East vs West: Cultural stereotypes explained in 10 simple pictograms
How do you explain the fundamental differences between cultures? If you ask designer Yang Liu, it's better to keep things simple. Liu, who was born in Beijing and moved to Berlin at 13, took on the challenge for East meets West (Taschen), a pocket-sized book of pictographs showing how values (respect for elders, treatment of newcomers) and practices (fever remedies, popular pastimes) vary across cultures.
"This book is a natural [outcome] of my personal life," says Liu. "I was constantly comparing [the two cultures] during my entire time in Germany, and trying to understand the reasons behind [people's behavior.] It is probably my personal way to understand my surroundings.
Liu spoke to CNN Style about design, misunderstandings, and the challenge of reducing complicated concepts into easy-to-understand images.
CNN: What inspired your East meets West series?
Yang Liu: I started this project in 2003 in New York. At that time, I had lived exactly 13 years in China and 13 years in Germany, and I wanted to document my life at that stage ... I had many misunderstandings during the 13 years in Germany. This is more my personal visual diary. Most of the images are based on a real story, which happened to myself.
This book, and your your previous book, Man meets Woman, use the same pictograph format. What do you find appealing about this simplistic approach?
Simple visual language is the oldest communication tool for different cultures. For me, it is also very important to transport the content to my audience. The visual language should be like codes and easy to understand so that the readers can focus on the major messages.
How do you condense the message into a single pictograph without sacrificing nuance?
I always look for the most minimalistic solution as possible to still be able to transport the message. I do many sketches. I spend 80% of my working time doing the sketches, and the digitalization is just a technical process. I try to avoid using a computer as far as I can to have more space for a creative process. I do try to reduce the drawings as much as I can, to see how far I can go [while] still being understandable.
In the traditional Chinese painting, the reduction of visual tools and elements is the highest level of art.
This way of working and thinking is probably culturally influenced. Since I grew up in the old town of Beijing before I went to Germany, I was very much influenced by traditional Chinese culture. In traditional Chinese painting, the reduction of visual tools and elements is the highest level of art. [For example,] in the traditional Beijing opera, most of the stage elements are not realistic, but symbols and gestures. Once you understand the basic codes, you can understand the whole play.
It could be argued that, through oversimplification, your work could further project stereotypes.
Stereotypes can be true or out of line ... Since East meets West is a personal diary, I was very much focusing on my personal experiences rather than what is been seen as stereotypes.
It is for us today very important to see more behind the actions being displayed. There are reasons behind all actions and behaviors and they are based on different reasons. I hope to help people to have more interest and [give them a] starting point to communicate.
Since you first started the project, East meets West has been used for cross-cultural training programs.
Yes, many intercultural trainers and language programs have included images of East meets West for their lessons or company trainings. I'm glad my book will help people get closer to another culture, and to be able to laugh about themselves, and that it could help them understand and be more tolerant of others.