Fast, Blind and Dense

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China’s Secret Language

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.

Can Design Preserve Culture?

On the hunt for the perfect cup of Turkish coffee, I ended up at the 600 year old Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and stumbled upon an object that offered clues to creating culturally meaningful design.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

Wandering through a labyrinth of aisles, stalls and touting shopkeepers my wife and I found a small lane with several crowded Turkish coffee shops in a row. We found couple of seats no higher than my knees and sat down, wedging between a Turkish family and a carpet salesman. Quickly we ordered two Turkish coffees from the handsome (according to my wife handsomeness seems to run with Turkish men) shop owner. “Sweet?” he suggested.

Sitting down for a cup of coffee

While he was preparing the coffees we had a clear view of his actions. He began by placing two teaspoons of what seemed like coffee dust into a tapering, cylindrical copper container with a long handle coming from two-thirds the way up its side. I later learned this is called a cezve (pronounced Jez-veh). He then placed two small espresso-cup full of water into the copper vessel and placed it over the burner of a small stove. He kept the cezve low on the flame until it began to boil when he deftly lifted it, allowing the frothing tarry foam to recede. He repeated this once more and poured the thick black coffee into two espresso sized cups set into a tiny metal cage. When he placed these cups before us he also gave us tiny glasses of water as well. “It prepares you for the coffee” he said.

The foam that defines great Turkish coffee

The cup was perfect. At the bottom was a deep sandbar of coffee dust that left a thin coating in my mouth. The last of the water washed it down.

So began our next hunt – I wanted to buy a cezve so I could learn to make Turkish coffee at home.

The first cezve I found was also copper and beaten on its side with hundreds of dimples around it with a shorter handle that had a knot of metal coming together. It was a ubiquitous model found throughout the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul and the tourist shops all over the world. It was cheap and looked it. I moved on. The next cezve was similarly decorated. And the next. And the next.

This is the most popular cezve design I found

I found decorated cezves everywhere I went. I was looking for something more modern, without decoration. From Kappadokya to Pamakkule to Ephesus I looked in vain for an undecorated cezve.

I finally gave up at the international airport in Turkey. As we departed for Slovenia I had crazy ideas for designing my own cezve, one finally free of decoration.

Slovenia is a world apart from Turkey. It is like landing in the forest of Hansel and Gretel, whom you half expect to greet you in customs. As we toured through the museum of Slovenian history I was surprised by the spare and simple design aesthetic that the Soviet Union had shaped from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman culture.

Slovenian design is striking and modern, influenced by the austerity of communist USSR

While exploring the capital of Lubljanja, we stopped for a coffee near the main square. To our surprise they had Turkish coffee. Wanting a fix, I ordered one. Seconds later my eyes bulged with shock.

The barrista pulled out a beautiful spun copper cezve that was completely devoid of decoration. The spout was even visibly formed by bending from its original cylinder. Would they sell me the cezve? And come to think of it, why is there Turkish coffee so far from Turkey? Most importantly, where did they get it? Yes, they could sell me one she said and they are designed and made locally in Slovenia.

The Slovenian designed cezve

It turns out Turkish coffee is quite popular all over Eastern Europe from the influence of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Over the 600 years of the Ottoman Empire, the cezves and coffee customs slowly localized. At its breakup in 1929, the Ottoman Empire left behind a deep and rich culture firmly embedded into the lives and objects of people all over Europe and Asia.

The cezves of the Ottoman Empire share a basic form in common – a wide, heavy base tapering to a narrower top with a long handle to hold the cezve over the flame. All of these features have a function. The heavy base distributes heat evenly, the copper material efficiently transmits it. The narrow top traps the coffee grounds and the spout lets as little grounds out as possible. The handle is long to dissipate the heat generated by the conductive copper as it’s held over the flame. Its form evolved to perfection over hundreds of years.  But that’s where the similarities end. The Turkish ones tend to have hammered marks and decorated handles using the motifs found in their architecture.  The further north you go the less decorated they become, until the Slovenian models have the austerity of the Bauhaus and machine efficiency of modernism.

Black enamel cezve

Brass cezve with motif

Enamel cezve from Czech

Recent cezve design with sticks for handles representing today’s values of environmentalism and nature

The globalization of the cezve designs through time and distance leads to an interesting hypothesis:

If form preserves function, decoration preserves culture.

Form is born from what the design must do – it is the (obvious) result of the interaction between people and problem to solve. Decoration (or lack thereof) is added to a design to make it something people love and relate to. It humanizes the design. If we examine design through history, the first art could be found in the decoration of the human body and soon after, in the decoration of pottery, bowls and tools. Archaeologists found decoration to be so tied to the cultures that produced them they use it to identify the origin of ancient objects. During the industrial revolution in 1919, the Bauhaus designers began a rebellion against decoration, with Adolph Loos going so far to call it a “crime”. But this is really just the latest in the fashion of decoration made global by the mass production of the industrial age. It certainly will not be the last trend. But it brings up an interesting problem unique to the globalized present.

Pottery sherds grouped according to motif and cultural origin

In the age of a global market, what culture do we design for? Will we end up with an averaged global culture that continues exporting Western culture remixed with local tastes? Will we be able to use decoration to package culture and experience it through design?

A quick examination of websites may provide a clue. If we look at shopping websites throughout the world we begin to see formal similarities and massive decorative (stylistic) differences.

USA - www.amazon.com

China - www.dangdang.cn

Russia - www.ozon.com

India – www.flipkart.com

Although the overall layout of these pages are largely the same, preserving the function of navigating online shopping, we can see culture being preserved in the style of the pages around the world. Dangdang has popups, flashing lights, and an endless scroll page meant to impress with quantity and the boldness of modern China. Ozon has a central blonde cowgirl in ripped jeans, almost comically Russian. Amazon focuses on economy and whitespace effusing American modernism. Flipkart resembles Amazon the most, reflecting the broad English literacy and westernization of India but with less skin.

These qualities were designed into the sites unconsciously by their designers. We are products of our culture; designers create the beauty that they know.

Hopefully, by understanding the relationship between form, function, decoration and culture, our future global designers will be able to create designs that are locally meaningful while remaining globally relevant.

Design as a Philosophy of Action

“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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