesthetic and pragmatic use.
This brings me to the topic of Sunday's lecture on Graphic Design and Typography in China at the Literary Festival. On the panel was graphic designer Ou Ning, best known for his book, New Sound of Beijing, which brought and defined modern Chinese youth culture and style to the masses, his experimental magazine, Bie Ce and his numerous curatorial endeavors. While the other panelists, Lynn Pan and Pan Jian Feng, who discussed Futurism's influence on Chinese design and commercial typography in China, respectively, Ou Ning recounted his life growing up and being classically trained as a Chinese calligraphy, his life now as a contemporary designer, and how China as a whole could somehow transition from its centuries old tradition of calligraphy and marry it with modern typography. Since Chinese calligraphy is already a discipline based on practice and precision, as well as a limited yet endless level of micro-innovation, it seems like amalgamating the two would be simple and wildly successful. However despite this, the panelists seemed to be in agreement that a product of this perfect union has yet to be created. With its roots in the Futurist movement of the early 20th century, modern Chinese typography has manifested itself in a number of places including advertisements, books, and even street signs seen on storefronts along the street. And while a slew of different methods and ideas have been employed, Chinese typography still lags behind that of the West.
It is this emulation of the West's typographical tradition that is, in my opinion, stunting the growth of Chinese typography. Like painting and other art disciplines, China is still struggling to come into its own in terms of style and it seems like typography is yet another facet of this untapped potential within China. The panel explored a variety of first and second-hand perspectives and raised some interesting questions concerning whether or not Chinese typography and graphic design will ever come into its own. Perhaps it won't?