Suzy Chan’s work is often incredibly, undeniably cute. At first glance it’s a joyful explosion of color, vibrancy, smart use of type, and an intriguing marriage of Western advertising tropes; internet-age lurid palettes; and references to Chinese and Japanese culture.
Sweet things are a recurring motif, but as with anything sugary, after the initial saccharine hit something less cheerful follows. If we follow that metaphor, the tooth decay or energy crash that’s subtly imbued in Chan’s work comes out in the issues it confronts. For all its apparent playfulness, her projects carry a strong underlying political or social message. There are multiple layers at play, giving her work an element that’s not only instantly engaging, but thoroughly thought-provoking as well.
In short, her approach is a little like the spoonful of sugar that helps the viewer swallow problems like gambling culture, consumerism, Brexit, and the UK’s treatment of international students.
Chan has just completed her studies in graphic design at London College of Communications (LCC). From the age of 12, she grew up in Macau, an autonomous region on the south coast of China that was formerly governed by the Portuguese. Born in Guangzhou, China—a place that remains very traditional in comparison to the more Western-influenced Macau—Chan is used to big life changes, and has seen those changes informing her design practice. “Moving to Macau opened a door for me to see the world. There was so much more connection to Western culture, and I received a lot of new information from outside my country,” she says.
Chan initially opted to move back to Guangzhou for her design degree at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA), but left after two years because she became frustrated at the school’s prioritization of commercial branding, logo design, and the technicalities of design. “They taught nothing about creativity or original thought,” says Chan.
It was on the plane home from a visit with a friend who was studying design in London that things seemed to click. She quit her course and applied to LCC.
“I realized I couldn’t just keep doing graphic design with no creative force, making work that didn’t look at the value design can have,” she says. “Here [in London] they’re quite focused on the students and the process—where your thoughts come from, and their originality. They give you a lot of time to experiment and find your own visual language.”
She adds, “It was so different to in China. At LCC they start by teaching you a lot of conceptual theory, talking about things like national identity and how people identify themselves by their country; I had always thought a lot about how women are positioned so differently in western and eastern cultures. Every issue like that has its own content and social connections, which informs a lot of my work now.”
Chan’s focus on making playful, frequently performative design work is both a mode of personal expression and a hint that the world of commercial branding agencies isn’t really for her. “At LCC we had lots of opportunities to go to talks and get in touch with big firms like Pentagram, and they talk a lot about how they build systems for brands, and make logos and so on,” she says. “These places make great work, but it’s not the way that I want to use graphic design. That side of the industry makes things so neat and tidy, but real life isn’t like that—the world is messy.”
“As a designer, you have to be responsible to not just for yourself but for society too.”
Chan’s multifarious experiences make her work conceptually unique. It’s informed not only by where she’s lived and her views on feminism, societal equality and so on, but also by her experiences working in various jobs in London during her studies. These included manning tills at Asian supermarkets and restaurant work, where she met many migrant workers who’d risked their lives hiding in airplanes to travel, only to come to London and work grueling hours in low paid, cash-in-hand jobs.
Still, Chan deftly manages to make her messages universally comprehensible. “For me, graphic design isn’t just about commercial or utilitarian communication, but a public platform,” she says. “I’ve learned that both society and the world are so big, and so many people live in ways we can’t really imagine. As a designer, you have to be responsible to not just for yourself but for society too.”
As such, her graduation project, Casino City, looked at gambling in Macau, an industry seven times larger than even Las Vegas. While its casinos bring a considerable amount of money into Macau, gambling has concurrently rocketed property prices and means that the only viable careers for many people are in casinos. As with most of her work, the project saw Chan re-appropriate the graphic language we’d expect of casinos—gaudy colors, brash typography, and tasteless messaging—and combine it with ideas around traditional Chinese rituals, such as the burning of fake money when someone dies (it’s believed this brings them wealth in the afterlife.)
While the project outcome includes posters and what we would expect of graphic design work, it’s also very much about “actions.” For an exhibition of the piece, Chan created and wore a costume bearing the Cantonese lettering one might find on a Macau casino, spelling out “welcome to make a killing in Macau.” It satirizes how such establishments use Chinese language, but in a way that borrows from the parlances of American or European speech. “It aims to highlight the ridiculousness of the whole thing; the way these casinos seem to be building a sort of Disney-like culture, but in a way, they’re doing something terrible.”
“Brands like Haribo are selling an image of happiness, or childhood. It’s like brainwashing; and to me, that’s the same with religion”
A recurring theme in Chan’s work is this notion of subversion and humor in relation to the idea of religion and spirituality. In The Haribo Cult project, a gummy bear becomes a god, transcending his wobbly, neon little frame and seeing him elevated into a deity. “Things like Haribo have this messaging that, ‘Oh, it’s for everyone! Kids and grownups!’ They’re selling it as an image of happiness, or childhood. It’s like brainwashing, and to me that’s the same with religion: they build a world, and ask you to believe that it’s a positive choice to obey what they say. I wanted the project to be an ironic expression of that,” says Chan.
The performative element of Chan’s practice reminds us of the work of The Rodina (it turns out they’re a huge influence, and Chan recently visited the studio in Amsterdam to ask for advice on her post-graduation path). For The Haribo Cult, she created an actual shrine to the gummy god, replete with bespoke “religious” robes and fabric posters hung between two temple-like physical pillars, each with a little bear sitting proudly on top: “It wasn’t enough for me to use a poster or motion graphics,” she says. “I became an actual member of the Haribo Cult, and did these actions using candy to pray, all these ridiculous things.”
Chan’s site design is a very Net Art-esque joy to behold—it’s all about gradients and emojis—but also has an unusual added extra in the Backstage section, which reveals the processes and briefs that went into her final pieces. While her poster work often looks distinctly digital, it’s here that we discover the multifaceted approach she takes to graphic design: her work evolves from very physical beginnings.
“I never want to just copy other people’s graphic design language: I want to develop my own, and that comes from physical action.”
What might look like a CG render of a strange sea creature, for instance (part of the Plastic in the Ocean project), began life as a clay model; and she often builds up layers of images and colors using paper cuts, not just pixels. For the Haribo Cult, Chan melted gelatinous sweets to form strangely pretty little globules, and created the pillars for the shrine from hand-cut foam blocks.
This way of working is as much practical as conceptual. “With the Plastic Ocean project I’d never used 3D software before, so I wanted to actually build an object to understand how it might work. When I create with my hands first, I can feel around how the object can form.
“The physical thing is also because I never want to just copy other people’s graphic design language: I want to develop my own, and that comes from physical action. If I have no idea what I want to make, often I’ll just make things by hand first then see what I can take to the next stage and finally digitize it.”
She also reveals her mood boards and photographs displaying her influences, including snaps of vibrant fruit and veg that were later brought to life in the Mutant Fruit project. This takes the form of a fake advert, which delineates her discovery that in the UK, much of the delicious-looking, weirdly large, “perfect” produce on sale often has “no taste at all.” She takes this notion of perfect in appearance, disappointing in taste, and uses a riot of color and type to bring “an extreme tone,” she says, to “express the irony of this kind of artificial transformation” of what should really be “natural” foods. Chan describes this approach as “hacking” the existing design language of food and store ads, but “using words and images to embed a third meaning into the content.”
“With graphic design, you need to develop a new language to grab someone’s attention. Art and design are really not so different.”
The action-based, outwardly social imperatives of her work—and the way Chan often appears in them herself, alongside the more traditional graphic outcomes—seem in many respects to draw as much from the world of fine art as graphic design. So where does she draw the line? “At school in China, the answer was simply that graphic design is helping people solve a problem, but art is self-expression,” she says. “But since I’ve been encouraged to explore my own views and take graphic design into another level, I realized the boundary between graphic design and art isn’t always so obvious. With graphic design, you need to develop a new language to grab someone’s attention. Art and design have a very close relationship with each other and inform each other’s direction. They’re really not so different.”