Currently based in Beijing, Professor Yu Bingnan has enjoyed a prolific 50-year design career. Originally from Shanghai, he moved to Wuxi at a very young age to escape political turbulence. After working in a uniform environment for 4 years, Professor Yu Bingnan attended Lu Xun Art Academy in Yan’an before continuing his studies at Leipzig College of Graphic Design and Book Art in, what was then, East Germany. His 6-year stint in Europe saw the completion of minors in typography and layout, and art history, whilst specialising in book design. Design China sat down with Professor Yu Bingnan to discuss designing in China during a time when design was not so widely recognised.
What instigated your interest in design?
When I was young, I was incredibly passionate about fine art. This is where it started. I grew up in south China, surrounded by beautiful scenery, such as mountains and lakes, which was incredibly inspiring. There was also a vibrant crafts scene entailing hand-made pottery and paper cutting, which I was impressed by. I was always looking for an opportunity to be formally educated in a creative discipline, and eventually found the means to attend Lu Xun Art Academy in Yan’an. I opted to study design because I recognised that this was where the needs of the country lay: even though there was no design industry per se back then, we still had commercial needs e.g. poster and book design. I sought to fulfill those needs.
Why did you decide to further your studies in East Germany?
This was a government decision, not mine. I was just following orders. I didn’t even know German when I moved! At that time, China was a closed country. I remember how fresh it felt to move abroad. Everything was so interesting and all I wanted to do was learn.
You have enjoyed a remarkable design career, spanning nearly 5 decades now. What do you consider to be your most notable achievements?
The first, in my opinion, is becoming the first Chinese national to design and create a Latin typeface. Secondly, is the promotion of the book design industry here in China: whereas before book design was understood exclusively as decorating and illustrating covers, now people are starting to appreciate and understand that book design entails so much more. Lastly, I am proud of our achievements in international communication, facilitated through bodies such as Icograda and AGI. I was the very first Chinese member of AGI, and I found this to be an incredible opportunity for China to learn more about the West, as well as for international organisations and educational institutions to learn more about a closed China. We established a friendship under incredibly difficult times.
You have become widely known as the godfather of Chinese type and a pioneer of visual communication in China. How do you feel about such titles?
Visual communication in China has existed for a long time; for example, schools and universities had their own printing departments. It is only very recently, in the face of international recognition, that these departments have become formally recognised as part of the design world. The only thing that has really happened is a name change.
What has been the biggest obstacle of your career?
I spent my primary school years during the Anti-Japanese War (World War II) and in middle school, we saw the Liberation of China. The political context during my university years was the Korean War. Eventually, when I returned to China from Germany in 1962, I started working in an environment that saw the initiation of the Cultural Revolution (which was most horrific in 1963). Students at this time lusted to contribute to their country; the more obstacles encountered, the more we wanted to work hard to overcome them. This became a chance to practice ‘personality’. Ultimately, I experienced a conflict with what I had learnt abroad under Soviet influence and what was being taught in China. Only when China started to open up was I able to overcome this conflict.
How do you feel about China’s visual communication industry today?
I am fairly satisfied with the current development of the visual communication industry in China. It’s taken us nearly 20 years to get to where we are now, not to mention generations of hard work.
The development of the local design industry, much like the rest of China, was a very fast process. Design education, however, needs time to grow. Every year across China there are between 10,000-20,000 visual communication graduates, but the quality of education has been compromised; there are not enough well qualified and respectable faculty members teaching, leading to a lower average in terms of the quality of graduates. This is a problem we need to fix.
On the other hand, 5-6 years ago our country did not pay much attention to design. Design was created by the people, for the people. More recently, however, the government has been concentrating efforts on promoting the local creative industry, so the situation has actually greatly improved.
Many thanks to Wang Yun for organisation, co-ordination and assistance.