Who made the objects in your house? Ivy Li explores the vernacular visual language of Chinese migrant workers

Toeing the lines between graphic design and fine art, Ivy Li explores the disparity between migrant workers and its end-users in her thought-provoking practice.

28 August 2020

In her recent work, Ivy Li captures the unconsciously anti-designed visual outputs of migrant workers in China, taking inspiration from the vernacular visual language around Chinese factories. She admits that graphic design education is not easily accessible to the public and in the past, “design principles might just be elite conventions constructed by history.” But in spite of this, migrant workers are surrounded by printed matter all day every day; their lives have become entangled with design whether they know it or not. And as a result, their experiences speak a unique visual language.

Having grown up in Chengdu, an inland city in China known for its pandas, Ivy developed a love for the arts with the influence of her mother (a kindergarten teacher) who made all the decorations, wall paintings and performance costumes for her class. She went on to study at the University of Southern California where she pursued physics and computer science, but by the end of her junior year, her head had turned towards fine art and graphic design. Following this, she studied for an MFA in graphic design from Virginia Commonwealth where she finally found her “artistic freedom.” And it was there that she explored the fine line between graphic design and art, an area where her interests would continue to flourish.

“My fascination with colours, shapes and typography is why I see myself more as a designer than an artist,” she tells us. Currently based in New York, where she works and teaches at her alma mater, Ivy is pursuing a number of ongoing projects including her work with Chinese migrants. “I am fascinated by how the visual culture truthfully depicts the living needs, desire and daily activities of migrant workers and how they couldn’t care less about design trends, and how stretching and squashing fonts is not a type crime but a reasonable choice to use space economically,” says Ivy.

In turn, her work aims to “justify misused type” and design created by the underprivileged community. Her research for this began back with a poem written by a female worker in China, Wu Xia, where she imagines the life of the girl wearing the dress she is making. Ivy says on the discovery of the poem: “This was mind-blowing to me, as I suddenly realised that every object around us has been manufactured, packed and shipped by some individuals we would probably never know, especially with the ultra-developed global supply chain of today.”


Ivy Li: On Being A Factory Worker (Copyright © Ivy Li, 2020)

The designer started to think about the mighty gap between production and consumption, not to mention the stories of the people who make the products, and the socioeconomic disparities in the global economy. Much of this research can be seen in Ivy’s exhibition design for On Being A Factory Worker, where she conducted a field study in a garment factory in China where most factories are located, collecting images in a rural-urban fringe area.

“Chinese factory workers play a critical role in the global economy,” explains Ivy. “Many of them have left homes in rural areas and moved to rural-urban fringes in search of temporary jobs at factories.” Their living and working environments are precarious and chaotic, yet colourful and unique visual language fills their quasi-urban lives: neon signs, government slogans, factory job postings, cheap eateries, lodgings, lottery shops, along with a host of other distinct visual culture.

As a result, the exhibition aims to bring forward the disordered but lively visual landscape surrounding Chinese factory workers. Additionally, the exhibition draws on the sociological findings of Jean Baudrillard’s Consumer Society and Pun Ngal’s Migrant Labour in China. An homage to the documentation of labour, the exhibition sees hundreds of pieces of paper stuck to the gallery walls from floor to ceiling in the unique visual language while intentionally leaving production tools on the floor of the gallery. A ceiling mirror reflects the prints from the wall while another video shows footage of the high-end products made in China; further exacerbating the disparity between the two.

It’s a topic Ivy hopes to continue exploring in the future. One day, hoping to closely follow the journey of one product from its design, manufacturing, distribution, and eventually, end-user. It’s uncertain when this project will be able to commence due to the current travel restrictions and “maybe I would find the global supple chain too complex to track” but whatever the outcome of the project, the designer finally goes on to say: “I believe that design, animation, art and even new media are all just tools for expression, and the story will find its proper medium and form as we create.”

GalleryIvy Li: (Copyright © Ivy Li, 2020)


On Being A Factory Worker


On Being A Factory Worker


On Being A Factory Worker


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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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