Related Department prides itself on research and building concepts plus a few puns and jokes
Founded by Scarlett Xin Meng in 2017, the Shanghai-based studio has since worked on a wide range of commissions across the print and digital spheres.
- Ayla Angelos
- 23 April 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
In 2017, Scarlett Xin Meng founded the independent graphic design studio Related Department (有关设计部门). A place of research and experimentation, the studio now boasts an impressive portfolio abound with printed and digital matter spanning posters, editorial design, packaging, event identities and publications.
Before founding the studio, Scarlett completed her training as an artist at Cornell University, later continuing her graphic design pursuits at Rhode Island School of Design, after which she took on various roles at studios, plus art and academic institutions across a handful of countries. “I have been migrating between cities and countries since I was little, when geographical mobility and social mobility both reached a peak in the 90s economic boom in China,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I was the generation to have experienced the ebb and flow of globalisation and the rise of the digital age.”
In this sense, Scarlett found herself flitting between both the physical and digital spheres, dabbling in the topics of digital reality, geography, identity politics, imaging, branding and “capitalist reality”. As it turns out, these ideas and themes would form the basis of her studio, which launched after a year of moving back to Shanghai from New York.
After this move, everything changed for Scarlett, who spent many of her earlier years in Western Academia. Upon returning to Shanghai, however, she felt somewhat disassociated having spent almost ten years away from her home country. Time certainly does create distance, and in this case, she became fascinated by what was happening in China at the time: “To sum it up, ‘fast, cheap and out of control’ (cheap is probably no longer valid now in Shanghai).” Meme culture on the instant messenger app WeChat, Taobao aesthetics (the shopping website), vernacular design, Chinese suburbs, trade markets, subcultures, indie comics and music are other elements that Scarlett lists as key drivers at that time. These notions, alongside an increase in independent designers sprouting up over the years, have given way to a creative boom in the industry. “We are part of this new wave in this slowly changing design ecology,” she adds. “Being in Shanghai makes me feel more engaged to address design issues and design reality, from a critical insider role in the post-colonial and post-internet environment.”
With this in mind, the ethos behind Related Department is based predominantly on collaboration and experimentation. All sorts of briefs and projects excite Scarlett and the team, meaning they take on anything from a restaurant identity to a magazine or book design. This ethos is even in the studio’s name: for one, “related” in Chinese has a political connotation, “which means an uncertain governmental office whose identity and actual public service being unknown or not is clearly defined,” she says. “It has a light-hearted sense of humour and self-criticism in a Chinese context.” Meanwhile, in English, the word “related” suggests various definitions, like belonging, connectivity, or being associated with a specific item or process. “It’s derived from surfing related links, articles and projects on the internet,” adds Scarlett. And these are the ideals that drive the work of Related Department, the type that focuses heavily on research and narrative in the public domain.
Most recently, the studio completed an identity for American Chinese food restaurant Nice Day. A takeout restaurant mostly, the business was launched by Junzi Kitchen – a fast and casual chain of Chinese restaurants developed at Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Colourful and playful in its approach, the identity sees the meshing of structured and bold typography paired with a colour palette of limey greens and primary reds. “American Chinese restaurants have witnessed stories of immigrants and have nurtured a unique aesthetic of their own, and we wanted to keep the visual legacy of this in the branding project,” says Scarlett. The research involved examining the symbols and visuals of restaurant decor, such as “lucky cats, pine trees, peaches, golden pigs and jade bok choy” – all of which are usually placed amongst bold colours and typographies.
As a nod to these traditions, the studio opted for silhouette-style imagery, thus making it more recognisable and approachable for a wider audience. These visuals are then paired with a strong and structured typeface, devoid of any typefaces like Wonton, which mimics the brush strokes of the characters used in Chinese writing and “which has been widely used in traditional American Chinese restaurants but conveys a sense of Orientalism,” Scarlett adds. “The branding aims to deliver a refreshed visual concept of a contemporary American Chinese food culture.”
Through projects such as this, it’s clear that Related Department prides itself on a solid concept and visuals to boot, and this is only heightened by the fact that the team likes to sneak in a few hidden elements throughout the work. “We’d like our audience to comprehend our work as a contextual practice, as we tend to embed puns, jokes, criticism, tropes, metaphors, reflective writing and other visual or linguistic ingredients in it,” concludes Scarlett. “They could be blatant or very subtle. It really depends. It makes the most sense to a certain audience, and not so much for others.”
Related Department: Nice Day (Copyright © Related Department, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.