XXL Studio has two meanings. It is the initials of the founding graphic designer Xiaoxiang Liu and it’s other definition, extra extra large, equally defines the monumental output of this Chinese design studio. With an office in Beijing and New York, the studio work on a variety of editorial projects while continuing the legacy of Xiaoxiang’s 20 year design career. As a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale, Xiaoxiang has also been the recipient of an Honorary Award in Best Book Design in 2010, 2012 and 2014. On top of all this, he also organised the 9th National Book Design Award in China which is held every five years.
“The most important thing in my design process is the contemporaneity of the design”, Xiaoxiang tells It’s Nice That. “I often re-evaluate the visual language, the rhythm of the reading and the temperament of the design”. Similar to how this interview has been translated into Chinese to communicate with the iconic graphic designer, the language of graphic design for Chinese readers is a completely different story. Xiaoxiang further explains that “all my designs are different from each other and from other designers’ works”.
In Chinese design, book binding is regarded in much higher esteem than in Europe. XXL Studio places fastidious detail on book binding as it directly influences the shape of a book and the fluidity of reading. Additionally, Chinese book design often has to factor in the readability of both Chinese and English and as Chinese is read from top to bottom and English, left to right, the book’s functionality has to operate bi-lingually.
An exceptionally beautiful book designed by the studio is In all the Voices, I only Listen to You; documenting a collection of poems called Reading Poems for You. “The project invites pop stars to read some well-known poems in an attempt to provide another way of reading, so the book also contains a CD”, says Xiaoxiang. The subtitle of the book is Photosynthesis in Four Seasons and the studio connects the act of reading poetry with food for thought. As a result, the studio use a Pantone warm green as the subject and design different shapes of text in an alternating warm green and grey to denote “the reading experience of breathing in and out.”
Another captivatingly refined book is XXL studio’s Climate which catalogues artist works revolving around climatic issues. Xiaoxiang deconstructs the Chinese character for the English word ‘climate’ using different textures for each part of the character’s anatomy. The designer prescribes natural colours to separate typographic elements such as a “silver that symbolises PM2.5, a key manmade pollutant causing smog. Another blue colour represents the clean, unpolluted sky, and the white background of the book suggests an aspiration for a purer living environment.”
Xiaoxiang has focused on Chinese typography since 2010 when he aimed to achieve the subtleties and artistry seen in Western type translated through to the Chinese character. The graphic designer goes onto say, “I couldn’t help wondering what differences exist between the Chinese and Western language of typography”. The book uses textual information as a continuous exhibition piece. Through experimenting with various typographic layouts, Xiaoxiang creates a visual dynamism in a rigid matrix-based grid system, highlighting the book’s typographic elements in an artistic atmosphere.
The creative studio also designed the book cover for Kunqu Opera which is an ancient classical, Chinese drama. Despite it being an old art form that few young people watch (or even know about), the studio design a highly contemporary cover design as a way to attract more young people. The book jacket features the face of a regular Kunqu Opera actor, using an iconic symbol in the musical score as the eye of the actor. The vivid pink background hints at the traditional makeup of the opera’s actors and overall, the design successfully bridges the gap between the historic art form and contemporary graphic design that is both intriguing and modern.
XXL Studio has a significant horde of other delicately stunning book design including their three exemplary publications Always with You, 11X16 and The Record of Suzhou’s Prosperity. Not only is their creative output culturally significant in understanding how foreign language books are crafted for their readers, XXL Studio additionally expand our understanding of how books are experienced beyond the Western paradigm. The way the books are handled and treated can provide us with a different set of design rules that can push Western design to its limits and force us to fundamentally challenge our perceptions of graphic design as to why we make our design decisions and for whose benefit?
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