Jeremiah Wong | issuu.com/jeremiahchih-hweiwongIn an English-saturated landscape, not many would venture into the uncharted territory of Chinese design. Jeremiah Wong is one of the rare few, heading in with only his heart and personal convictions to guide him along.
“ I cannot shake off the nagging feeling that Chinese design is treated like a second-class citizen in Singapore,” he says. While working for a firm, he observed that the Chinese publication was essentially a word-for-word translation of the English one. The injustice of it dawned on him then. It was bad enough that the colours and layout were “all the same” but the worst part was the use of “ supremely bland” fonts. “If they can use Bordini for the header or Helvetica for subtext (in the English publication), surely they can use more than Simhei or Simsun,” he laments.
He attributes it to laziness and a lack of innovation. Or perhaps, plain old discrimination. It is ironic that though the population is 70% Chinese, society still fails to give the language the respect it rightfully deserves. “Surely, it's not outrageous to allocate more than 10% of a project’s time or budget to it,”Jeremiah points out.
Not one remain idle, he took on the daunting task of revamping the Chinese publication. And in the midst of poring over Taiwan and Hong Kong magazines and experimenting, he fell in love. “Maybe it’s the culture, the music, or undertones of the language - I can't pinpoint it down,” he says.
Hearing Jeremiah's take on it is a strangely humbling experience, for even I am guilty of having favoured English over the latter. He describes it as a “wonderfully emotive medium”, with the Chinese characters allowing for beautifully presented designs. Just like English design, it is diverse enough to consist of its own set of genres. His determination to prove that Chinese design is in its own league is admirable. “It is special, and should be treated specially,” he explains. Designers ought to recognize that and use it to their advantage.
But the journey has not exactly been easy. He bemoans the lack of a thriving Chinese design culture, a Chinese design community and good resources.
Being surrounded by mostly English or bad Chinese design does little to help him improve. While english designers can seek feedback easily, he struggles to find people who can comment authoritatively on Chinese design. He likens his predicament to runners versus mountaineers: “If you are a runner, you have plenty of runners to run with. But if you’re a mountaineer, it’s hard to run with someone and say, 'hey, do you think my kerning* is good?”
Without a source of valuable critique, the next best option would be to turn to books. But even libraries are severely lacking. There are books on typography, layout, product design or packaging design-just dedicated to English design alone. All he can find of Chinese design is a “ little tattered book sitting quietly at the side with 4 little squeamish characters, sharing a little shelf space with travel, business, and economics.”
Naturally, with so much time spent laboring over Chinese design, it has taken a toll on his English design. Yet, Jeremiah remains adamant that his forte is not Chinese design. Instead, he is spurred on to improve himself in both areas, and hopes that one day, Chinese can “stand tall and proud” beside English. By integrating both into “a meaningful harmony of design languages,” it can make an impact no monolingual design can.
Perhaps this is why I keep on trying. I keep on wanting to push my own boundaries to create new works. I want to show people that Chinese design can have its own league.
The pride he takes in his work is apparent. In his line, every new issue has its challenges, and no design or layout is ever the same. Hence, every time he designs, he likes to think of it as his best.
However, designers have a tendency to imagine themselves as “elite”, with an elite set of skills. He guards against this with his philosophy: “Learn to feel. Be human.” It's about understanding the human psyche, like knowing what makes people cry or laugh. Design is essentially a form of communication. Designing is one's voice. One's skill then determines how well one can communicate. Quoting the Bible, he summarizes his thoughts in a verse,“For out of the overflow of the heart his mouth speaks.” Again, he stresses on the importance on being able to feel things. “Or else just be a clerk,” he replies candidly.
But don't let the glamour fool you. It's an uphill road ahead, filled with frustration and disappointment. But for all the pain and tears shed, Jeremiah remains undeterred. Because what he gains from it is infinitely gratifying- “The smile of satisfaction when you hold that card, that magazine, that poster in your hand. The inward glee when people talk about your works. The relationships. The opened eyes and ears. It’s worth the price. Sompah.”
Jeremiah blogs at http://jiromaiya.wordpress.com/
*Kerning: the adjustment of space between pairs of letters to make them more visually appealing