Earlier this year, XYZ Lab – a Shanghai-based studio co-founded by designer Shao Nian, his girlfriend Wanqing and close friend and former mentor Lu Tao – caught our eye with its experimental approach to branding, editorial and academic publishing. The ensuing year has taken the studio towards a multitude of projects, which includes a biography for Marcel Duchamp, designing the portrayal of American poet Richard Brautigan, the exhibition identity and catalogue for Magnum, China, plus the branding of a coffee shop.
Continuing to impress us, XYZ Lab has released the fifth issue of Rouge Fashion Book, a bi-annual fashion magazine based in China. The studio’s relationship with the magazine first began with issue three and, since then, has evolved into an established collaboration. But a lengthy relationship doesn’t always come without its challenges. “Different from traditional magazines, the client has a requirement that the design of each magazine should be completely different, in terms of binding, format, paper selection and so on,” explains Shao. “On one hand, this gives us much more room to design, but on the other hand, the challenge is to fight the image – the cover photo of each issue cannot be altered.”
Clearly there is no challenge too big for this studio. With a changing theme for each edition, issue three focused on the “significant other”. The result was a design that, quite rightly, centred on the concept of two people reading the magazine at the same time – a dual perspective approach, achieved through mirrored content and doubled-up design. Issue four was themed on the topic of “delicate”: “Each group of photos was named after a song, so we arranged the page numbers in time format,” says Shao on the design details. “We wanted the design to be delicate as well, so we used a very thin and transparent kind of paper to let you vaguely see the lyrics of the song.” Next in line is issue five – an exaggerated version of those that came before it, and one that focuses on the theme of “grotesque”.
Divided into two parts, the first sees emphasis placed on the pictures while the latter half turns the attention to the interviews. What’s most striking is that this second interview-based part can be completely removed, executed through a warping typeface and vivid bookmarks placed within the heart of the magazine. “The purpose is not only for good looks, but also for functional effect,” says Shao on how the studio has utilised this removable aspect. “Usually, we put the text on the image, but this time we decided to present the image in the most straightforward way – letting the words wrap around it. So the whole shape is very grotesque, physically.” He likened these tabs to an independent volume containing the text of the interview and the feature as “[they] can be taken out of the magazine”.
The process of selecting a font is a dutiful task. “[It’s] important to our work,” says Shao, “because each font has its own unique temperament.” Helvetica, or other “very common fonts”, are the studio’s go-to, yet the team will always make sure to keep an eye out for new additions that they feel will match a project’s aesthetics. “For example, in the latest issue, we used the font Lÿno. I have known this font for a long time, and it didn’t come in handy until Grotesque came along.”
As a whole, XYZ Lab feels that the changing approach to the design has improved the magazine, making it look “much cooler”, says Shao, and places it on par with either a design or art magazine. However, Shao notes that’s it not just about aesthetics. “I think it’s quite boring if people only care about the visual effect, rather than the content of the design. It is easy to make a design where everything looks good, but I think design is not so easy.” Perhaps this method symbolises a new direction for fashion magazines, whereby Rouge Fashion Book is an example of this shift, steering away from the repetitive, cyclical and continuous nature of the fashion industry. “As far as we’re concerned,” concludes Shao, “we hope that each issue will have a stronger relevance in terms of the theme, content and design, and we will continue to work at it.”