Working across branding, publishing and editorial, graphic designer Shao Nian also co-founded Shanghai-based studio XYZ Lab, alongside his girlfriend Wanqing and close friend and former mentor, Lu Tao. With clientele ranging from prestigious academic publishers to emerging independent magazines, Shao Nian has a diverse portfolio that boasts a beautiful crossover of concept and aesthetic.
Preferring to think of XYZ Lab as more of a study group than a studio, Shao says that the team don’t always collaborate on projects. “Each of us has independent projects that we need to focus on too,” he explains. “It depends on the type and size of the project as to whether we will work together.” Taking the lead on many of the briefs himself, Shao is clearly as adept working on his own as he is with the group.
One project that perfectly exemplifies this is The World, a short story collection by up and coming Beijing author, Yuan Ling, which features nine novellas focused on global social issues. Published by China Citic Press who reached out to Shao for the design, his minimal aesthetic for the book is a reflection of the author’s writing style. “Yuan Ling believes that his writing is moderate, simple and introverted, so I wanted to translate the temperament of his writing into the visual outcome and texture,” he tells It’s Nice That. Featuring alphabetical characters hand drawn by Shao, the appearance is meant to communicate an intersection of two mediums. “I tried to use only the most basic outlines for the words to represent a crossover of graphic and text, displaying the aesthetic of the former whilst still being distinguishable as the latter.”
Moving to independent publishing, Shao applied his cerebral approach to the design of Dirty, a magazine produced by photographers Kousijuyy and 01. Explaining his thinking behind the design for the first issue, Shao tells us that the name was a huge influence on the final result. “The word ‘dirty’ sounds fairly similar to the phrase ‘得体’ in Mandarin Chinese, which is the project’s Chinese name and actually means ‘classy’ in Mandarin – pretty much an antonym of dirty,” he says. “So I wanted the publication to look as serious as possible, like a bible, but once you open it up you realise how absurd the photographs are. It creates a strong contrast between the exterior and interior, aided in part by its huge size of 560×420mm (think Taschen coffee table book) and is a shock to the reader.”
Amusingly, the back cover features disclaimer text marked by an asterisks that reads: “Cover page is pure horseshit.” Discussing this easter egg, Shao says that it’s true and part of 01 and Kousijyuu’s satirisation of the current art world climate: “It shows the attitude of Dirty towards art and photography. The idea arose from their frustration at two students from Parsons’s MFA program who have been caught for plagiarism multiple times, yet are still enjoying positive press on their projects,” he explains. “Their artist statements on these copycat projects, which are obviously bollocks, have been re-phrased by 01 for the cover foreword of Dirty. It’s a comment on what’s happening in the art world right now; in short, too many swindlers, not enough artists."
But Shao’s adaptable practice has also seen him working with China’s leading science publishers. Having only just recently graduated at the time, he was recruited by Hunan Science and Technology Publishing House to design a cover for a title by world-famous scientist, Einstein. Impressed by his work, they entrusted him to lead the fifth revision of their entire Frist Mover Series, which was released more than 25 years ago and features over 50 renowned works of science literature.
“We split the series into four specific sections, and chose a colour to represent each. We used black for The Universe Series, blue for The Physical Series, red for The Life Series and green for The Polytechnique Series,” he says. “I art directed the whole project, and was responsible for visual planning, logo design and type setting. Three other designers, Xing Lin, Li Ye and Wanqing, also helped on the covers. For us, books are the most democratic information medium. So working on such a project was an opportunity to connect to the real world.”
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