René Chen, partner and chief creative officer at JKR (Jones Knowles Ritchie) Shanghai, once said that creativity in China was like an adolescent, learning by copying from the west. Now, she says, brand creativity has grown into a transition period where the value of creativity is more highly valued.
Chen, who has not been shy about expressing her opinions in the past (see "The imitation game is killing Chinese design creativity"), spoke with Campaign China about her latest observations on design and creativity trends in China.
Several new trends have shown up in the creative community, Chen says. First of all, there's a boldness and diversification that wasn't present before.
“Especially in the past one or two years, frankly speaking, both our clients and some of our own staff are quite bold about new things and are willing to make breakthroughs," she says. "They don’t mind that 'I may be the first one'. They also accept new ideas, new attempts and new ways of playing.”
Furthermore, she believes that the creative industry is building up Chinese local cultural concepts. "If in the past, we were learning to imitate, now we are gradually moving away from western values and establishing China’s aesthetic with commercial value," she says. "So I believe the next step should be to build up the relationship between design and culture.”
What does that look like? “Design in China will have its own culture and express the colour of Chinese culture,” she says.
The rise of social media in China has changed the landscape of design and creativity in China and worldwide, Chen believes. “Social media actually makes design more coherent and the details of design more critical, as it is a central point to connect lots of things and different platforms.”
Because of social media, “the role of visual tools, in particular, has also been amplified, and the projects we are working on are getting deeper and broader”. For instance, a Chinese New Year campaign will have a design element that runs through the whole communication process. This element will be “flexible and differentiated” and “will be launched across various channels”, she adds.
From Chen’s observations, creativity in China is marking progress over the past few years but still faces challenges on the way to becoming a full adult.
Imitation is still an issue, for example. “A long time ago, we copied others [western brands]," she says. "Now we are copying ourselves in China because there are so many trending or hot-selling products and new products. We do not copy others, but we copy each other.”
For example she points to the fact that “zero” is everywhere in branding currently, from zero sugar to zero additions to exaggerate healthy and natural concepts. Hyaluronic acid is also everywhere in the beauty realm. “By rushing to catch up with a trendy new product, we are following trends rather than building brands,” she says.
Chen points to the impossibility of chasing trends and hot-selling products while also heightening the use of culture for marketing. “Everyone is looking for new ideas and changes, and almost all of our clients are focusing on Generation Z and young people," she says. "I think sometimes we are too shortsighted in shaping the 'hit' merchandise. We cannot go too far. If you are too commercial, you will lose the culture.”
Chen adds that when done right, “design is a reflection of culture”. In this light, the pursuit of the hottest trends stands in contrast to Chinese culture, which is more about is moderation and balance, "neither too intense nor too excessive”, she says.
She believes that commercialisation and culturally relevant design have to reach a balance. As designers, “we need to explore and find the characteristics to differentiate the product” and “make the product stand out from the rest”.
To illustrate good blending of design, culture and commercialism, Chen shared three works that represent three different types of brands: Sedrin Beer, a local well-known brand that recently upgraded its image; Nescafé, which elevated the shape of its well-known red mug into a design icon; and Plantag, an entirely new brand using design to stake out its territory.
Sedrin Beer's rebranding expresses Chen's vision that the real purpose of design is to “reflect and respect the culture”. The brand took inspiration from Fujian tulou, a style of dwelling unique to the Hakka people in the rural areas of Fujian province. "The whole structure and architectural concept is the same as that of the people in Fujian, walled together and protected by each other,” she says. The circles and squares of the new logo, designed by JKR, reflect this.
“When consumers see the brand’s changing image, they could feel a sense of belonging and pride," she says. "As designers, we also feel proud. What’s more, the new logo enhances the brand's competitiveness and communication in the market.”
Necafé entered Chinese markets over 30 years ago. Following the competitive trend in the market but pursuing innovation, JKR made the brand's classic red mug bolder and more visible and upgraded the packaging of its instant coffee. The vision behind the brand refresh of the already iconic coffee mug was “how do you rationalise changes within an established branding environment?" Chen says. "You have to use unchanging elements in a smart way to make changes and innovation in the Chinese market.”
From a figurative mug to an abstract graphic, the red mug visually inspires a fuller emotion and reflects the brand's philosophy of boldness and courage. As a visual symbol, “consumers could immediately recognise that it belongs to Necafé. This is the responsibility and role of brand design, to help brands innovate or reinvent themselves in an existing environment”.
Plantag, by contrast, is a young brand staffed by a team of young people who have a far-reaching vision to create a Chinese plant-based brand. “They are brave and willing to try new things," Chen says. "They have a clear goal, with a good sense of aesthetics. Their goal is not just shaping a ‘hit’ merchandise, but building a long-term brand.”
“The design uses fluorescent shades of green to bring stylish, youthful and fun elements, and the colour of beige achieves a balance," Chen explains. "Black underlines cool and pioneering spirits of the younger generation.” She believes that the design shows “inclusion and diversity”, which is “the state we feel in China at the moment”.
The design of drink packaging also links the colours of pistachios to the brand identity. But colour is not the only consideration. A fusion of realistic elements and illustration styles also reflects and pays tribute to “the combination of reality and imagination” present in traditional Chinese arts.
Born in Hong Kong, Chen also spoke to the current state of design in that market.
"From the 1980s onwards, Hong Kong design was featured for ‘East meets West’," she says. "It was the peak of local design, a mix of east and west, presented in many works. It was a very distinctive centre to the design of the time, from advertising to products.”
Today, she says, Hong Kong design is "a little bit confused". Chen believes that the city’s design community will have to innovate in localisation by looking forward, rather than looking backward and staying in this “East meets West” stage.
The interview for this article was conducted in Mandarin and Chen's responses have been translated.