Michael Zibin Yuan thinks design is more than just art.
"It's a political activity," he says.
So why is the art of creating so news-worthy? Yuan sat down with us to share why design is so impactful in our society and how we can channel our powers to enact change, too.
"You are either born with wings or not."
DR: What inspired you to become a designer?
MY: Learning the historical impacts of creative works, and experiencing great social transformation caused by innovation and creativity inspired me to become a designer. The desire of presenting my concept and opinion to people, creating impact and causing discussion encouraged me to learn design and use language to voice my thought and ideas. I love reading the history of how designers and visual artist were involved in the great historical movements: Impressionism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Dadaism, etc. I wish I can use my works to create a positive impact on people and benefit society.
DR: How would you describe your approach to design?
MY: My approach to design is a bit different. I think design is not a set of skills or techniques, but political activity. The value of design is not giving the definition of concepts, but causing discussion, raising questions and proposing ideas by presenting the relationship between form, function, and contents of design works. I see my design works as not purposelessly following client’s request. Instead, the I am managing the complex relations between client’s ask, audience’s expectation, and most importantly, my interpretation and opinion as an author and designer who is responsible for creating the form and contents of the work; and ultimately, create and manage the interaction between audience and client. The process of design is art or the science of managing the total complex of relations and communication between people living in society through creating a visual or interactive form of information. Like what Water Benjamin wrote about “production of art would be inherently base upon the praxis of politics” in an age of mechanical reproduction, I believe design is the “political art” in this age. I always joke to call myself a “Visual Politician.”
DR: What are projects of your own that you are particularly proud of?
MY: The first project I am proud of is the book Cyber-Governance: Communication Design and Authoritarian Power in Cyberspace. This book is the initial summary of my thoughts on design after the first five years experience working in this industry. I wrote all the text in the book, and also responsible for designing, illustrating, content curating and producing the physical book form. The visual and written language of this book interact with each other, and present to an audience a complete and unique voice about my opinion on the concept “Interface.” The book is a discussion about design’s influence on digital culture and politics. And I am proud that I use a traditional print format to communicate and discuss this topic.
The second project I am proud of this one of the earliest project in my career, “Zizhu,” which is an iPhone app I designed for a Tibetan Buddha temple, completed in 2012. In 2012, interactive design and “app” was a new form of design, and developments and designers were obsessed with creating utility products and games on this new platform. However, the way I approach the technology of iOS and the concept “app” is not just creating practical products, but creating a new format and medium to communicate cultural ideas, and even has the potential to become a new art medium. In people’s perception, a Tibetan Buddha temple has nothing to deal with technology and interactive design. But through research and innovation, we transformed traditional Tibetan culture and ritual into this new medium by integrating the technology and feature of mobile devices. The experience of this project was fantastic. I was glad that I am able to meet with Buddha masters of Zizhu temple and present to them my works. I was impressed by their wisdom and vision about how Buddhism embrace contemporary technology. I am proud that I used my design skills to make it happened.
The third project I am proud of is the “Doritos + Amazon Echo Super bowl spot Amazon integration campaign” I worked in Amazon advertising team, completed in February 2017. In the advertising industry, Super Bowl ads for the highest quality and greatest impact because of it’s high visibility. But integrating this traditional ad format into new advertising format such as Amazon e-commerce advertising platform is a real challenge. Traditional advertising such as Doritos TV spot follows a traditional broadcast advertising model. But when we incorporate Super bowl ad into digital advertising, we are facing the fact that how we translate the “broadcast” model into an interactive experience. We created a billboard experience on Amazon gateway, and a custom campaign landing page on Amazon to let customers play the TV spot, and provided the buying options of the products featured in the ad. I am glad that we created a model to integrate the traditional but powerful impact of Superbowl ad into Amazon specific advertising platform, and provided a completed advertising experience to our client and customer.
DR: What are a few of your favorite design tools?
MY: My favorite design “tool” is writing. Although designers are often viewed as a visual person working on visual language, I think writing is a significant part of the design process, especially in ideation stage because it helps designer settle down concepts and ideas, and predicting audience’s expectation and experience. In conceptual stage, I usually have many intangible ideas and inspiration, especially when I start sketching on paper. And putting the concept and idea in the format of clear written language helps me be honest to myself, and formed a structured narrative that can be present to client and audience, and gives me a conceptual foundation that I can build visual language upon its shape.
DR: What designers, brands, or other campaigns speak to you?
MY: One of my favorite design groups is the Dutch design group Experimental Jetset. I love their approach to typography and graphic design. In their works, “Type” itself as a form of visual language is communicating a message, as well as the meaning of the language. I like their interview about the concept of “Helveticaism,” and I think they are a perfect example of “Contemporary design.”
I always proud to say I am an Apple fan. I chose to be an interactive designer because I was always impressed by the platform of IOS, and the cross-platform concept behind it. I like the way Apple approaches design. They are creating a whole and unique experience of all Apple products, instead of developing each individual product. All categories of design in Apple are integrated as one unique voice. For example, they used a rounded rectangle to design iOS icons and iPhone, created standard guideline of the angles; it created visual consistency, both virtually and physically. I think through the integration of augmented reality and the evolution of the concept of “Interface.” The gap between terminal devices and boundaries between different design types will be vague. Apple is one of the brands that leading this trend.
DR: You have the day off. What can we find you doing?
MY: I like traveling, especially having solo trips. When I have the day off I always having or planning a trip.
I LOVE watching movies, and I go to the theater every week. Believe it or not, I used to study film language. I like watching independent movies and “deep” thinking films. My favorite movie is The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan.
Other than travel and movies, I like reading. I usually spend an entire Sunday afternoon reading books and articles.
DR: Is there anything that helps you beat “designer’s block”?
MY: Yes, I use writing. When I feel like I am stuck on something, I always pull my notebook out of my drawer and start writing my thoughts in it. It helps me be honest with myself, and identify the valuable thoughts and ideas. Writing helps me organize ideas and concepts into a written form, which I can present to client and partners, and get solid feedback from it. When I write the design proposal, it also helps me work backward from an audience standpoint when I read my own writing and start identifying problems.
DR: What quote motivates you in your work?
MY: "You are either born with wings or not."
I forgot where and when I heard this motto. I believe the “wings” in this motto is “courage.”
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
MY: As a designer, I think we should always realize the social responsibility of designers. We, as creators of forms, are responsible for people’s everyday visual experience. No matter if we are doing commercial works or self-initiated art projects; we are using visual language to voice our opinions, and these opinions matter. Don’t ignore the impact and discussion we can create, and don’t be afraid to create controversy. Don’t just answer questions and solving problems, that’s a scientist’s job. We should identify and raise questions.
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