Prof. Jingren Lu

Prof. Jingren Lu is a book designer and illustrator. During the 1990s, he studied under Prof. Sugiura Kohei (杉浦康平) in Japan. In 1998 he established the Jingren Art Design Studio. He was senior art editor of the China Youth Publishing House. He is now a professor of the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University and a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). Prof. Lu has received many book design awards at home and overseas, including the World's Most Beautiful Book award (Leipzig, Germany), the Golden Award for National Book Binding Art Exhibition and National Publication Exhibition, hosted by the Chinese Government, and the award for Beauty of Books in China. Xiaomage is also one of his students.

The interview took place in March 2016. Ingo Offermanns IOmet Prof. Lu JLin Beijing.

IO Prof. Jingren Lu, given your experiences in China, Japan and in Europe, we are very interested in your view on the differences between Chinese, Asian and Western culture. Could you share your thoughts with us?

JL Please don’t regard me as a senior and a scholar. I am still desperate for knowledge and experiences, even though I am well-aged and have been working for a long time. To me, age and knowledge do not share a direct relationship. In China, our design history, especially contemporary design, is still under development, and rather young compared to the western world, China was blank and stopped developing during the Cultural Revolution (from the 50s to the 70s), and therefore for people in my generation our learning channels and sources were usually from the West. Maybe it is not appropriate to make this example, but I feel like the period of the Cultural Revolution in China was similar to the Nazi period in Germany. At this time, all traditional Chinese culture and all foreign cultures were banned. Not limited to art, the Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on everyone. Everything was devastating, painful, and void. After this incident, we felt empty and aimless, and we were therefore desperate to open up new paths. Therefore, if we were given any chances to reach information or books from the outside world, we would copy them by hand and memorize them. Everything from the West was fascinating and fresh. We were envious and eager to be in touch with them, especially as travel was hard in the past.

Long before the Cultural Revolution, China was already influenced by the West. I still remember the first time I saw Bauhaus furniture in a book or at home in the 40s. In the 50s, we were heavily influenced by Soviet Union styles such as Constructivism and Realism. This was eminently obvious in Shanghai in the 30s and 40s. Even now that the Cultural Revolution is over, I still find Western culture appealing. For a long time, I had an ambition to study overseas. After the Cultural Revolution, my brothers all went abroad. That was also the reason why I started to learn English. Soon after, there was an opportunity for an exchange with the publishing industry in Japan, I enrolled and began my Japanese studies. In Japan, I met my great and respected teacher for life – Prof. Sugiura Kohei, who took care of me so much and even offered me a scholarship to stay in Japan. Sugiura has an architecture background, and he thinks very logically. In the 70s, he was invited by the Institute of Design at Ulm (1964-67) to lecture as a guest professor, which led him to realize the differences in thinking between the East and West. In Europe, values are based on judgement of right or wrong, but in the East there are often grey zones remaining in between.

For Sugiura, right or wrong is only a brief track of thought. In Japanese culture, there is always ambiguity and chaos in everything. Of Eastern and Western culture, neither is ever superior to the other. They are two streams of thinking. Sugiura keeps asking himself: how would the logical architecture school of thought function in the Eastern mindset? So he started researching Taoism and even went to India for his studies. He realized that the relationship between “inhale” and “exhale” in vital breathing is actually similar in concept to how cultures and methodologies relate to each other. Neither Eastern nor Western culture represents absolute truth. They correlate to each other. The most important thing is that before learning a different culture we should have a thorough understanding of our own culture, I felt really embarrassed one time when Prof. Sugiura came to me, knocked on my head and said “You always said Japanese culture is good, but how do you look at Chinese culture? Have you learned enough? Even Japanese Kanji is from China!” From then on, I started to understand myself all over again. I began my search through past traditions and customs, the basics of Chinese culture. Eventually, I absorbed a lot of Eastern and Chinese cultures through the book design process. Neither is better or worse. Every culture is unique, and presents itself best in its own way. As a designer who comes from and is based in China, my audiences are Chinese. My mission is to design for them, hence I need to have a deep understanding of the local culture. This also applies to my teaching principles. I don’t want my students’ work to be 100% influenced by the West without having their own cultural elements.

IO Thanks for sharing these stories and your view on cultural differences. I think the essence of cultural exchange is to analyse what is good and bad, to be able to tell differences and to learn from them. In your eyes, what are the differences among European cultures? You have been in touch with Germany, Switzerland and Holland too, is there anything we can learn from the Chinese?

JL I have designer friends from Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. They share a lot of similarities. All of them use Latin alphabets. To go into further details, Germans tend to strictly obey rules, the Swiss are relatively flexible, and the Dutch are freestyle. People from the East might not see these differences, because we are lacking in sharp, radical, and logical analysis compared to the West. We focus on sensuality, on feeling and looking at things with an empirical approach. These are some of the merits of our culture because the senses apply widely and are flexible in nature, but the downside is a lack of science and accuracy. East Asian culture – Chinese, Japanese and Korean – relates to Taoism. Of these cultures, Chinese culture is rather approximate and comforting, whereas Japanese culture embraces Zen and Wabi-sabi. We can illustrate these differences with example of movable letterpress and woodblock printing. Although movable type was invented in China, Johannes Gutenberg introduced sophisticated rules on typography. By contrast, the Chinese also pay attention to grids and forms, but we do printing and engraving in an intuitive way. The East pursues logic in contingency, whilst the West pursues a soft touch within logic. Both have their own strength and beauty.

IO You mentioned the differences between Japanese and Chinese culture. Does China have anything similar to Wabi-sabi / Mono-no Aware in Japan?

JL Wabi-sabi is about emptiness or absence of self-nature. It is founded in Buddhism and Taoism. In the past, the Chinese also shared the same concept: living in nature, sensing nature and coming to realize the meaning of life between emptiness and the material world. Modern China is getting more and more realistic, aiming for a stylish and luxurious life style and tending not to connect with nature and the down to earth attitude we used to have. The Wabi-sabi concept is fading out. Wabi-sabi treasures and keeps everything in its original form, preserving nature and appreciating the beauty in imperfectness, yet today we seek artificiality and exaggeration, with overdesign and excessive design everywhere. In my opinion, some contemporary design in China is lagging behind the old times.

IO What example would you give of Wabi-sabi in modern Japan?

JL MUJI would be a good example. The brand spirit is related to Zen, pursuing emptiness, imagination and infinity, plus a subtle attitude with no over-design. This coheres with the nature of Wabi-sabi.

IO You mentioned that modern design was China is losing the taste of Zen and Wabi-sabi, so how would you describe the graphic design industry today?

JL Clients today are very practical and realistic. Publishers want maximum delivery at the fastest possible rate, and designers want to complete their designs as soon as they can. This phenomenon is dangerous because we have skipped “Zen practice” – thorough research, careful analysis and detailed editing between the stages of the design process, eventually everything becomes thin and rough, and lacks calm and quiet thinking.

IO How do you stay alert to the little miracles / beauties of everyday life?

JL Working is one way. I have a lot of interests. I love sports, music, and travel, and seeing many things. These things are synonymous with staying alert and sensitive. I live a “playful” life, I learn and feel by working and submerging myself in hobbies, which contain many emotions and ideas you can put into your design. This attitude is also a teaching from Prof. Sugiura. And of course you need to work seriously as well (laughs). Today, we are living in a high-speed material world, and everything is about screens and the internet. We satisfy all needs through the internet, which wipe out touches and senses from our daily lives.

IO What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

JL The most beautiful and moving things in my life are the good things and the good people I have met during my down time. Around 40 years ago (during the Cultural Revolution, when all universities were closed) I was in Heilongjiang working as a farm worker in a rural village. Life was hard, and we had to do physical work intensively. I spent 10 years in the village, but I was still hoping to learn drawing and painting. One day, a very important figure came into my life. His name was He Youzhi (1922-2016), and he was sent by the government from Shanghai. I was one of three farm workers who were assigned to finish a serial drawing with him. He Youzhi was a drawing master, and also a very important person in Chinese art. I will never forget those days, because working with him was like living out a dream. He showed me how to build up stories, experiencing life, collecting ideas and materials, combining messages and even editing. This knowledge had a great impact on my work and is deeply rooted in my design work. He was a very good observer, with sharp eyes and a sense of humour. I always showed him my works, and he gave me a lot of advice. He was my teacher for life, and he showed me the right attitude for being a good person. He had a lot of passion for his work, and he kept drawing for his entire life. I am so grateful that I met He and Prof. Sugiura. They are both my mentors.

IO What do you expect from life? Or what does life in China expect from you?

JL I love design and it is a real blessing that I can do it every day. I am very satisfied. To be honest, I am already 70 years old, so rather than having expectations, I keep working and teaching daily. I want to foster more students and spread my philosophy and knowledge on book design to many, like a pastor. I also teach Master class, giving talks in schools and to publishers in different cities.

IO As a child, what was your dream career? And why did you become a designer later?

JL Influenced by my parents, my dream was to be a painter. My brother focused on shan shui and I did flowers and birds. Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution in 1966 stopped everything. Once the revolution was over, I got introduced to the China Youth Press as art editor in 1978. They saw my portfolio and wanted me to work there. In the publishing house, I created illustrations, and later I also did cover designs. During 40 years of work, I worked with many writers, editors and scholars. The jobs were fun, and equipped me with good knowledge of the printing process. Gradually, the dream of being a painter was left behind. Even so, I still kept on painting until I heard what Prof. Sugiura said: “Which one is more powerful? Pushing at a target with a palm or a thumb? Since you are learning design, you should stay focused (obviously that means I was distracted). Bookmaking is a culturally based career. It takes tremendous energy and effort. You will never succeed without focus.”  From that moment on, I put aside my brush.

IO Could you describe your typical working day routine?

JL Waking up at 7am, I start reading after breakfast and work from 9am to 12am. My wife is a doctor, and both of us are very busy. We only see each other once a week for dinner. It sounds strange, but this is our way of living. I live in my studio. Work is about everything, including looking at designs, meeting clients, and discussions. I don’t do design by myself. Instead, I let my team do it, leading them and giving them advice.  Besides, I have teaching and many activities to participate in, such as exhibitions, seminars, and judging. Many students from Germany, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan often come to visit. On weekends, I stay at my house in the mountains, farming vegetables and planting. I love being amid nature, and I like to see the way plants change through the four seasons.

IO Why do clients pick you as a designer? And what about clients when you were getting started?

JL Maybe I have the advantage of being “senior” in age and of having been in the industry for a long time. People have got to know my work well. The other reason is that clients usually come to me for a Chinese sense of taste, which the younger designers might pay less attention to. At the very beginning, there were only a few clients. I only received more clients in the last 30 years when I returned to China from Japan in 1993 after studying under Prof. Sugiura. Prof. Sugiura helped me to understand that design is about overall thinking, and that is why mastering editing skills is so important.

IO Are there any rituals associated with your design process?

JL Not at all. Nor is there any formula. However, I must read all the text and content before starting any book design. I read them in detail. My design is also about editing, adding messages to allow the book itself to speak. Let us take designing a history book as an example. I also research information and facts related to the characters, period, and all related items as supplementary materials, in both vertical and horizontal directions. I am never satisfied with a book design. Therefore, I spend plenty of time studying and interacting intervening the context. It might take years. I even take part in editing. Clients will give me the original content, and they are happy to let me decide how to do further research and design. I don’t care about how much effort I need to put in in order to deliver the best possible results. The choice of materials, paper, and printing method need to match with the topic. In some cases, the paper is handmade and the printing is done by hand.

IO I am curious. Will the design fee remain the same even when so much time and effort has been put in?

JL Yes. Everything remains the same. The quality of the book must come first.

IO Is there any hierarchy in your collaboration as a designer? Is this a norm in China?

JL My relationship with clients is equal. We can discuss and give opinions on the same ground, but this is not a norm in China. It takes time to fight for respect. The younger you are, the harder it is to attain equal status.

IO Do you compromise at work?

JL Usually, I am easily trusted by clients, but I have my principle, that is, to take two steps backwards and one step forward. I will listen to my clients as long as they are right, but I will not back down. In order for progress to be made, communication should be kept open.

IO What are the most enthusiasm-filled and most annoying moments in the design process?

JL The most exciting moment is when the materials arrive perfect and when our work is appreciated by clients. It is very annoying and often makes me angry when the materials and the text are not enough to form a book, and the clients seem confused and unwilling to fill in necessary information. Some clients do not realize the books are theirs not mine. It is important to tell them that it’s essential to have proper preparation. The other annoying moment is when my choice of materials and specifications are switched by the publisher because they want to save money.

IO Where do you get your feedback from? What feedback is important to you?

JL The most important feedback comes from authors, since books are their kids. I always ask their opinion after completing a project. Their responses are instant and honest because we made close friends during the design process. Other feedback comes from publishers. They will tell me if the books can sell well or not. I feel pleased when my books need to be reprinted and bring profits to my clients.

IO Who do you design for? For connoisseurs, or for everyone?

JL I design for book authors, no matter whether the book is for a small group or for the wider public. The number of readers is not my concern. I only work on books that interest me.

IO Do you think individuality is important?

JL Definitely, personality is the most important value in the world.

IO We looked at some of your work. They have plenty of sensory interaction, reminding me of Hendrik Werkman’s “temperature” approach to design. Could you share your view on these works?

JL When I make a book, I imagine how the book might be like a mother telling stories. The tone, expression, description, and choices of languages are all carefully considered, with a warm and comfy touch. This applies to every book, even a simple one. My mission is to arrange the sequence of messages, rhythm, layers, and hints scattered throughout the pages. I treat book making as storytelling. This design method is inspired by Prof. Sugiura, who taught me about the nature of “Noise” design. “Noise” is everywhere in life, in the background and surroundings. If you ignore these living elements, your design is cold. If you care about these things, your design is warm.

IO While commenting on the impact of technology, digital media, and publishing, you said that they opened up a golden opportunity for traditional book making. Could you please explain further?

JL Firstly, the digital market has taken away many readers from traditional publications, especially the younger ones. These changes have dragged publishers into a tough situation. Book sales have dropped dramatically, and they are losing money. To cope with this, reasonable publishers lower the quantity but raise the quality of books, to attract readers with good design taste. This also explains why my clients are paying more attention to details and why they are tending to produce more artistic books. Secondly, the changes in reading behaviour also lead to a change in values for the designer. In earlier times, many designers were asked to do only cover design for lower design fees, but less books in the market means that cover designers cannot survive for long. Eventually, only designers who can manage to deliver good and comprehensive design will stay, like Xiaomage. This is because design fees honestly reflect the value of a designer. Finally, from the reader’s point of view, less printed books creates a sense of scarcity. Books become superior, especially books with delicate design and printing. They draw readers’ attention far more than they did before. Opportunities come in as book design becomes trendy and culturally valued.

IO We can see that your work is permeated by your thoughts and ideas, such as wabi-sabi and emotions derived through reading. Might one say that this is intentional?

JL In fact, my design begins when the reader gets the book, touches it it, flips it and starts reading it, more than it does with the visual aspects. I intentionally design the whole contact process, leading the reader to interact with the book. Wabi-sabi is not limited to the enjoyment from the materials, but also the feelings realized in the process.

IO In other words, can we say that your book design goes beyond its traditional function as something to read? Is this idea a major trend in the industry?

JL You are right. I want to design books that readers can become involved with. My mode of design transcends book design beyond decoration, making the book a carrier that readers interact with, dive into and enjoy, and collect like a work of art. Some of my students, such as Yong Wu and Xiaomage, are doing the same, but this is not a mainstream idea. The mainstream of book design for the market is still very commercial, adopting a superficial approach.

IO So, other than the main stream of commercial publishing and designing book as a piece of art, are there any alternatives for publishing in China too?

JL Sadly, in China there are many restrictions on publication. Individuals cannot publish their own books freely, let alone put them in bookstores. However, individual publishing is emerging as a new trend recently. A small amount of editions can usually be seen in stationery stores and independent exhibitions. People are now aware that they can publish a book in their own words that will reach readers.

IO Can graphic design change people’s lives?

JL Absolutely. Small and independent bookstores are flourishing at the moment. This major trend is generating a new reading culture everywhere. People are leaving their screens to get back to bookstores and to read real books. Independent bookstores are also hosting events and activities. These bookstores are icons for a new lifestyle, and they attract a lot of visits. Besides, they are also the brewing places for art and music. Bookstores and book design are bringing about a change of behaviour.

IO If you were the dictator of the world of graphic design, what measures would you implement?

JL An increase of the fees paid to designers. Nowadays, young designers can barely make a living owing to the small amounts they are paid. More money should be spent on graphic design.

IO Last question: do you have any beliefs relating to design? Have you ever lost your belief?

JL Perhaps it is too lofty to talk about beliefs. I like my work as a designer. I love making books. I work every day, aiming for each book to be better than the last. This is my lifelong career. Sometimes it is painful and frustrating because there are only a few books that I have found to be successful and well made. (IO You are being humble!) Thus, every time a good topic comes in I am excited once again and determined to make it good. This sequence of ups and downs repeats all the time. I am grateful that my clients give me a lot of trust and always come to me. I believe in making good books to satisfy them. If you show people respect, then they will also show you respect. I use the word “Jingren” (respect people) in my name to form the word "Jingren-renjing” (respect each other), which reflects my belief.

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