The annual Young Designers’ Exhibition is an important platform for Taiwan’s design students to express their creativity. This year, for the first time ever, a curator is taking the reins in organizing the 2019 Young Designers’ Exhibition — and he is going to be making some significant changes.
Undefined: An Experiment in Disrupting Inertia
As we head into the 38th annual Young Designers’ Exhibition, a series gradual systematic changes — such as offering collaboration opportunities between academic and industry, and partitioning the exhibition into different sections according to design type — has laid the foundation for revolution. The long-standing, student-focused joint exhibition is standing on the cusp of another major change.
This is the first time the Young Designers’ Exhibition will have a curator. One would imagine the announcement that an exhibition will have a curator would be rather unremarkable; indeed, it is to be expected. However, if one combs through the details of previous Young Designers’ Exhibitions, they would find that curation played little to no role in previous exhibitions. Instead, past exhibitions acted as a mere platform, with the sole purpose of linking together the relevant parties. “But exhibitions need to have a narrative. That’s the only way you can define an objective and a direction, and create space for contemplation and critique,” says Hom Liou (劉冠宏), the first curator of the Young Designers’ Exhibition and Co-Founder of Moo Architect Workshop, when asked his opinion regarding exhibition curating.
“The Young Designers’ Exhibition is a very important design event in Taiwan”, Liou asserted. Liou believes that we need to abandon the idea that the exhibition is just about schools and students, or a venue for finding employment and competing for design awards. We need to think about this exhibition more holistically. What happens at these exhibitions, really, is mutual interaction between design education, industry, and national policy. This being the case, we need to accumulate long-term observations and narratives in order to find and develop the key players who will be driving the future direction of Taiwan design.
The 2019 Young Designers’ Exhibition will be a turning point in history. “Just as compelling narratives are developed through lengthy discussions, meaningful exhibitions also arise from long-term planning. With the hope that Young Designers’ Exhibitions from 2020 onwards will serve as an archetype for exploring the future direction of design and policy, I’ve decided to plan this year’s exhibition around the concept of ‘Not’.” In order to create an exhibition forceful enough to overcome long-standing inertia, Liou started pushing against the stagnancy with different ideas that embody the concept of “Not”.
“We shouldn’t view the Young Designers’ Exhibition in the way we do. The way we think about young designers and students, society’s expectations for students, students’ expectations for society, and the relationship between schools and students — all of it needs to be reevaluated.” Liou astutely summarized doubters’ apprehensions in a single question: “But, what is it? We don’t know. We need to do some thinking. It will require a lot of discussion and debate.” After which he firmly asserted, “But what we do know, is that what we should be doing, isn’t want we’re doing right now.”
In an attempt to loosen the general perception of the Young Designers’ Exhibition, Liou chose the theme “Undefined” for this year’s exhibition to be. “Undefined” is at once ambiguous and latent with opportunity. It represents the further exploration and reinvigorated thinking that this year’s exhibition will set in motion — perched at the brink of revolution, perfectly poised to topple traditionally accepted wisdom.
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When the curtain for this year’s Young Designers’ Exhibition finally rises — and the reaction to the aforementioned “Undefined” begins to form — an unmistakable change will have taken place precisely at center stage. First, Liou invited students from all schools participating in the Designer Venture Challenge Project to be part of the preliminary exhibition planning process. Second, in a clear divergence from previous exhibitions, Liou invited seven professionals from a group of 29 to share their daily working routine at this year’s Young Designers’ Exhibition.
Who are these seven people, you might ask? They are all around the age of 30, have a background in design, and were former participants in the Young Designers’ Exhibition. However, the most important thing they have in common is that they are all distinguished individuals in their field — but their current professions are completely unrelated to their studies.
One of them graduated with a degree in architecture, and now works as a botanical artist. Another is a mini pepakura artist, who uses utmost artistic precision to create lavish paper sculptures for deceased individuals to carry with them into the afterlife. A third is a graduate of the Department of Communications Design, who pursued an atypical career as a vegan dessert chef. A fourth is a graduate of the Department of Commercial Design, who changed his career trajectory to become a costume designer, where uses clothing to express fictional personas’ core personalities. A final member graduated from the Department of Visual Design, but ended up becoming a herbal tea specialist, much to everyone’s surprise.
Is the discrepancy between academic background and professional career “because schools aren’t teaching students practical skills they’ll need for life? Or is it a more benign phenomenon of applying their knowledge more broadly?” By exploring these conflicts between professional and academic background, Liou hopes to inspire a new way of thinking.
“Without passing criticism or final judgements, we invite these young professionals into the light so we can see all them more clearly. When everyone truly sees these seven exceptional young people for who they are, they can’t help but start thinking: How did they come to be so renowned in their field? Is it because of what they were taught, or because of what they weren’t taught? Are we using the right methods?”, Liou asked.
These questions don’t have a right or wrong answer. But each question sparks new ways of thinking — thinking about education, industry, or even whether the definition of who constitutes as a “professional” needs to become more inclusive. Liu continues, “Where did the term ‘professional’ come from? Young people that are intensely focused on every little thing, or who are committing every fiber of their being towards achieving something — are they not professionals? If society thinks that young people are only looking for life’s simple pleasures, is that a problem with young people or a problem with the narrow definition of who a ‘professional’ is in the eyes of society?”
As such, at this year’s Young Designers’ Exhibition, these seven young professionals’ workplaces will have the opportunity to be seen in a new light. They’ll even be asked to work on stage so everyone can see the minuscule details of their day-to-day work — no added interpretation or embellishment, just a pure and authentic depiction of reality. Liou is trying to keep an open mind in order to invite different interpretations, while also looking forward to how this presentation will reverberate with the public — and watch as it fuels future discussion.
Because this year’s exhibition plan is an attempt to disrupt the current situation, creating an emblematic key visual design is, undoubtedly, one of the first challenges to overcome. The core of the visual scheme starts with grey-colored “u’s” and “n’s” that seem to orbit across a white background, creating a mesmerizing effect of being in motion. The letters oriented in every direction are reminiscent of an eye chart — as if testing visitors’ vision before entering the exhibition.
The reason for selecting ‘u’ and ’n’ as the central design elements isn’t just because they happened to be the first two letters of “Undefined”. Leon Chang, the designer leading the key visual design, and director at Wooyo Design, explained that the “u” and “n” represent the central element of the exhibition, whereby “u” stands for “undefined” and “n” stands for “new generation”.
Furthermore, “u” and “n” are visual opposites, like “b” and “d” or “p” and “q”, so when the letters are arranged at different angles, they become indistinguishable from another. Through the dance between the rotating “u” and “n”, they hope to communicate that even minuscule changes in angles can twist what the viewer perceives — symbolizing that there is no “right” way to see anything.
Creating a large image using small pixels and arranging letters in different directions may remind some of last year’s key visuals. Chang explains that this resemblance is intentional. Because the 2019 Young Designers’ Exhibition exists in a period of transition, forming a bridge between the past and the future, the concept for this year’s exhibition balances familiar elements of previous exhibitions while also injecting completely new concepts. At once visually exciting yet vaguely familiar, the visual identity is designed to be the first step in drawing in the world’s focus.
“These key visuals serve as a stepping stone to a more complete visual system. It’s an introduction; a start. The emphasis is on the pictures of the seven professionals, which comes later on”. Chang further explains that the full identity includes the professionals and their working environments, including information about their academic background, educational level, and current occupation.
Chang thinks that continuing with the visual identity “will create conflict for people who continue to approach the Young Designers’ Exhibition with a more traditional mindset. ‘Why is the visual identity of a design exhibition presented using video? Why are they using photos of graduated students, not current students?’”. Chang believes that as doubts about the “abnormality” of this year’s exhibition begin to surface, “everyone will realize that having an exhibition theme this year will spark a monumental change”.
From the central concept to the visual identity, Liu likens this year’s Young Designers’ Exhibition to a large-scale vision exam — a chance for us to test our vision and understanding. Is our understanding about the new generation of fresh designers too narrow-minded? Are we biased in the way we perceive young people? Or is it really that “near-sightedness” or “far-sightedness” are influencing our entire field of vision? While these questions may seem abrasive, the topic, visual identity, and the entire curation of the Undefined exhibition are designed to create an atmosphere, Liou says, “that makes people start to ask questions. That is the most important objective of this year’s exhibition.”