“Nonsense is communication!” announces designer Siyu Mao emphatically, a doctrine she clearly adheres to throughout her design practice. Mao grew up in China, studied at China Central Academy of Fine Arts and Berlin University of Arts, and currently lives and works in Berlin. Her heritage often serves as inspiration for personal projects, which manage to merge an experimental approach to typography with political concerns. Her It’s Chinese project, for instance, challenges the notion that Chinese is a “strange” language to learn, presenting the project title in French, Arabic, German, and other languages to demonstrate that “cultural misunderstanding is nothing new,” however you’re trying to communicate.
One of the highlights of her portfolio is Propaganda Typography, which examines how, “graphic design has always been full of brainwashing.”
“It can always be a weapon for both democracy and totalitarianism,” Mao explains. “In the 20th century, the totalitarian regime utilized graphic design to attract and infuriate the public in the pursuit of their ‘utopian future.’ In the age of social media, everyone has the right to use visual languages, to deconstruct the elite hegemony at the visual level.”
While this is very much a graphics-led line of enquiry, Mao often creates pieces that dance along the line between graphics and fine art. She says she doesn’t have a “fixed identity,” rather her goal is to make the story he’s telling as accessible as possible to the largest possible audience. “I care about looking at how to enter into different contexts to observe and discuss through design,” she says. “For example, in the process of curation, I can come into contact with people in different fields and can understand and learn from them through design. We may meet a good musician or architect, and their management and grasp of their own work mode may have a great inspiration and influence for designers in turn.”
This all seems rather sensible, and even cerebral. So what’s all this about a fascination with nonsense? “If something ‘makes sense,’ it is generally regarded as positive or good,” she muses. “If we call it good sense, it is to remind ourselves that there is a good and a bad. Compared to ‘sense,’ which is the recognition, adjustment, and maintenance of the proper relations of ordinary life, nonsense discovers the incongruities of things inside and around us.”
Aligning these notions with the Dada movement, we begin to see what Mao means; nonsense can somehow bring a more rewarding and deeper relationship with the world around us. This placing of design as a discipline very much within the everyday rather than a discrete and exclusive entity, is what makes Mao’s work so compelling.
Her site is something of an enigma at first; when landing on the homepage, instead of neat little tabs or a straightforward portfolio, we see a series of monochrome, aerial view videos of people sitting in what appears to be a library, or browsing printed matter in a vitrine. It’s very smart, and it looks great, but we can’t help but feel it’s somewhat contrary, too. With this in mind, how would the designer sum up her work? “Cool,” she replies. Which perhaps tells you everything you need to know.