Design China

News about design in Greater China


Professor Ma Quan

Professor Ma Quan currently acts as head of the Department of Visual Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing, as well as Director of the Institute of Brand Design Communication. With a background in advertising and packaging design, Professor Ma has been working with his team to improve the visual identities of various cities across China. I visited him in his studio to discuss latest projects, urban identity, and why visual communication matters in China.

Why are you working to re-brand Chinese cities?
Right now, due to high-speed construction and development, the visual order in China is poor. Architects are not able to solve spatial design issues themselves and, in order to keep up with rapid modernisation, I believe an inter-disciplinary approach is required. I am a communication designer, not an urban planner, but I like to combine architecture with urban planning, landscape design and government management. If we combine various disciplines, we can focus on the relationship between the city and design to improve our surroundings.

This is not only an area of interest for me (I have spent several years planning and researching), but attempting to decipher why the visual order of a city is not in balance is a key problem in China right now. I work to improve the city because I want to work for the people. If the urban planning of a city is weak, then this has a negative psychological effect on the people. Designers have to respect people’s visual rights.

Tell us more about your work to date.
I have helped to re-brand 7 cities so far, including Xiamen, Qingdao, Shandong and Jinan. One of my most recent projects entails creating a new visual identity for the city of Chengdu but I also focused on other visual elements such as outdoor advertising and how it is displayed, treating this like an architectural project. I am looking to renovate and re-organise ads on new buildings (we are not touching old buildings) in shopping districts, CBDs and other business areas to improve on imperfect architecture.

Urban planning has existed in China for such a long time. Why is city management so different now?
During the last 30 years, too much attention has been diverted to fast growth and functionality. The aesthetics of new cities were forgotten. The past 3 years have also happened too quickly and the resulting disorder in our new environment means a disruption in our current way of life.

How do you think your process benefits the wider community?
This approach can directly change and improve the environment, but it can also inform. For example, during the Sichuan earthquake, there was no information made available to the local community about where they should go and what they should do during the crisis. By utilising new media, such as touchscreens and projections that have been tested to work through such crises, we can communicate emergency information to the masses. Daily messages can include the weather forecast, community guidelines and public tips. Additionally, we can use solar energy (as I have previously done in Inner Mongolia) or other renewables to power new media technologies so that they are still eco-friendly.

How has the local government responded to your Chengdu proposal?
So far, they have expressed great interest and support. Actually, both the government and the local community initially believed that outdoor advertising ruined city aesthetics. However, the problem is in poor street design rather than advertising itself. Now, I am waiting for the government to make their decision about my proposal. I will be happy if they accept around 60% of my ideas.

Thanks to Wang Yun for co-ordinating and translating.