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Designer Jamy Yang about Western and Eastern design traditions

Chinese designer Jamy Yang has made a name for himself as a kind of evangelist for fusion between craftsmanship and innovation, but also a bridge-builder between cultures and societies, particularly the Chinese culture and the Western world. The  industrial designer who studied in Germany has run a business in Shanghai since graduating.

The German Design Council, supporting the economic and cultural exchange and knowledge transfer between East and West, talked to Jamy Yang about differences and similarities in Western and Eastern design traditions.

Why did you decide to go to Germany?

This is an interesting story. When I was a graduate student in industrial design at the China Academy of Art, Professor Dieter Zimmer was a visiting professor. After teaching me for a year, he asked me if I wanted to go and study in Germany. He thought that I was talented in this area and should continue my studies. At that time Germany was a place of pilgrimage for Chinese designers, so I agreed without hesitation and started to learn German.

After studying and working in Germany, why did you choose to come back to China and found an agency?

Professor Dieter Zimmer hoped that I could return to China after my studies and contribute to China’s industrial design. Also, China was experiencing rapid development and there was a need for good design at the turn of the century. So, after returning to China, I founded YANG DESIGN in Shanghai, which has been growing to this day.

The phrase “Einfach ist nicht einfach” stands for a spiritual minimalism.

You like to quote your German design professor Dieter Zimmer with the saying: “Einfach ist nicht einfach” (simple is not simple). What is your personal interpretation of this phrase?

It has been more than ten years since I returned to China from Germany. This one sentence had influenced me deeply. Before I returned to China, my mentor, Professor Dieter Zimmer, said to me: “Einfach ist nicht einfach”. Which means: we need to think as simple as possible in order to eliminate the superfluous. With limited time and energy, you need to focus on the important things, and then develop them to perfection.

“Einfach ist nicht einfach” stands for a spiritual minimalism. It took me a long time to slowly understand this, and I kept on practising it. Especially after returning to China, I recall this phrase from time to time, especially when facing many social superficialities. Only if you constantly remind yourself to subtract the unnecessary, to give up various temptations, can you focus on the design and create something spectacular. Another interpretation of this sentence is “less is more”: no matter if this is referring to the design itself or to you as a designer – this is always true.

You just published a book with the title „Design Fusion – Deconstructing East and West“. What is the core message of this book?

As a designer, I always wonder: why do we design? Is design just a commercial tool? Or is it people-oriented, aimed at creating a perfect user experience? Is it just the designer’s self-delusion? Or is it a reflection of power, will and values? Or is it a way to inherit culture, aesthetics and lifestyle? Regardless of the different possible reasons, the essence of design is always to explore and solve the relationship between people, between people and things, and between people and the environment. These relationships should be friendly rather than hostile!

The book is divided into fifteen chapters. Starting with the first chapter, “Minimalism”, we see the differences and the gap between Chinese culture, aesthetics and design and Western design. The last chapter, “Kindness”, refers to the highest level of design: a good design should follow the principles of sustainability, and should convey a positive social message to the public. Each chapter corresponds to a key word, which describes more than ten years of my practice, discovery and reflection on design coming back to China after studying and working in Germany.

Your book is subtitled “Deconstructing East and West”.  What does this mean? Is design a common language to bridge differences between cultures?

I think there are both gaps and differences between Chinese design and Western design. On the one hand, studying and working in Germany, and then coming back to China, I see clearly the huge gap between Chinese and German design. China was not involved in the first or second industrial revolutions, which resulted in a period of stagnation in the development of industrial design. On the other hand, culture and lifestyle differences between East and West have also resulted in differences in design. For example, techniques we have in Chinese culture, such as ambiguity (Mo hu), vagueness (Ai Mei), impressionism(Xie yi), and leaving blank(Liu bai) are not present in the West. The differences are also reflected in language, art, music, and design.

When we discuss the differences between Eastern and Western design, we are discussing how people identify with their country.

Can design be seen as a common language to bridge differences between cultures, or as a translator between cultures? Or to put it in your words: is design an instrument for deconstructing the concepts of East and West?

Design must carry the local culture and lifestyle. They are embodied in different aspects of the design.

The first aspect is from the viewpoint of an observer, or the visual aspect. A good design should be visually pleasing, innovative, and self-explanatory. The second aspect is from the viewpoint of the user, or the functional aspect. The product needs to be easy to use, safe, and durable. It should have intuitive human-computer interaction and reasonable ergonomics. The third aspect is from the viewpoint of production, in which one must consider how to implement the design within the limits of current technology. In the era of industrial civilization, standardisation and modularisation are important manufacturing standards. But today, changeable, low-volume digital manufacturing is slowly changing these standards.

The fourth aspect is from the viewpoint of the owner, or the brand aspect. There should be a kind of spiritual communication between the product and the product owner. And this corresponds to the brand identity of the product, or the DNA of the brand that reflects the identity of the owner. The fifth aspect is the social aspect, and good design should be sustainable. Good design should convey a positive social message to the public.

So, with regard to the fourth aspect, the owner’s perspective, the owner’s identity corresponds to the cultural and spiritual aspects of the design. On top of functional needs, the owner of the product also seeks a sense of identity at the individual, ethnic, and even national level.

When we discuss the differences between Eastern and Western design, we are discussing how people identify with their country and region. This is the cultural and national attribute in the design. Before the industrial revolution, product design bore obvious national and regional traits. The final product was greatly influenced by the local resources, climate, geography, aesthetics and lifestyles. Design from different countries exemplified different styles, which become the DNA of a national brand, growing even more apparent in the era of globalisation.

What is your vision in establishing your own lifestyle brands? What advice can you give to German and Chinese entrepreneurs seeking to build their brands in the Chinese market?

I think German brands have a very good image in China. This is built on the high regard that people have for German-made products.

In my recent Chinese book I wrote: traits such as the logical thinking and craftsmanship of German designers, or the professionalism of Japanese designers neither belong to individuals, nor will they be found without fail in every single German or Japanese designer. The traits are more like a social value that is recognised by most people. When a trait becomes a universal national value, it has a strong impact.

This is my understanding of German design. The core of the brand should be its spirit.

Regarding the creation of the lifestyle brand “Yang House”, it comes from the gap in Chinese culture and design that I talked about earlier. Because of this gap, compared with Japan and Europe, traditional Chinese crafts have not seen any improvements in materials, crafts, and aesthetics in modern times, in fact they may even have regressed. Although we have a lot of knock-offs, Chinese designers can create beautiful products, but many were criticized for being very Japanese, very Nordic, or “new Chinese”. Can we create new opportunities and possibilities under these circumstances? This is what I hope to achieve through “Yang House”. I hope to abandon excessive desire in materials, as well as the hollow external form. In the end, I will deconstruct the logic behind the appearance and reconstruct a new aesthetic value.

Can you tell us about your personal mission? What role does design and the designer play as moderator in the globalised and digitalised world?

Every year, my team and I make time for charity design projects. I hope to approach the following subject with sincerity: “Can design change society?” It may seem to be a grand and empty topic, but if we see that design can help people to appreciate the joy and beauty of life, guide people to develop reasonable habits, improve relationships between people, and between people and nature … then this topic becomes more concrete and meaningful. This is my personal mission.

A good product should convey a positive social message to the public.

In collaboration with international brands and organisations, such as the “Love Forest” bookshelf with Greenpeace, and the recyclable basket project with KFC, we are working hard to achieve this. The “Y” bracket display system designed by us was also intended to create a display system that can be recycled, so that exhibition materials are not discarded after each exhibition.

A good product should convey a positive social message to the public. From this perspective, I ask myself if globalisation, digitalisation, and technological changes will make the future of mankind better. The answer is uncertain. Designers should be independent thinkers, and should create a more reasonable way of living for human beings.

At the invitation of Japanese designer Mr Kenya Hara, I created my design project “Green House” which discussed the social value of design for the HOUSE VISON exhibition in 2018.

Sustainability is one of the mega-trends worldwide – Greta from Sweden, to name just one phenomenon. It seems to be an important issue for you as well, judging by your projects. What is China’s perspective on sustainability?

Sustainability is something that everyone needs to take part in. For a designer, it means considering design at the highest level of human society in its entirety: a good design should follow principles of sustainable development.

Relatively speaking, Chinese companies and governments have not paid enough attention to sustainability. It takes time and patience. Recently, we designed a classified recycling bin for the Shanghai Municipal Government. Although the policy of sorting and recycling garbage comes somewhat late, it is a good start.

You founded a private museum of international industrial design in 2013. Where does this passion for design education evolve from?

The design museum came from my personal interest in old industrial products, and has developed into a social responsibility over the years. While I was in Germany, I liked to go to flea markets and antique shops all over Europe to find old goods that came after the industrial revolution. It’s hard to explain my attraction to these old objects, but the traces of time visible on the oxidised surfaces are so beautiful to me. I discover the lifestyle, humanity, and aesthetics of a certain period, country, and ethnic group in these old industrial products.

Gradually over the course of ten years, I have collected more than 1,000 old objects. In 2013, I transformed a century-old power station into a private industrial design museum. Today, many people come to visit every year, especially the teachers and students of the design institute. For me, the museum, which started out as a personal interest has also gradually transformed into a social responsibility. I hope more people will understand the development process of industrial civilization and the gap in Chinese industrial design history.

I try to disseminate Western culture in China, little by little.

There are numerous small private museums in Germany, but few in China. In fact, most of the collections displayed in my museum come from the West. I try to disseminate Western culture in China, little by little. Out of curiosity, I researched development of modern Western design, the stagnation of Chinese modern culture and design development, and the beauty in traditional Chinese culture, all of which are crucial for design and innovation.

I hope that the museum will raise awareness and help the public understand design. This is also what the German Design Council is committed to doing – our mission is to promote the economic, cultural and design exchange between the East and the West!

About Jamy Yang

Founder and design director of YANG DESIGN and YANG HOUSE, Forbes Top Influential Chinese Designer, guest professor at Tongji University.

A former employee at the Siemens’ design headquarters in Munich (Germany), Jamy Yang obtained his Master’s degree in industrial design in Germany, with a full scholarship from the WK Foundation, after 7 years of study at the Zhejiang University and China Academy of Art. Jamy’s dedication to design has brought him international recognition, with hundreds of design awards including Red Dot, iF, G-Mark, IDEA, Pentawards and DFA Silver, and many more. He has been listed as “Top Influential Chinese Designer” on Forbes. 

He founded YANG DESIGN in 2005, which is now the most forward-thinking design consultancy in China. In 2013 he established China’s first private industrial design museum, YANG DESIGN MUSEUM. In 2015 he started to create the lifestyle brand “YANG HOUSE”, and contributed to the redesign and revival of Chinese traditional craftsmanship.

With a combination of German logical thinking and the Chinese humanistic spirit, Jamy has formed his own design philosophy, and has partnered with renowned global brands including Boeing, Audi, Bosch, Schneider, Hermes, iNATUZZI, Coke Cola, Steelcase, Issey Miyake, Swatch, etc. in projects spanning many different categories, from glasses and suitcases, consumer electronics and home products, through to airplane cabins. A series of CSR projects working with NGOs such as Green Peace, One Foundation and Animals Asia Foundation are testament to his belief that it is the role of the designer to take social responsibility. Can design change the society? This is an issue he has grappled with, and put his commitment into action!

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