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Fang Xiaofeng

Born in Shanghai, Fang Xiaofeng graduated in architecture from Tsinghua University, Beijing. A curator for Beijing International Design Triennial (BIDT) 2011, he now teaches at Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University and, since 2007, has been acting as editor for Zhuangshi magazine – “the only art and design core journal in Mainland China”. Fang Xiaofeng possesses a strong interest in ethics and responsible design, and has been changing the direction of Zhuangshi magazine to promote these concepts in China as a result. I caught up with him to find out more.

When were you first exposed to responsible design?
My interest in “good design” stems from my architecture background - I was really influenced and inspired by Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto. I have been promoting the idea of responsible design ever since; since 2007, I have been working at Zhuangshi magazine and really try to infuse design ethics into the publication in an attempt to explore what we mean by design ethics and what is being practiced in reality.

In China, this topic is especially interesting because the whole social design field is ignored. Internationally, there are many organisations that focus on the code of ethics, but there is nothing like that here.

Why is “good design” not so widespread in China yet?
I think we need more feedback from the local community, as well as government support. The strongest voice for responsible design currently only exists in academic circles; back in 2007, for example, I organised a design ethics conference in Hangzhou where we signed our own design declaration. It was mostly academics that attended, so the agreement was only decided between educators. The dynamics are slowly changing now though. I have just returned from south China where it is evident that the local government have started to appreciate design. Designers now have more practice freedom as a result.

How do you feel about Western influence on the Chinese design industry?
China is a big country, so I guess this is a process we have to experience. We are starting to see disadvantages, but there are also benefits. This process is not sustainable though as foreign architects that come here design according to their idea of China. There is a huge cultural gap: good design needs to consider local environment, the people and culture, which can only be fully comprehended by local creatives. I don’t agree with importing culture, but we have to learn from this process and educate the masses about design. The promotion of design is kind of like a soft cultural revolution.

Why did you choose to be an educator and creative journalist over an architect?
Magazines can be a form of architecture too, and I regard my editorial work as a design project. When I first started to work for Zhuangshi, I changed the frame and structure of the magazine. Every year, I am hoping to make small changes to make the publication more stimulating and to create more cross-disciplinary dialogue around design ethics.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to your students?
Simply to try to understand their own life. Designers currently pay too much attention to form and also to catching up with the West. Design is infused everywhere and we just need to understand our own lives - to look at our own habits and relationships - in order to design for others.

What are your plans for the future?
I am a teacher first, so my main responsibilities lie with my students. I also want to undertake more projects that explore public space. Right now in China, public spaces are not visually open; for example, one cannot often tell that a park is a park. I want to analyse these issues in more detail and to, subsequently, show that the city can benefit from being more open. I also want to start interviewing local designers to reveal how they live and survive commercially. I think this will be an interesting spin.

Thanks to Wang Yun for co-ordinating.