“I see graphic design as an unsolved problem – it’s full of possibilities and with no necessary right answer,” says Beijing-born and based Zitong Zhao, who goes by Tong. Having studied international business and trade, Tong realised the field “never felt right for me somehow” and so undertook several internships to “try to figure out what I’m truly passionate about”. It was during one such internship at Vogue China that Tong discovered editorial design and became obsessed with print. “I just fell in love with the freedom of expression that one can practice, that’s the most beautiful thing to me,” she recalls. “Of course, there are certain rules for sure, but no one said that you can’t break them right?” It was her introduction to graphic design and the medium that today informs her career.
Tong has a very specific way of working as a designer, and it revolves around observations. “Whenever I go out into the world, I tend to perceive the things around me carefully, whether it’s a street sign, a piece of trash, or anything related to the nature of life in general,” she explains. She uses her phone camera to capture anything that catches her attention, “which results in this huge archive of almost 60k photos on my phone,” she continues. “This archive has become a creative engine and an ultimate inspirational palace for me, it’s the place where I got most of my inspirations from when I’m designing.”
It’s no surprise therefore that Tong describes photography as one of her favourite parts of the creative process, telling us how it “evokes emotions, tells stories, while also manages to manipulate our perceptions.” To her, “each image is an unfinished story, and there are still a lot of things that haven’t been told, so I usually try to rediscover the potential of them from the design perspective, and the process is really exciting.” In this sense, photographs are both the starting point and often the endpoint of her projects, like in her ongoing project #dobservations, or daily observations, in which she turns the images in her phone into something “more designed and refined”.
There’s also Fragments, which is Tong’s “response to the inquiry of how to use images as a way of communication in the age of a manipulative digital sphere”. The book consists of five parts, each featuring poems and photos that “question the power of images in the digital age and explore the relationship between text and images”, particularly in the context of social media and “the problem of psychedelic illusion”.
A metaphor used to describe “how fragmented information on social media manipulates narratives and takes out the linearity and hierarchy of our consciousness through a huge pile of imageries,” Tong documented her research into the topic in a second book titled “Psychedelic Illusion” of Contemporary Life. Tong employed a two-fold approach to the book’s design which is evident on each spread. In turn, she communicates the disparity between our online and offline behaviours. Both Fragments and “Psychedelic Illusion” of Contemporary Life are incredibly bold in their aesthetics, featuring block typography and overwhelming negative space. It’s almost as if Tong is attempting to cut through the visual noise that exists online to make her voice heard.
Looking to the future, Tong tells us she’s planning to work on a project that explores the intersection of mental health and creativity as she’s struggled with her own mental health during the pandemic. “I would love to connect with creatives around the world that share this idea to make something meaningful to help the community,” she says. So, while it’s an idea still in its infancy, you can bet that Tong will continue to apply her real-world experiences and observations in her practice. When working on such an important topic, bridging the gap between our daily lives and the design sphere can only be a good thing; the results are sure to be impactful.
Zitong Zhao: Dobservations (Copyright © Zitong Zhao, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.