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In Conversation: Mingxuan Shen, Weaving Cultural Narratives Through Design

In the world of design, where creativity intersects with cultural narratives, Mingxuan Shen stands out as a beacon of innovation and cultural sensitivity. A multidisciplinary designer specializing in brand identity, motion, UI, and editorial design, Mingxuan's work is a testament to the rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Born in Shanghai and now making her mark in New York City, she brings a unique perspective shaped by her background in journalism, studio art, and cognitive science. This blend of disciplines enables her to approach design with a comprehensive and empathetic view, attuned to the nuances of cultural and social diversity. Previously honing her skills at Pentagram, she worked with clients including Apple, SONOS, BNY Mellon, and the Chrysler Museum of Art. Mingxuan is currently applying her graphic and interface design skills at Google. Mingxuan's projects are a fascinating exploration of the uniqueness of cultures and the ways they can be represented in design.


The Portrait of Mingxuan Shen

Q: First, how does your background in journalism, studio art, and cognitive science influence your conceptual approach to design projects?

My interests span a wide range. Art significantly shapes my aesthetic preferences in design. Conversely, my knowledge of journalism and cognitive science molded my thought processes. My understanding of various methodologies and the inherent biases in human cognition allows me to maintain a more impartial stance during research. My eclectic background enables me to craft designs that are sensitive and empathetic.


Q: In what ways do you think typography can act as a medium for cultural storytelling and resistance, especially in the context of non-Western scripts? How does New Wonton actively challenge and redefine the narrative around 'Chineseness' in Western design?

When I first arrived in the US, I noticed a common typeface used by many Chinese restaurants, which I later identified in my research as the 'Wonton fonts'. As someone with a background in Chinese calligraphy, these fonts seemed faintly familiar but also starkly contrasting. Their pointy vertices and rigid form give off an aggressive, unrefined appearance. These fonts, commonly found in commercialized Asian fast food packaging and Americanized Chinese restaurant signs, are often associated with low quality and cheapness. This trend extends beyond typography to areas like architecture and fashion. It perpetuates stereotypes about Chinese aesthetics and, by extension, fosters broader misconceptions about China. Motivated by this observation, my project aimed to counteract these negative impressions. With New Wonton, I aspired to reimagine and showcase a more sophisticated and authentic expression of Chinese aesthetics, reflecting the pride I hold in my cultural identity.


New Wonton. Image Courtesy of Mingxuan Shen.

Q: What was your creative approach in deconstructing the 永 character and reimagining it for the English alphabet? What symbolic meanings or cultural narratives did you aim to preserve or transform in this process?

The Chinese character “永,” translating to “Forever,” is fascinatingly emblematic of the entire generative system of Chinese writing. This character, like all Chinese script, is modular, composed of fundamental building blocks shared across the language. Remarkably, these basic elements give rise to around 3,500 commonly used characters. My New Wonton typeface draws heavily from these strokes, adopting a similar modular construction. This approach both preserves and highlights the versatility and creativity inherent in Chinese writing, a process that effortlessly crosses linguistic boundaries.


New Wonton. Image Courtesy of Mingxuan Shen.

Q: Can you talk about the research methods you employed to ensure cultural authenticity and sensitivity in New Wonton?

I acknowledge that achieving complete authenticity in the translation between two cultures is challenging due to the complexities and inherent disparities. For instance, Latin letters typically exhibit more rounded shapes compared to Chinese characters. In addressing this, I strove to adapt the construction principles of Chinese characters to develop new strokes for my design. However, the authenticity and sensitivity of a design are significantly influenced by the designers themselves. The identity of the creator plays a crucial role in determining the legitimacy of their perspective on specific cultural issues. In this project, my goal is to decolonize design by infusing it with my personal cultural perspective, thereby reclaiming the narrative of our own story, which inherently enhances its authenticity.


In contrast to the original Wonton fonts, my New Wonton typeface aims to retain some of the artistic qualities in Chinese calligraphy. This includes the deliberate incorporation of stroke inconsistencies characteristic of this traditional art form. Moreover, I employed a more intricate approach in crafting each stroke, incorporating varied details reflective of different brush pressures. I also took into account gestural stroke orders since they impact the way strokes are constructed.


It's important to note that this is just one interpretation among many possibilities. Chinese calligraphy encompasses many styles, and I am eager to see them find their way into translations across different languages.


New Wonton. Image Courtesy of Mingxuan Shen.

Q: How do you anticipate audiences, particularly those from non-Chinese backgrounds, will interact with and interpret New Wonton?

My hope is to capture the attention of observers when they notice the distinct characteristics in various Chinese-inspired fonts. Through this, I aim to spark their curiosity, encouraging them to explore and learn about the rich stories and cultural narratives embodied in each typeface.


Q: For designers aiming to integrate cultural and social awareness in their work, what specific strategies or practices would you recommend based on your experiences? Can you share a lesson you learned the hard way that might benefit others in the field?

Personally, my self-initiated projects are often born from my own cultural observations and experiences. It's a journey driven by passion and curiosity. Given the sensitive nature of cultural topics, I delve into research early on to lay a solid foundation for my projects. For instance, in another project, I encountered challenges in justifying my advocacy for cultural diversity. It's crucial to navigate carefully the fine line between being an advocate for cultural issues and overstepping into intrusion.


New Wonton. Image Courtesy of Mingxuan Shen.

Q: Working at Pentagram, a renowned design firm, must offer unique experiences and challenges. Can you share how this environment has contributed to your growth as a designer?

I have in the past worked at a few boutique agencies and in-house companies. Pentagram is no doubt the biggest studio I’ve so far worked at. It’s a great place to learn about the industry and the history of design. I’m lucky to be surrounded by many talented co-workers. In a small team, I also have the opportunity to explore beyond my comfort zone, taking on tasks I wanted to try but have never done before.


Q: What do you envision for the future of your practice, especially as it relates to themes of migration and identity? What vision do you hold for the international art community, especially concerning themes of migration and cultural exchange?

Culture has always been one of my biggest subject matters of design. I firmly believe that art cannot thrive in homogeneity. Design is no outlier. Therefore, I want to encourage all designers from various backgrounds to look beyond aesthetics and jump out of the framework of design where we are educated. In this way, we can see what is lacking, what we can challenge, and how we can make it more diverse.


New Wonton. Image Courtesy of Mingxuan Shen.

Q: Lastly, can you share any upcoming projects you are particularly excited about?

I'm currently immersed in another research-based project, focusing on linguistic biases related to gender. This inquiry was sparked when an art class instructor noted her use of the phrase “you guys” to address a class comprised of only females. This observation mirrors a similar trend in Chinese, where “他们,” the male pronoun for “they,” is used for mixed-gender groups. Curious about the prevalence of this bias, I conducted preliminary research with classmates from 13 different countries and found that this linguistic bias is widespread. This has led me to an experimental design project where I am exploring creative ways to use letter construction, strokes, and other typographic elements to address and perhaps counteract this linguistic phenomenon.


 

Mingxuan Shen's journey in the world of design is not just about creating visually compelling work; it's a continuous exploration of how design can foster understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity. Her projects, whether they delve into the complexities of typography or tackle gender biases in language, are infused with a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to cultural sensitivity. As she looks to the future, with projects that challenge linguistic biases and a vision that encompasses themes of migration and identity, Mingxuan remains a pivotal figure in shaping the international art community. Her work, grounded in a blend of art, journalism, and cognitive science, is a reminder of the power of design to transcend boundaries and speak to the shared experiences of humanity. With each project, Mingxuan Shen continues to redefine what it means to be a designer in a world rich with diverse cultures and stories waiting to be told.

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