Using 大气 (Da Qi) to understand the heart of Chinese art, architecture, design and politics.
In the back seat of a van from Ningbo to Shanghai one of the more striking structures I have seen materialized from the hazy pollution that hung over the Jiaozhou Bay. I pressed my forehead to the warm window of the van watching the structures change shape as we sped nearer. We finally drove past the structures revealing the structure to be a building in the shape of a massive eagle spreading its stark white wings over the hazy, soupy Bay. I felt small.
The restaurant at the middle of the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge that introduced me to Da Qi
I was reminded of standing under the CCTV building in Beijing, a space invader crash landed and looming over me. As the haze again swallowed the buildings I turned to Haul, my friend and fellow designer at IDEO and casually remarked, “Say what you want about Chinese architecture, but it has a strong point of view.” “You mean that the restaurant we just passed has Da Qi” he replied. “Da Qi?”, “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s what you just felt when you saw the building, it’s what you were when you paid for lunch, it is China’s obsession with growth”.
Passing under the imposing CCTV building in Beijing
“Da Qi (大气) is an ideal” Haul began. It is the ideal of masculinity and Confucianism. What does a person aspire to be? To be Da Qi is to have a big heart, to look past the little things and see the big picture. “Paying for dinner is a gesture of Da Qi, giving expensive gifts is a gesture of Da Qi”. A small village of houses with smashed roofs whizzes past us on the freeway. “Da Qi can become waste and abundance, being able to afford to throw something away or consume without thought. “Da Qi means leaving your village and coming back rich. Or moving your family to the city. I want to be successful and Da Qi is how you show you’ve made it”.
Tall Ceilings, big views and dark paneling create an aura of authority in Chinese architecture. “In my own home I added a façade to my front door to give it the illusion that it goes to the ceiling. It is Da Qi”. “In Beijing all the buildings are low and massive, taking up entire city blocks. It is impossible to see where they end”. Tienanmen Square is an example of vastness created by Da Qi principles, it is humbling and awe-inspiring. Da Qi can be measured by the amount of unused space.
The vast open space of Tienanmen Square
Entering the city limits of Shanghai, we pass a 15m tall egg made of giant fiberglass flowers set in a clearing off the freeway, encircled by the curving off-ramp. Haul continued.
“Da Qi requires balance as well.” Massiveness without space around it is no longer massive. The Temple of Heaven is an 80m pagoda pointed at the sky and surrounded by acres of carefully manicured gardens with short trees.
The Temple of Heaven set on top of a platform. Massiveness requires space to set it off
The famous ink paintings of mountain landscapes were the height of Chinese ancient art and used large sections of blankness, enveloping the scene with Da Qi. The result is beautiful. It is a study in balance and proportion, positive and negative, Yin and Yang. Space creates authority because you can afford it.
Early Spring, painted in 1072 by Guo Xi is a masterpiece of the Northern Song movement and shows how balance and white space create Da Qi.
“Feng Shui owes many of its principles to Da Qi. You place a house with the mountains behind creating massiveness when a visitor walks up. You place the river and garden in front so from the house you have a sweeping view. Opening the gates to the Forbidden City, the entire city is laid before your feet framed perfectly by massive double doors. It is like opening doors into another universe, one that is impossibly grand, impossibly Da Qi.”
The Forbidden City is a study in how the Da Qi of the Meridien Gate hits you in mere moments, even in the 1900’s
We finally stop in front of Haul’s apartment. Our driver, Joe, presses a button and the sliding door opens itself and slides slowly back on its track. I thanked Haul and said goodbye.
The next day I spoke to others in the office about Da Qi and began collecting opinions and ideas.
From blinged-out cell phones to building skyscrapers in record time to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Da Qi is the heart of modern China, pumping displays of wealth and power to the far corners of the world.
The Beijing Olympic opening ceremony was the ultimate Da Qi coming out party for China to the world
In China’s remote villages Da Qi is used to communicate wealth and power in convenience stores - here is the owner of a small store who told us that she piles boxes of his goods up like a mountain to impress customers.
The owner of this store piles up boxes of goods to create a mountain of products that impress the shopper as walk through the front door
Shanzhai manufacturers of cheap products want their goods to be seen as expensive so they employ every Da Qi trick in the book – except that of quality. They make their products look expensive from a distance using gold painted plastic, rhinestones and all black everywhere. It’s this thinking that leads to entire malls of electronics shouting at the top of their lungs “look at me”, websites that have banners that blink different colors so fast it causes seizures and skylines of 100 Las Vegases.
Mobile phones all screaming for attention with false Da Qi
This has created a unique aesthetic in China, one that is loud and bold. One of my favorite artists, Cai Guo Qiang uses gunpowder to blast paintings onto massive canvases, creates epic dioramas of tigers and cars crashing, even creating a black rainbow over the Thames with a mortar cannon. It doesn’t get more Da Qi than that.
The great contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s artwork blends scale, power and awe to impress Da Qi on the viewer
But attitudes to Da Qi are shifting. Wealth is becoming more common so people are turning to generosity and social responsibility to show Da Qi. The themes of the World Expo in Shanghai, Green, Sustainability and embracing a multicultural China reflect the changing attitudes to Da Qi even within the government.
As designers how can we use Da Qi to be relevant in the world’s biggest consumer market?
A return to the roots of Da Qi is to return to real quality, a return to its Confucian roots.
Da Qi design must be generous to people immediately. It must project confidence. It must breathe. It must respect our planet. And it must assume the user is smart and wise.
This is the first installment on Da Qi, stay tuned as I dig deeper.
From “made you look” to “made you think” - using walls to spread ideas.
Walls are all around us; they house us, protect us, imprison us and connect us. Some walls are so important they became famous: The Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of China and most recently, Your Wall on Facebook. But all walls everywhere have one thing in common – they are used by people to share ideas.
Living in the dense and blind world of LA neighborhoods, colors and letters on walls broadcast the unwritten rules of the local gangs.
I grew up in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. During high school the walls in my neighborhood began to speak to me. Scribbled across them were large block letters that spelled BVN (Barrio Van Nuys) for the predominant Mexican gang in the neighborhood. But in the washes of the LA River stood glorious 40 foot long, full-color pieces that spelled the name of the artist. It wasn’t always just a turf thing. My friends then introduced me to the secret world of walls.
The wildstyle of Rime, part of the MSK crew based out of Los Angeles
I was an Indian math/science nerd so slipping out of the house to illegally spray-paint walls in the middle of the night was a strange hobby. But I loved it because it was a way for me to anonymously express myself to the world. In the morning, there it was – making people look. A week later if nobody tagged over you it was a sign of respect – the ultimate street status. I didn’t do it for long; I was nearly arrested and decided to stick to my books after that.
A piece I did in Santa Barbara when I was 19 years old congratulating my sister on getting into UC Berkeley. Told you I was a nerd.
Since those days in the late 80’s, piecing on walls has greatly evolved. Back then getting recognized was the goal and volume was key – the more places your name was up, the greater your notoriety. Nowadays Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, Banksy and others have become globally recognized brands by putting up iconic imagery designed to ask the question “What does this mean?” more than say “I was here”. True art creates a change in its viewers; to do that an artist needs people to see their work. The contemporary art gallery has become the 405 freeway overpass.
A Banksy modified billboard in Hollywood commenting on society’s obsession with image.
“The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker” - Obey the Giant website
Seventeen thousand years ago in Lascaux prehistoric humans drew pictures of animals on the walls of the caves in which they lived. One theory is that the drawings of mammoths and horses were used to communicate successful hunting strategies within the clans.
The earliest cave paintings in Lascaux, France where early humans used the walls around them to share ideas between clans.
In the middle ages, it was common for people to post notices on town and castle walls to spread gossip and warn travelers and locals alike. Martin Luther, wanting to expose the extravagances of the Pope, nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church for all to see, thus igniting the Catholic Reformation and changing history forever.
But today the walls in our lives have become harder to see; our walls are digital. They have moved on our phones and into our pockets and laptops.
Nowadays instead of spray-painting on a wall we post our thoughts on Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare and Facebook. We share our ideas, bits of our lives and prove we exist through the reactions of family, friends and strangers. This new wall has a popular name – Social Media.
We are surrounded by personal digital walls wherever we go.
Everyone that has something to say can now say it directly to you. It is creating information density that is confusing and desensitizing us. Although information can scale infinitely, human attention cannot. This insight is driving a new breed of businesses.
Big Data is a promising field that uses advanced algorithms to search huge amounts of data to find patterns that people cannot. It promises the ability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. The front-runner in this field is Palantir, a company that creates software that is used by the CIA to predict terrorist events using data sets as diverse as plane tickets and weather.
Information density is also creating a new economy based on curation, and it is quickly become the darling of Silicon Valley. Individuals like Maria Popova of Brainpickings and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing scour the web and post what they find interesting to massive followings. People on Twitter become mini-curators that craft a news feed that they hope will gain a following. Platforms like Pinterest and others are attracting tremendous valuations because they enable me to find the needle that I didn’t know I wanted. Even Apple curates its own App Store.
Having good taste (or most importantly - a Point-of-View) in our blind and dense world is the new search engine. You just need a wall to write it on.
The Wall Part 1
Here are a few pictures of small pieces of graffiti I have taken on my recent travels around Eastern Europe and Turkey.
There was no real pattern to the graffiti I saw except for its ubiquity. It seems that people everywhere have the same need to write something or leave a piece of themselves on a wall. It’s amazing how people around the world use the walls around them to express themselves, communicate with others and prove their existence.
What can we learn from the walls around us? From taggers to writers to artists like Banksy, how will the wall evolve as a medium of communication? How will the idea of a wall empower communication in a blind and dense world?
What is Facebook’s business worth? An interesting question brought into focus by the impending Facebook IPO and it’s surrounding media frenzy. A lot has already been written but I’ll add my thoughts before the opening bell.
A recent poll showed that the American public was nearly evenly divided over the 100 billion dollar valuation of Facebook. Which suggests it is fairly priced. Even experts seem to be split though most seem to be leaning towards overvalued. One way of looking at the valuation is through the lens of its users.
At a 100 billion dollar valuation, each Facebook profile is worth approx 110 dollars. Using the latest revenues of 3.7 Billion for “face value”, each profile was worth approx 4 dollars.
This 106 dollar “value gap” needs to shrink considerably or Facebook needs to convince Wall Street that it has a plan to shrink the gap - otherwise face a major selloff from a loss of confidence.
Facebook’s challenges lie not just in growing it’s user base but in increasing the value of that user base (without losing it, or spending much more to get it).
Interestingly, this is much the same challenge that the telecom companies have. Telecoms have an audience with high switching costs in a saturated market. They have become a “dumb pipe” of wireless information and are now struggling to become more than that even as next-gen companies are being built using those pipes.
Telecom’s big mistake in the early days of the battle for the mobile web was in constructing “walled-gardens” from which it directed users to buy stuff (remember the AT&T Store?). Of course this didn’t work because the telecoms could never provide the full variety of the web experience which is what users wanted and so people never used them. The telecoms also never thought to create a piece of hardware that could browse the web while mobile, or use the network they owned. They didn’t think it was their business. Apple eventually cracked that problem with the iPhone and promptly built the ultimate open-platform walled-garden of its own, the App Store, and dictated conditions that the industry now openly regrets.
Facebook’s biggest hurdle is the fact that it is effectively a walled garden on the web - what Facebook users do outside Facebook is largely unknown to people who advertise or build onto Facebook. Social Graph was an attempt at breaking this silo down but the social graph is opt-in by the user (you need to “like” an article on CNN for example) and therefore not very robust for deep data mining.
That leaves Facebook to live or die on its ability to turn itself into a platform so vast and deeply integrated in peoples’ lives that it effectively becomes the new web. The good news is the first step has been taken; most apps developed for the iPhone or Android already demand a Facebook sign-in to leverage the users’ existing social network. The biggest risk for Facebook is they stall out and become uncool - MySpace has shown us what that looks like already.
What’s cool about Facebook is not Facebook but that my friends are with me everywhere I go. As many have said, figuring out mobile is absolutely critical for Facebook - and players like Path have a head start. Facebook can’t buy all the Instagrams that crop up so they will have to own it eventually. Then there is the question of monetizing mobile in a way that doesn’t destroy what makes it cool.
It makes me wonder if Facebook is at the same crossroads as the telecoms - knowing what business they are really in will determine if you can avoid becoming the world’s next commodity. If Facebook can eventually own an end-to-end mobile experience that delivers truly “happy, unscripted moments” that are both social and commercial, Facebook’s valuation at 100 billion dollars may be very low.
There is far more at stake here than Facebook because as Facebook goes, so will the fortunes of all startups - the fortunes of web 2.0 really. The startup world of silicon valley, NYC, Shenzhen are highly inter-connected in unexpected ways. If Facebook ultimately disappoints, we will all look back and shake our heads at the famous line in the movie “the social network” - “you know what’s cool? A billion dollars”, and call it the great second bubble.This would be deeply unfortunate.
I’m really rooting for you Facebook.
“It’s a city built of pieces of cities. A corner from one place, another from some place else. So, you don’t really know where you are…its like every time you travel, you’ll be lost”
- Patrick Tatopoulus, Dark City
In the movie Dark City, aliens rebuild the city in which the residents live every night. Every morning the residents awake to a new city, vaguely confused and beginning their days trying to keep up, as if they need to catch up to something but not sure what it is. This could very well describe life in Shanghai, Shenzhen or any one of China’s surging mega-tropolises. If you live in one of these frontier cities you will agree that seemingly overnight entire neighborhoods are built, reshaped or torn down.
For better or worse, we are now in a society where the rate of change is outpacing our ability to learn (fast), domestic and global markets are complex - interdependent in hidden and surprising ways (blind), and the competition for diminishing human and natural resources is intense (dense).
The sheer scale and speed of this reshaping of the emerging economies is warping the rules for business and society in unexpected ways. The tidal shift in global redistribution of wealth from West to East has created new market conditions that move so quickly that businesses and consumers are now spending more time catching up than thoughtfully moving ahead.
The crazy part is that it’s going to get even faster, blinder and denser.
The development of fast, blind and dense markets is the latest ripple extending out from the industrial revolution and extended by the internet revolution and was brought on principally by an increasing population in resource scarce regions. Couple these regions with new wealth from commodities and you have a new wild west shaping the consumers and cultures of the future.
Paying to compete for attention.
The consumers of tomorrow will look fundamentally different than those of today. They will be demanding products and services that are globally relevant, yet locally meaningful. They will have far more choice than their parents did - from what they consume to what they do for a living to how they express themselves.
If we continue on our current path of abundance, how will our societies grow in the super-prosperous conditions brought on by the emerging economies?
One answer may be provided by Universe 25, a city of mice built by John B. Calhoun, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland. Universe 25 was designed to be a Utopia - unlimited food and water in a 10 by 14 foot enclosure. He placed 15 mice into this city and within a year and a half there were over 2000 mice all competing not for the plentiful air, water and food but for space, attention and affection.
In short, this Utopian paradise turned into mice hell. When the mouse population outstripped the available space, the mice fell into what Calhoun called the “behavioral sink” where "explosive violence, hypersexual activity followed by asexuality, and self-destruction" became the inevitable outcome.
For a full account of Calhoun’s work read the excellent article in Cabinet by Will Wiles here: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/42/wiles.php
There is a silver lining though, if you could call it that. Maybe more of a glimmer of hope. Calhoun found that creativity and social connectedness emerged spontaneously in the mice and they were able to stave off the collapse of their mouse society. He came to believe that creativity and design can solve our future problems.
The creativity needed in this future doesn’t look like what you think. It isn’t rainbows of genius shooting forth from the pens of scholars in ivory towers. The New creativity is dirty, messy and scrappy trial and error that is crowdsourced and networked across society - enabling collaboration and openness. Leadership will become a recognized skill necessary to rally the creative potential of society and focus it on a purpose (people like Oppenheimer and JFK come to mind). Continual evolution of ideas rather than incubated perfection is the norm in Fast, Blind and Dense markets.
The never-ending cranes of Asia.
Asia contains the fastest, blindest and densest markets in the world. As competitive pressures increase it is up to us to become more creative and trusting to literally keep our sanity in this new world. And in Asia we will be able to experience the future first, and also solve its problems first. I believe we are more than capable of avoiding the fate of Universe 25 and Dark City by using our collective imagination and optimism; and in doing so, attain a new global prosperity.
“Practicing is greater than knowing”.
-Xun Zi 300 BC
I was raised to believe that knowledge is power. Then I moved to China and found that wasn’t always true.
In the West, markets are stable and known. There has become a set way of doing things, “the _____ way”. But China moves too quickly for that. There hasn’t been time for any particular way to become standard. In China, your knowledge can become your limitation, especially when change outpaces your ability to learn.
Xun Zi’s great insight was in articulating that when we ‘know’ something, there is nothing more to be learned; the subject matter is closed. But the essence of design is that there is always more to be learned. If there is a truth in design, it is as mercurial as human desire.
It goes without saying that we live in a time where uncertainty and change are growing at an exponential rate, fueled by the accelerant of technology and globalization. Any process or dogma that is rigidly based on what is true now could become extinct in short order; to survive we must adapt, and to adapt we need flexibility.
To practice design, rather than to know design, is the challenge—in China and in every emerging frontier.
Meanwhile, our current global culture still places knowledge on the highest pedestal; our schools still elevate rote memorization. Do schools kill creativity? And are we preparing a generation of kids to just follow instructions (however misguided)? Sir Ken Robinson’s highly regarded TED talk on this very topic is well worth the 18 minutes:
"kids will take a chance…if they don’t know, they’ll have a go."
One of my favorite lines in Robinson’s TED talk is, “kids will take a chance…if they don’t know, they’ll have a go.” Our future belongs to those with the courage to “have a go” at solving whatever problems they face—in China, and beyond.
By prototyping and practicing, we evolve our assumptions. By taking nothing for granted, we learn experientially and create work that can verify or refute our instincts. By rapidly and continuously building within the marketplace, a philosophy of action leads to products and services that are sincerely and beautifully designed for those they are meant to serve.
Learn. Create. (Do not rinse) and Repeat. Design as a philosophy of action emphasizes empirical experience translated directly into a physical hypothesis. Once an idea or hypothesis is made physical, it takes on a life of its own and can evolve toward a naturally ideal solution.
One of the hackerspaces around the world where people are encouraged to quickly build their ideas in a collaborative environment.
A philosophy of action gives us a way of approaching problems as flexible as the problems themselves. This flexibility is the killer app for thriving in our highly uncertain future. Without action, the designers, corporations, and governments of today will not be able to keep up in our fast paced and increasingly uncertain times.
We have to keep moving and keep flowing to keep up. And as Bruce Lee put it 2300 years after Xun Zi, there’s only one way to start: “Be like water my friend”.
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