Year of the Sheep Greeting Card (2015) by Sandy Choi Associates

Dragons + paper cuttings + calligraphy + an auspicious splash of red = Chinese graphic design? More like a very, very outdated stereotype.

Consider the Chinese zodiac greeting cards by Hong Kong designer Sandy Choi, who’s putting a modern twist on the tradition of representing each year with an animal. The card for this year—the year of the sheep—bleats “BAA BAA BAA BAA,” while the year of the dragon in 2012 has a greeting printed white-on-white—a clever allusion to the mythical animal.

To Choi, who studied design in London, Chinese design has no definitive look. He asks, “Is it work that reflects Chinese culture? Is it work that features Chinese elements? Is it the language of the subject matter? Or simply work that is designed by a Chinese designer?”

The rise of China’s economy has attracted a growing interest in these questions. One answer comes via the Golden Pin Design Award, a competition that was originally founded in Taiwan over three decades ago, but has now expanded beyond its shores to recognize innovative works by and for the Chinese-speaking—or “huaren” (華人) in Chinese—around the world. By focusing on huaren design, the Golden Pin acknowledges the huge Chinese diaspora (estimated to number over 50 million) and that 16% of the world speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

The Chinese language is also a unique element to huaren graphic design. While English text is read from left to right and top to bottom, the Chinese language runs vertically from right to left, which allows for some unconventional typographic compositions, says Taipei-based designer Andrew Wong, who studied design in Houston before moving to Taipei to set up Onion Design Associates. He cites the textural book covers by hotshot Taiwanese designer Wang Zhi-Hong, many of which combine the English, Chinese, and Japanese languages.

But Wong is quick to point that there’s more than meets the eye. For an exhibition of Taiwanese designers and craftsmen, he created a minimal, modern typographic solution that’s surprisingly inspired by the ancient divination text I-Ching. The logo “Yii” mimicks a trigram marking (☶) that represents not only the Chinese “yin-yang” worldview, but also the bamboo used to make the exhibited products.

“Huaren design can be presented in a very subtle manner. Sometimes, it’s not even visual—you can’t see it,”Wong. 

The essence of huaren design can also be found in the approach. Singaporean-Chinese designer Yang, creative director of The Folks Studio, discovered this from an unlikely source: his love for Japanese design. He began exploring how to express huaren design after learning how philosophies like wabi sabi and the Japanese tea ceremony had roots in Chinese traditions and the writings of Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi. One of his first discoveries? That fact that Singapore is unlike other huaren communities. Though the Southeast Asian nation is majority Chinese, it has other races, too, including Malays and Indians, and its citizens speak English as their first language. To his Singaporean-Chinese clients, stereotypically huaren design is old-fashioned, and while they sought to retain their traditional values, they still wanted the work to feel modern and international.

“In Singapore, we want the Oriental part, but at the same time, we want the Westernized part,” says Yang. “That fusion creates an interesting platform for us to find a balance.”

His corporate identity for a forestry company that prides itself on improving the world by platings trees was based on the Chinese saying, “By the people, for the people” (以人为本). Chinese inspiration and company name aside, Yang’s logo of a tree built out of the Chinese character for people (人) actually resembles typical contemporary modern design.

This is perhaps unsurprising in an increasingly globalized world. Designer and writer Zara Arshad, who founded the Design China blog, says we should move beyond the traditional dichotomy of East and West design and towards a more “multi-faceted” understanding of what huaren design is instead.

“I do think there are processes in graphic design that might be shared globally, such as using a grid system, but how designers here interpret that system and use it in conjunction with Chinese typography would be translated in a very local way,” she says. But, of course “what happens locally is also situated within the global. And here we are moving away from another dichotomy, that of local versus global, and considering instead how each might influence one another—they’re not necessarily two separate domains.”