Graphics That Bridge a Linguistic Divide

Graphic designers Chris Calori and David Vanden-Eynden have been working in China since 1998—first in Hong Kong and later on the mainland. Last year they completed the signage and way finding for a mammoth convention center in Suzhou, a city of 2.1 million, located 50 miles northeast of Shanghai. One of the project’s signature elements was an entrance sign for the Suzhou International Exposition Centre. While it seems straightforward, the seventy-foot marker is actually a fairly complicated mediation between Chinese culture and the English-speaking world. Recently I sat down with Calori and Vanden-Eynden and looked at the subtleties behind the sign.


Colors: Red and gold—two ubiquitous colors in China. “One of the interesting things about working there are the cultural aspects of graphics,” Vanden-Eynden says. “There are certain colors, you don’t use. White, for instance, is the color of death. It’s like directing people to a funeral.”

Letters vs. Characters: The Chinese language has more than twenty thousand characters in common usage, and they function in fundamentally different ways than Western letters. “Each character is really an idea,” Calori says. “They’re called ideograms. The Chinese can say in four characters what it might take us a paragraph to describe.”

Type Position: The Chinese characters appear here in the “superior” position, on the left side. “In Hong Kong, before the handover, English always appeared first,” Vanden-Eynden says. “On the mainland today, Chinese is always in the superior position, but the Chinese still want English on all their signs, even if there are no tourists around, because to them it makes it look like [they are part of] the 21st century.”

Streamlining: There are two versions of the Chinese character set: Traditional and Simplified. “During the Cultural Revolution,” Calori explains, “the government simplified—streamlined, really—some of the characters, theoretically to make it easier to teach people to read. For this sign, we used Simplified. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, they still use Traditional. It’s interesting, as China becomes more aware of their past, more worldly, it’s suddenly become cool and kind of chic to use Traditional.”

Fonts: Due to the seemingly infinite nature of Chinese, there are a limited amount of usable fonts. “Unlike here, you don’t have 10,000 readable options,” Vanden-Eynden says. “You have what they call the big five type faces.” There is, however, the Chinese equivalent of Helvetica called Hei, which Calori and Vanden-Eynden used here.

Stacking: Set vertically, Chinese reads from top to bottom; English is rotated ninety degrees and read the opposite way—like the spine of a book.

Sizing: English characters tend to be heavy compositionally, while Chinese is complex and delicate. “So we always size Chinese twenty percent taller to give it balance,” Vanden-Eynden says.

The Somewhat Literal Translation: “Historically, Suzhou was known for its gardens and greenery,” Vanden-Eynden says. “So the top particle of the first character means ‘grass.’ The second character translates roughly to ‘green state.’

“The next two characters combine to create International. The third character stands for ‘nation;’ the big box around it is ‘mouth’ or ‘center.’ The strokes inside of the box denote ‘jade,’ which is highly prized. The fourth character represents ‘border’—but one part also symbolizes ‘the ear,’ another part ‘to demonstrate.’ So, literally translated, you’re demonstrating that you’re the prize or the center or the mouth.

“How do you describe an Expo? It’s a notion. We shortened it, because ‘exposition’ was too damn long. So what takes place at an expo? Well, a bunch of people and companies get together in one spot to show each other new products and ideas. That’s a lot to describe in one word. The Chinese manage to do it in two characters, which stand for ‘abundant’ and ‘view.’ The top part of the fifth character is ‘noting like it’ or ‘of itself’ (the cross doesn’t have a lot of significance); the second part means ‘subsidiary,’ and the bottom is the unit name for the Chinese inch, which implies a multitude of something. The sixth character is ‘to look’ or ‘view.’ So, an abundant-amount-of-things-to-look at equals expo.”

“The last two characters for Centre—it’s interesting they went with the British spelling—are actually redundant,” Calori says. “Often you see the seventh character—it means ‘middle’—for center. But the client also added the eighth character, which is the symbol of ‘heart.’ The heart is the middle, so they reinforce each other. This was a total embellishment.” Adds Vanden-Eynden: “They wanted the warm, fuzzy heart center, as opposed to the cold, hard center of hell.”

Categories: Cities