Beijing meetup delivers six strong presentations

On September 15, SND held a free meetup in Beijing. About 90 people showed up to the event, held at the Press Center Hall at Peking University. The goal was to inform attendees about SND (in Chinese: Xinwen Shejishi Shalong), and to get them thinking about various aspects of news design.

Six speakers gave presentations at the event, headed by SNDChinese coordinator Lily Lu. Here’s what those six speakers had to say about the state of news design in China.

“Not a tourist anymore”
The first speaker of the day was Bill Gaspard, Design Director at the China Daily. Gaspard, the only English-speaking presenter, first talked about his difficulties adjusting to life in a new country before leading into a general discussion about news design.

“The problems at newspapers are universal,” said Gaspard, setting a general theme for the day. Following that, Gaspard gave attendees five pieces of advice to be more successful news designers:

1. Edit Ruthlessly: “Cut and cut and cut until it hurts,” said Gaspard. “The power that comes with scarcity is more important than volume.” He gave an example of a photo spread that ran in the LA Times. Out of the 6,000-plus photos taken for the spread, only 9 ended up being published.

2. Be a Journalist First: Quoting Javier Errea, Gaspard said “Newspapers don’t need designers, what they need are visual journalists.” He explained that you need to have a journalist and artist mindset to be successful in this industry.

3. Intelligent Disobedience: “Do as I say until you have a better idea. And I expect you to have a better idea,” he said. Gaspard said that the visual level of the paper will not be elevated if designers default to putting their heads down. Respectful dissent can open avenues to creativity, and the stylebook shouldn’t kill vision. Rather, there should still be room to dance.

4. Design is Content: Gaspard noted that every design decision is an editing decision and told attendees, “You are a creator and you are an editor—treat yourself like one.”

5. Expat =/ Expert: Gaspard said that foreigners in Chinese newsrooms say things that tend to carry more weight, even if the Chinese staffers have been saying the same thing for years. He encouraged Chinese journalists to break from the groupthink mentality.

History of News Design
The next speaker was Longsheng He, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at The Beijing News. He showed a few of the winners from recent SND Best of Newspaper Design Competitions. There were a few from SND29, the first year a Chinese-language newspaper won an award. For SND30, there were even more winners, most of them coming from Olympics and Sichuan Earthquakes coverage. And as a sign of progress in Chinese news design, there were even more winners from the most recent SND 31 competition.

Researching Visual Communication
After the lunch break, Lu Yi, dean of the Journalism Department at Peking University and PhD candidate, spoke about the research he’s been conducting on visual communication, which he says must be put in the aspect of Chinese readers and culture. According to Lu, the visual aspect of newspapers has only recently become more emphasized here. But, he noted that 70% of newspapers are still not focusing on it, and that the recent SND annual competition winners were in a minority.

Lu then examined the main reasons why he began this research. He noted that 2008 was a cornerstone year for development not just for visuals, but also for journalism in general. The earthquakes in Sichuan that year changed rules for media access and also marked a turning point for visual editing. Lu had, of course, been observing visual communication for years before the quakes, but after they happened, he began to receive more support for his research. Since the quakes, he has received funding from China’s Zhejiang province, as well as various newspapers throughout the country.

Lu’s number one research priority is to figure out problems with Chinese design before applying international standards. He hopes his research provides academic insights to newspapers here for their future development. He also wants to wake up those other 70% and move them to a more mainstream school of thought for design.

Applying standards
Wang Shuhuai spoke about deciding which standards to apply when evaluating news design in China. His three main questions for participants were: 1) Is there one standard, 2) What is the standard? and 3) Should Chinese papers use Western standards as a yardstick? Wang’s conclusions seemed to agree with what many of us in the Western world have already come to learn.

To answer the first question (“What is the standard?”), Wang noted that there seemed to be common elements from papers around the world. He said that function decides design, and that communicating information is the core element.

As for the second and third questions (“What is the standard?” and “Should Chinese papers uses Western standards as a yardstick?”) Wang said that it was important to determine which standards were more important. In other words, should newsrooms focus on traditional or modern standards, and should Chinese papers use Eastern or Western principles? Wang came to the conclusion that Chinese papers should adopt Western principles but apply Chinese style to that.

A history of Chinese fonts
Next up was Huang Xuejun from Founder Group, with a fascinating discussion on the history of typeface design in China. He said that, when creating a font, you must have a minimum of 6,734 characters. This is because the Chinese language uses different characters to convey different words.

Huang also noted that Chinese font creators must create English letter typefaces in addition to these characters when creating a font, because you will often find both languages on packaged products here.

Huang then provided examples of fonts throughout China’s modern history, adding that the style of the font often went along with the culture of the time.

Huang then critiqued the fonts Chinese newspapers use in their flags, headlines and body copy. As a sidenote, he added that every time a newspaper wanted to change a font, Hu Jintao himself has to sign off on it first, which caused some of the attendees to laugh. When I asked Lily Lu if that was really true, she said yes.

Finally, Huang compared Japanese and Chinese fonts, noting that both share similar characters.

System
The last speaker of the day was Yang Leiming, also representing Founder Group. He gave demonstrations of Founder’s editing system software, which is used by 99% of newsrooms in China.

Bridget O’Donnell is a U-M graduate who taught english in Shenzen, China for almost a year before taking a job as a designer at The China Daily in Beijing. Follow her adventures in China and “Chinglish” sightings on her blog. Follow her on Twitters @bridgers.