Siyu Mao’s graphic design approach blends heritage with a necessary dose of modernity

The Berlin-based designer has a knack for modernising the visual language found in museums, exhibitions and publications. She tells us more about her practice.

Date
7 December 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

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Having parents that support your career can mean everything, especially when you’re opting to do something creative. For those whose parents aren’t in favour of more creative pursuits, it can bring out a rebellious nature – which is exactly what happened wth Siyu Mao, a graphic designer and visual artist currently based in Berlin.

Deciding to attend art school, despite the fact that her parents “were against it”, Siyu succeeded to graduate from China Central Academy of Fine Arts with a BA in Graphic Design, and she received an MA from University of the Arts Berlin. Four years ago, she plunged into the industry and began her work as a graphic designer in Berlin, covering various fields in exhibition and book design, as well as more physical, interactive events such as installations.

Spanning art, editorial, illustration and sound, Siyu’s work has been featured widely in numerous exhibitions and has been screened at art festivals across the globe. This includes last year’s Florence Biennale, Ecuador Poster Bienal 2018, Queertech Internet Art Festival 2017, Graphic Design Festival Scotland 2017 and many others. All of which have an explicable link with collaboration. “I like working with clients with whom I share the same values,” she says.

A typical day for Siyu begins with plenty of time spent in thought. This is because she sees the preliminary process – before diving into a project – as one that’s the most beneficial. “I need to take a very long time to think about a project before I start working on a computer,” she says. “It could be several days just thinking on my couch. No computer, no sketches; everything only happens in my head.” This approach is one that she speaks of fondly, particularly for the fact that it opens up her mind to a new method of thinking when approaching a tight brief. “I think as a designer,” she continues, “you should lose as much of yourself as possible.”

GallerySiyu Mao: Ludwig Leo Umlauftank 2. Photography by Nora Heinisch (Copyright © Siyu Mao, 2020)

In Siyu’s eyes, graphic design is a vehicle. Within its functional service, the designer is there to fulfil a purpose – or, in her words, to “serve a need”. Counteracting graphic design with art, which is much more centred on self-expression, it serves as a “carrier” in which the controller can transform the topics at hand into a “suitable visual language”. An example of this can be seen in Siyu’s book, Ludwig Leo: Umlauftank 2, published by Spector Books and inspired by The Circulation Tank 2 (Umlauftank 2 1967-1974) – that being a protected Berlin landmark built by German architect Ludwig Leo.

During the process, she re-imagined the architectural elements of the building. This includes the iconic structure and ‘laboratory’ – “a testing ground for flow experiments, for modes of architectural expression and now, since its restoration, how to deal with recent monuments.” The result of which is the invention of a new form, tying heritage with a modern and graphic interpretation. “I tried to translate the three-dimensional architecture into a two-dimensional book,” she says, which of course is no small task.

Architecture has always been a large inspiration for Siyu, which sits alongside the influence “bad taste design”. There are various other smaller encounters that she refers to as well, like brutal film titles from the ‘90s, or “inexplicable barber shop signs, chaotic street food menus, rough music video effects from the ‘00s,” she says. By observing these everyday moments of life, this enables Siyu to adopt a more expansive approach to her work – a self-taught method that she says wasn’t explained in university. “These designs are not based on any design principles we leaned in the university,” she says. “But their particular aesthetics have often extreme strong visual language and their own logic behind them; they teach me new ways of observation, which always fascinates me.”

Further projects include a catalogue designed for the art viva Prize for Visual Arts, plus a GIF installation titled Nothing but Nonsense, that sees the designer create a series of internet-inspired GIFS for her master’s degree in 2016. “In the world of the internet age where more people than ever before are engaging in producing contents in various media and expressing themselves towards an open public, religions die and cats become famous,” she says. “Internet, the largest voluntary project in the history of humanity, provides a platform for this visual chaos with more stories, more ideas, more amateurs, more experts, more lies, more truth, more porn, more love… such permanent collectivism creates a delicate equilibrium that makes sense of nonsense.”

In the very near future, Siyu plans to continue working in the mediums of exhibition and publication design, with a few extra bits thrown in for good measure. She’s also completing a new permanent exhibition design for Berlin’s Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum, set to open in 2022 with architecture office Merzmerz. Through exhibition graphics featuring an array of natural materials, Siyu will be transforming the museum with a modernised language – something that she’s effortlessly good at.

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Siyu Mao: Ludwig Leo Umlauftank 2. Photography by Nora Heinisch (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2020)

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Siyu Mao: Nothing but Nonsense. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2016)

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Siyu Mao: Nothing but Nonsense. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2016)

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Siyu Mao: ars viva Prize for Visual Arts. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2021)

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Siyu Mao: ars viva Prize for Visual Arts. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2021)

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Siyu Mao: Your Dream is Dead. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2020)

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Siyu Mao: Your Dream is Dead. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2020)

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Siyu Mao: The Savage Mind. Photography by architektur galerie berlin. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2020)

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Siyu Mao: Yuya Suzuki. (Copyright © Siyu Mao 2020)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

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.

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