Eye on Design

How Jihee Lee Breaks Down the Cultural Boundaries Built By Stereotypes

Iamangry.de, Jihee Lee and So Jin Park, 2016.

On the homepage of dafont.com, the largest online archive of freely downloadable typefaces, users have their choice of categories like “Fancy,” “Techno,” and “Gothic,” as well as one called “Foreign Look.” Within the latter, a “Chinese, Jpn” section (Korean and other Asian languages are not included) lists fonts like Black Chob, O-Wee-Ental, and Manga. “By browsing these typefaces, you can see how ‘Asia’ is perceived to the eye of Westerners,” says the South Korean graphic designer Jihee Lee, who has been based in Germany since 2011. Since moving to Europe she’s made it a project to draw attention to the ways that Asian stereotypes are encouraged in visual communication, as well as how she and other Asian women in Germany experience micro-aggression daily.

Page from Stereotypography: Somewhere in Between, Jihee Lee, 2016. Photograph: Chang an Son.

Scrolling through dafont.com, Lee, who currently works at the Berlin-based studio NODE, points to the instances of calligraphy, anime-inspired characters, and ornamental bamboo sticks and chopsticks that embellish several typefaces. These elements, of course, are pervasive offline as well: “Think of how the word ‘Chop Suey’ is illustrated in your Asian corner deli or on soy sauce advertisements,” she says. Last semester, as a student at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, Lee used these free fonts to design a series of posters that reveal how, although rendered in the Latin alphabet, the typefaces have been heavily manipulated to appear “non Latin” and “non Western.” Placed side-by-side, her posters fragmentally read: “Stereotypical Representations of foreign cultures build national and cultural boundaries,” and “Those types represent neither us nor you.”

Stereotypography poster, Jihee Lee, 2016.
Stereotypography, Jihee Lee, 2016.

These designs are part of a book entitled Stereotypography, which is one of five volumes produced by Lee for her anthology Somewhere in Between. Asked by her professor to devise a typographic project around the timely theme of “borders,” Lee drew on the idea that her own identity exists somewhere in between two cultures, informed by both Korean and Northern European influences. The books explore this idea through typography: book one introduces the reader to Hangul, the Korean typographical system; the second explores multilingual type projects, like Minjoo Ham’s Latin/Hangul type family Koppla; and in the third, Lee interviewed three Korean type designers based in Europe. Vernacular Graphic Design, the fourth in the series, features designs Lee collected from her everyday life in South Korea—leaflets, brochures, matchboxes collected by her mom, and neon lights illuminating storefronts.

Together, the publications reveal a permeable, interconnected, and transgressive set of influences and circumstances. They show a complex network of sharing and combining, as well as a uniquely personal cultural, aesthetic, and linguistic experience. “With Somewhere in Between, I wanted to depict the intersectional encounter of cultures,” says Lee.

Somewhere in Between, Jihee Lee, 2016. Photograph: Chang an Son.

Revealing the ways that stereotyping and racism can become normalized behavior, both in visual culture but also during everyday public encounters, is something that Lee has been focused on ever since moving to Germany. In 2016, irritated by numerous aggressive encounters, Lee found herself swapping stories at the Burg Giebichenstein University with a student named So Jin Park. “We came up with the idea for a platform where people with Asian heritage could share their experiences,” says Lee.

Poster for Antiracism, Jihee Lee, 2016.

The designers organized a town hall at their university and promoted it through a black-and-white, sharply typographic poster designed by Lee. Students came together to discuss instances of everyday racism in Europe and beyond. These were noted down in an open (and still growing) Google sheet. Park and Lee then launched Iamangry.de to house the stories—a website they hope will empower and help those with Asian heritage to find ways of dealing with micro-aggression.

Though the site is divided into six sections, it’s a page called “Now please stop saying ‘ni hao’ to me” that Lee calls the “heart and soul” of the platform. Clicking on the “diagram” tab arranges a number of stories from the Google sheet into an infographic: the top of the page is labelled “sexism,” the bottom left “racism,” and the bottom right corner “xenophobia.” Personal stories are scattered around the diagram, and the ones in the middle—at the heart of a red, beaming circle—represent stories that fall into all three categories. One example: “Los Angeles—I was walking on the street […]suddenly a man passed by me, giggling and taking the Chinese greeting position.”

Iamangry.de, Jihee Lee and So Jin Park, 2016.

 

“The stories are displayed on pop-up windows, to articulate the ‘pop-up’ nature of this everyday micro-aggression,” says Lee. “They’re designed to constantly annoy users, and they cannot be closed. Users can only move through them. It’s a metaphor that derives from our everyday encounters: how we have no control over the situation.”

Elsewhere on the site, there are links to resources that define racism and information about how to deal with racist incidents. Its body typeface, Jungka, was donated by Jungmyung Lee and Karel Martins, while the headline font, GT Sectra, was chosen for its sharp angular finish.

“Stereotypes and micro-aggression are issues that impact me both as a designer and also in my day-to-day life, and have done so ever since moving to Germany,” says Lee. “It’s why I focus on these issues in my work. I do believe that the kinds of projects that promote awareness and speak against prejudice will eventually create a gradual change.”

Dont’ Speak Be Silent, Jihee Lee, 2016.