Can Yang's graphic design style is deep-rooted in her Chinese heritage


The work of graphic designer Can Yang is steeped in history and philosophy. Context is the backbone of her works, consistently relating back to her cultural upbringing in China, but translated through the teaching programme at Rhode Island School of Design where she’s just graduated.

As a result, works by Can tap into multiple audiences. The high coloured, nuanced typographic choices she makes will certainly impress her peers (and keep them on their toes), but those reading her works, particularly if they share her background, will resonate with the in-depth research and analysis that inform her design decisions.

With a vast variety of interests that are slightly niche — folklore, superstition and even commerce are all mentioned by the designer — we don’t envisage Can having a career quite like anyone else. Hooked on details, each project journeys further and further into fascinating subject matter and what tangent she’ll jump off on next is anyone’s guess. Where ever it is, however, is definitely a direction worth following.

It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study graphic design?

Can Yang: When I was a freshman I intended to study fine art, since I like to draw and paint my mood and feelings and I’m confident about using colour to make my paintings look ‘real’. But I wished to learn something outside of my comfort zone while at college, which was graphic design, a major about visual communication and abstracting and reconstructing concepts.

INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?

CY: Chinese students studying overseas are often more conscious about their ‘Chinese-ness’, and so am I. I feel my Chinese-ness is a double-edged sword: I use Chinese philosophical concepts and traditional images to help me make unique works, but focusing only on the culture and tradition I’m familiar with might block my view when absorbing experiences I’ve never had before. The best bit about studying at RISD was learning how to balance artistic sensibilities between my Chinese art background and subversions within western art and alternative culture, reaching a middle point rather than getting too far from either side.

INT: Can you tell us about your degree project?

CY: Guai Li Luan Shen is a multi-dimensional study of ‘hidden’ traditional Chinese culture and a project on contemporary Chinese modernity. I had the idea of going in a direction I was interested in — an aesthetic that hasn’t been accepted by the mainstream but relates to social structure, economy and political environments — to give myself a chance to learn more about my country from a Western view.

The project began by collecting academic articles and documents from the RISD and Brown library while trying to find the root of modern Chinese religiosity and the formation of superstition, thinking about things that weren’t allowed to be spoken about in the past, and even in modern times. This gave me a historical background on the vicissitudes of Chinese religious life in the 20th century; a period of cataclysmic social change, warfare, trauma, poverty, as well as economic growth. It analyses the historical and cultural background of superstition and religion from late imperial China to modern time, suggesting there are some paradoxes in the process of secularisation and in the relationship between state power and religion.

The second phase of the project is a thematic inquiry about current superstitious design and its use in the contemporary Chinese market. My hometown, Shenzhen, is a port region extending off the Pearl River Delta and is seen both as a facilitator, processor and microcosm of broader global trends that bear witness to the capricious circulation pattern of “low-end globalisation”. Documenting and researching the ad-hoc arrangement, cultural heritage and social/material landscape, this phase shows research projects that trace flows and fissures, in order to investigate the form and contents of superstitious design.

For the final phase and section of the project, I was seeking a language that’s able to cross-media surfaces and the use of superstitious design in the future. This was informed by the research and studies from the first two sections, formalising a visual identity of superstitious design. This system was rooted in plebeian ‘low-end’ culture and has now been translated and reformatted to fit the contemporary global graphic design taste and economically-efficient goals, and most importantly to revoke a nostalgic, renewed approach to the traditions.

INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience?

CY: Definitely my teachers James Goggin and Lucinda Hitchock. I was timid to speak in front of people at first because I wasn’t sure I could explain my concepts relating to Chinese culture clearly. They’ve changed me by talking to me, understanding what I was trying to say beforehand, and supporting me when I was nervous and embarrassed. I feel communication is the most important part in graphic design and I don’t only mean direct talking, but visual communication. These teachers are open-minded, they like both the new and the cultures they’ve never learned before. The main task they gave me was to create a visual language that not only Chinese people could understand but a language Americans can get the same feeling from too.

INT: If you could create your dream project what would it be?

CY: I don’t dream of huge, perfect projects. My works are inspired by small daily goods and phenomenons. For example, the inspiration for my project When the Snow Melts was the sticky synthetics that appear on streets when snow had melted, or my project You Saw Me, Read Me and Communication Failed developed from a small caution label on a lamp. I want to make projects created from daily impulses that could be empathetic and could tell stories.

Supported by Polaroid

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The It’s Nice That Graduates 2018 is supported by Lecture in Progress and Polaroid Originals.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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