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Bridging Cultures Through Design: An Interview with Yang Liu

A Conversation with the Mind that Creates a Unique Blend and Balance of Art and Design.

Yang Liu is a multi-award winning designer based in Berlin. She started to work in the design fields in Singapore, London, Berlin, and New York after graduating from the University of Arts Berlin. She established her own design studio in 2004, which she still runs today. She works in creating concepts and development of Logo systems, Corporate Identities, Information Design, Exhibition Design, Wayfinding System Design, Cross Cultural Design, Content Visualization, Printed Media, and Book Design for institutions and companies around the world are among the work fields. She has taught at numerous universities in Germany and abroad, in addition to holding workshops and lectures at international conferences. She was appointed professor at Berlin’s BTK University of Applied Sciences in 2010. Her works have won numerous awards in international competitions and can be found in museums and collections worldwide. Many intercultural trainers and language programs have included her design artwork in their lessons or company training because it helps people get closer to each other’s cultures, laugh about themselves, and understand and be more tolerant of others. Yang Liu draws inspiration from her own experiences and observations to create images that operate at the intersection of art, design, and always communicate hard-hitting and humorous messages.

This interview first appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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©YangLiuDesign-GDI-SocialDivision(1)
©YangLiuDesign GDI-SocialDivision

Why did you choose graphic design as a professional career? What do you like more than this profession? What does it mean for you to be a graphic designer?

Maybe my choice of communication design is rather due to the fact that I wanted to go to the university as early as possible. I started to apply for a university spot when I was 14 years, and I was accepted at the age of 16. The subject communication design was one, which mostly had no application age limits. And for me it was very important to have a profession, I can have the maximum freedom on place and time of working. This choice surely was also influenced by my family. My mother was one of the first fashion designers in China in the 80’s, she had her own fashion show, maybe one of the first at that time. My father is a scientist and has registered many patents in his life and his ideas and skills of very unique problem solving has also fascinated me. All those circumstances together made me choose communication design, where I can combine my visual and problem solving interests plus the flexibility in this profession to work globally.

Who has influenced you both personally and professionally? Who are your sources of inspiration?

As mentioned before, my upbringing was one of the influences, also my later mentor Holger Matthies, who is a poster artist, both his view on design and him as a person also did influence me. Of course also my later work mentors Tom Geismer and Ivan Chermayeff, with whom I worked in New York did have influenced me in many ways. And most important influence were all my experiences in living in different countries made me into the person I am today. Later I extended my travels more intensively. The ability to appreciate different customs and cultures is a very important part of my creations and also of my life. My other sources of inspiration are different genres of art, such as fine art, music, theatre, performing arts, ect.

Yang Liu‘s pictogram book series Meet is a personal project about differences in life in various aspects and contexts. In all of her books, she reports from her fresh perspective genuinely and humorously various small and large variances in life. Her pictogram book series began with the internationally popular title “East meets West’’, differences between Chinese and Western cultures, which went viral. The series was followed by “Man meets Woman”, “Today meets yesterday”, “Big meets Little” and “Europe meets USA”. They are a visual exploration of the ever-changing interplay discrepancies between how people see themselves, are perceived by others, communicate, and work. The books have a simple, approachable graphic design and are a thought-provoking tool for sparking conversations.

How have the design fields changed from the time of your beginnings? What were the challenges of that time, and what are those of now? What does it mean to be a graphic designer in Germany?

The profession has changed very much over the decades. When I started to study graphic design it just changed to be communication design. Today the profession has changed due to the multiple communication channels to be a much more complex one in terms of understanding of form, frequency and channels of communication. There is also a big difference on the location in Germany, it is very different to be in Berlin or in other cities. I can only report from the perspective of working in Berlin. I experienced a very diverse design landscape here and there is less commercial pressure on designers, therefore more freedom and time in creativity and also on design research, which I personally benefit a lot from. In cities like New York and London, where I worked and lived before, I can experience a more active creative network. Of course in Berlin there are many design related events and gatherings, maybe just slightly less intensive. Therefore the freedom in Berlin gives you the possibility to do projects that are less possible elsewhere.

How can you balance your perceptiveness and ideas with customer requests while keeping your personality?

Customers actually only request with very percist ideas, if they do not feel themselves to be understood or lack of trust is usually the background of conflicts between designers and clients. I rarely have these problems, as I take a lot of time in talking to clients at the beginning before I even start to work. I always want to carefully listen to their concerns and make sure I did understand everything and worked towards resolving their problems. If the communication worked well at the beginning, clients usually rarely give further requests on the later design. In the design itself I have usually my full freedom to create under the frame of finding visual solutions towards the clients requirement. Once the clients have the feeling that you do work towards the same goal, you are working under fully different conditions. I do see trust as a very important foundation between clients and designers in every project. So far I have very good experience with clients in this aspect.

©YangLiuDesign-FranfurtBookFairChina
©YangLiuDesign Franfurt Book Fair China

Beyond what can be the needs and requests of a customer, what is the creative process that leads you to the choice of a specific colour palette?

When talking to clients, I never think solely about form or colours as a separate subject, rather which form and colour might support the best problem solving result. In that context, a colour choice is never made due to any one’s desire or personal like or dislikes, all the choices were made due to support the problem solving process. Sometimes, as the clients’ working fields are diverse, we need to do a long research to understand his subject and problems. The question is always, why do I choose this or that colour, it needs to have a reason, that is supporting the content. So far clients always could follow the colour choices which have been made under this background.

Which of your works do you feel closest to your graphic design conception?

Actually most may be even all of my works do fully follow my graphic concept. I do take each project very seriously, no matter in its form or size, for me it is very important to give 200% in each project, I do not want to leave any work behind, before starting others. Of course there may be one or two projects in my life that I’m not 100% happy with, but these are rather the exceptions. I still remember the first time I saw your project’s “East meets West” series. How do you condense the message while maintaining nuance? The east meets west project is based on personal experiences, after I moved from China to Germany, the book itself was created in New York as a kind of a summary. I do see pictograms as my language of communication, they are vocabularies for me to communicate my experiences or point of view. As someone who moves around often, you do often meet the situation of miscommunication. I hope that pictograms can overcome this problem and support my communications or will help others through my books. After “East meets West’’, there are four other follow up books published in this series.

Graphics nowadays play a very important role in communication. How has the approach to design during the Social Media era changed? Do you think the cultural differences between East and West are still the same or have they changed since you made this project?

Communication design has changed very much by social media. A very important change is the participation of audiences to interact within an idea or a campaign. One point that hasn’t changed is that unusual ideas are still needed also in the social media era. Of course many things that are related to daily habits or related towards media do have changed. But the deep cultural rooted values and understandings haven’t changed even after so many years. That actually fascinated me also, how deep those cultural values are in everyone of us.

One for All © Yang Liu
One for All © Yang Liu

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is „DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” How do you see the role of Artificial Intelligence in graphic design?

In my book “Man meets Woman”, which was the follow up of “East meets West” many daily details of the topic gender equality were presented with many pages. Innovation and technology as a support of gender equality is a great perspective. AI is a very interesting area and it can be a great support to creating more equality in many fields. I did 3 workshops with my students towards this topic. Towards the profession of graphic design, many technical parts of our profession will surely be replaced by AI in the future. I see that actually as a big benefit. As designers in the future, would have more time for collecting important experiences for ideation and sharing their unique experiences, imaginations and outlooks through their visual languages, which can then, with support of AI, be completed and communicated to a wider audience.

Photos and Graphic Design courtesy of Yang Liu

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