On the lineup in Dubai: China Daily’s Bill Gaspard

SND Region 20, Middle East and Africa, will be playing host to the Creative Design Conference and Workshop Oct. 23 and 24, 2015. The program lineup includes two-day workshops with Fernando Baptista of National Geographic, Osama Aljawish of the Times of Oman, as well as an international cohort from countries including the UAE, Oman, India, Qatar, and, from China, design director Bill Gaspard of China Daily in Beijing. Click here to register today!

We caught up with Bill recently about his experience living and working in the Middle Kingdom.

How has China changed you?

The difference for me professionally is that I understand better how connected the design world is and how different influences can enhance design in any region. I can also say that my worldview of design was relatively narrow and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to see and better understand other traditions. Personally, the experience has taken me in unexpected directions, to say the least. I was one of the lucky few invited to the big military parade last month and the next night I was DJ’ing at a popular Sanlitun bar.

China Daily is published by satellite offices in the Unites States, Hong Kong and Europe. Even in Dubai we can find it, is there a pressure to have China Daily everywhere?

China’s work culture has been and still is a bit of a shock to me. People work hard and often work long hours, but that’s common at papers around the world. But being in an environment where you are publishing across 15 time zones creates certain challenges that require constant attention. The other thing that I see in China as a whole and China Daily as well is that when a decision is made to do something, vast people resources are produced to make it happen fairly quickly. For instance, when the Chinese president or premier travel abroad, we often publish in those cities they are visiting. We did that with special pages inserted into several papers when Xi Jinping traveled to the U.S. And we will do that in his upcoming visit to the U.K. with stand-alone special editions. Besides dealing with the complications in our office, we are dealing with different contract printers around the world. That always means different sizes, etc. In the U.S. we’d be tearing out our toufa. In China, the attitude is mei shi.

How is the design department workflow managed?

Our mission is not just to publish English-language news for Chinese and ex-pat readers at home, but to share China’s story with the rest of the world. We are constantly expanding and now we are looking at expanding in different languages — French, German, Italian. But most of the design is still handled out of Beijing. There is some customization with small design staffs in New York and Hong Kong (for Southeast Asia), but they mainly pick up/update the pages produced in Beijing and do a few original local pages to add to the mix.

How do you adapt the Chinese artistic sensibility to news design through page layout and informational graphics?

I have been amazed by much of the art and illustration I have seen in Chinese papers — almost all of it produced by staff. There is very little freelance done because freelance budgets for illustration/design aren’t common. In universities there aren’t really design courses associated with journalism schools, so a lot of staff come from art schools and have to learn the journalistic part. This means a lot of hires come to the job with good illustration skills.

In addition, some papers, including China Daily, have an illustration department — something I haven’t seen in American newspapers since shortly after I got into the business. In our case, we have eight full-time illustrators working for the paper (including producing editorial cartoons). That staff is totally separate from the design staff, which also has a couple of skilled illustrators on board. Too many newspapers and magazines here tend to cartoonish illustration, even for serious subjects. But a number of papers have developed sophisticated styles and produce some incredible visuals and produce exceptionally ambitious projects around illustration.

Information graphics have yet to mature here. A few Chinese language papers along with China Daily and, especially, the South China Morning Post do graphics better than most. Our main information graphics editor tends to be an ex-pat who does the lion’s share of major graphics and coaches the Chinese staff on better graphics. We also have a couple of Chinese staff who “get” what we are trying to do. But many graphics around China are speculative, decorative pieces. Some aren’t even close to accurate. This is where the design school training becomes an issue. There is a strong push from editors for graphics and pressure to produce graphics in the absence of good information creates a lot of bad graphics. The recent tradition in the Middle East is a trend I would like to see come to Asia.

After all these experiences do you think one day you will return to America, what is your long term plans?

I make a few plans but as I look back at the arc of my life and career I see that I’ve often gone for the unexpected and that has led me on an interesting path most of the time. While I don’t think of myself as all that adventurous in the traditional sense, I’ve ended up having great adventures nonetheless. Right now, I am very happy where I am and actually want to explore more of this side of the world. But eventually, of course, I think one day I will go back to the U.S. I still have a great deal of family and friends there. We all miss home from time to time.

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