China graphics workshop helps break new ground

A report from the SND Infographics Design/Asian Boot Camp that was held last weekend (March 26-28, 2009) in Chongqing, China

They gathered us together inside a bomb shelter at an abandoned warehouse in Chongqing, China. What was once built as a place of refuge during the Cold-War era, now served as part of an art museum and a place of celebration for this one special night.

The certificates of completion had just been handed out to all the participants of the SND Infographics Design/Asian Boot Camp, when Lily Lu, SND’s regional director to
China whispered to the news to me.

The executive director of the sponsoring newspaper, Chongqing Times, had just spoken with China’s government officials to announce that SND had just completed
the first-ever professional training for a group of Chinese graphics artists. A group that she said was now officially known as China’s first-generation graphics journalists.
The fact that this three-day workshop was even accomplished is monumental, considering that it was announced only five weeks out with a mountain of political obstacles to be negotiated by Lily. It was her tenacity and understanding of her country’s culture and government policies that made the workshop such a success.

A little background

Lily, born and raised in China, had been working at New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger as a designer for 16 years. Early this year, she took a buyout to focus her attention on
running SND Chinese. And according to Lily, this workshop was a huge milestone that will give SND the credibility it needs to access Chinese visual journalists and
conduct professional activities in China.

Since last year when Lily and I first discussed organizing this workshop, Lily had been laying the groundwork for it, as well as future SND activities in China. Late
February, she finally secured a legal and financial sponsor for this event with the Chongqing Times. It left her very little time to drum up participants and confirm
speakers. In the end, things fell into place, despite the short notice and a few stressful days. We had about 65 participants in the workshop and two speakers — myself and
Hiroyuki Kimura from Tokyo.

Lily says the Times sponsorship of this workshop really set the tone for making SND awareness effective in China, because without its support, the workshop would never
have been allowed. The Chongqing Times garnered its first-ever SND award in this
year’s competition when it won silver for its coverage of China’s earthquake.

We’re not in Kansas

Lily says that here in China, government officials are very guarded about allowing
organizations from foreign countries to conduct workshops or public functions in its
country. Especially if it’s the press. And SND was no exception to China’s strict
policies. The Chongqing Security Bureau did background researches on SND as well
myself and Hiroyuki. But ultimately, it approved this workshop in Chongqing.
Lily’s mission is to get SND Chinese registered with the government as an official
affiliate of SND in China. But to do so, SND needs to build its credibility. Conducting
several of these workshops is how she plans to do this. Once the government feels
confident with SND’s reputation, Lily’s mission may be realized. But her first attempt to
register SNDC as non-profit professional association was denied by the government.

Back to the workshop

The participants were overwhelmingly receptive to the workshop. At times, Hiroyuki
and I felt like rock stars with all the photos the participants took with us. It was quite an
amazing experience to see these people hang on your every word. They were
extremely attentive during the presentations and at times appeared awe-struck with
our lectures.

Hiroyuki, who was a judge in this year’s SND competition, gave a lecture on how the
competition is judged. He showed several examples of the winning graphics that had
everyone on their feet taking photos of the images on the screen. It looked like a press
conference.

To truly understand what this workshop meant to these participants is to realize that
this was the first workshop experience for nearly all the participants. Lily says that in
China, it’s the bosses that come to workshops, not the practitioners. Participants came
from Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland from 28 newspapers, two Web sites
(Yahoo.com and Sohu.com) and one college.

Lily says the feedback from the participants was extremely positive. The format and
style of the presentations were very effective. And top executives from several
newspapers are already discussing the possibility to co-host more SND workshops in
Asia.

Of the 36 participants who completed the workshop evaluations, 25 indicated their
intention to join SND. The surveys also showed that they would like to have more
workshops in graphics as well as page design, illustration, multimedia, newspaper
redesign and management training for visuals department. All participants indicated
they would like to have professional hands-on training in their respective fields.

The projects

The daily schedule for the workshop was divided into halves. The first half of each day
had lectures that ranged from organization and structure within the graphics
department to researching and designing graphics. Each lecture was designed to
guide the participants through each step of their graphics project.
The afternoons were dedicated to the graphics assignment where participants split
into groups to research and design a graphic. Some stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish
their projects on time, and their efforts paid off. The work was, by far, the best I’ve ever
seen in a graphics workshop. In the end, the participants voted on a first, second and
third places and two honorable mentions.

Chongqing at a glance

Chongqing, China, is noted for it’s mountainous terrain, beautiful women and
extremely spicy foods. In fact, it is said that the people here will not eat food if it isn’t
cooked with spicy peppers. During our visit here, we had the chance to test our
gastronomical tolerance with both the spices and selection of local delicacies, which
included — pig blood, chicken feet, frog, snake, cow intestines, duck neck and tree
fungus. Our intestines will never be the same!

Lessons learned

The people of China are among the most generous and hospitable people I have ever
encountered. But when you come to mainland China, you abide by their laws and
respect their culture. You do things their way. The level of one’s own understanding of
this can make the difference between a good experience and a bad one. For this SND
board member, the experience was incredible.

Welcome to China … SND!

Jeff Goertzen is the Society’s Infographics Quick Course Director and the graphics editors at the Denver Post.