Professing graphic design in Yantai, China

I spent the last two weeks of December 2011 completing a two-week teaching gig at Ludong University in Yantai, Shandong Province, China. I was asked to teach graphic design there by the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design at the University of Bridgeport, with whom Ludong has developed an international affiliation. I followed an opening two-week visit by a colleague from SASD, Professor Emily Larned. As far as the leadership at Ludong University is aware, this is the first time graphic design has been taught in China by visiting Western professors.

China - Shandong Province - Yantai

Yantai is a city of 8 million people about an hour and ten minute’s flight east-southeast from Beijing. It is a port city on the Yellow Sea, so seafood is plentiful – and wonderfully different. In addition to being a regional business center, Yantai is also renowned for its extensive apple and cherry harvest.

Yantai Seaside

Yantai Cityscape

This is a composite shot of a principle intersection in downtown Yantai: the buildings there are not actually tilted – at least not to this extreme. These photos were taken on a too-long run from campus: I was pressed for time an hour and ten into the run when I finally found my destination, the harbor. Asking passersby for a more direct route back to the university, I was told “too far” by the first two. I eventually got directions and made it back to campus in 35 additional all-uphill minutes. That was a no-rest-for-the-weary push.

Ludong University is a medium-sized Chinese institution of about 25,000 students, half of whom are studying at the graduate level. They draw their students from all over China, though the majority come from Shandong Province, which is a large area – taking about seven hours to drive across from end to end.

Ludong University Teaching

I asked to meet each of my three classes ten times – once per day for the two weeks I was there –  and expected to leave China very tired, but we compromised and I met each class eight times over the two weeks. That provided nearly the maximum number of critique opportunities to discuss the students’ design thinking shown in their homework. This is a very early critique because many of the studies show random abstractions that have nothing to do with the originating letterform nor the intended abstract expressions. But the light approach I try to take with experimental work is plain on the students’ faces. They may have been laughing at my Chinese pronunciation: WOH bu geedoh. Woh BU geedoh? Woh bu GEEdoh… Woh bu geeDOH! Wherever you put the emphasis, it means “I don’t know.” 

Ludong Teaching 2

Ludong University Teaching 3

Paper in China is not particularly expensive, but it is respected as a finite resource. Instead of taking notes, students photograph everything with their phones, including their professor who is holding up a study for discussion. Chinese students do not own their own printers, so outputting studies at the local print shop, which is closed from 7pm until 8am, is part of their homework planning.

Ludong Teaching 4

The two-week course could not have been nearly as successful without the extraordinary skill of Xu Shanshan (or “Sophie,” in the foreground), my graduate-student interpreter and translator. I was talking for two weeks about letterform abstraction, image abstraction, and conceptual abstraction, none of which are especially easy to grasp in English (I know this: I teach it regularly), and Sophie not only translated what I said, she understood and was wonderfully able to express what I meant. This was made evident in the students’ work.

Ludong Teaching 5

Here are most of the students with whom I worked at Ludong with Sophie, who is holding an inscribed copy of my Advertising Design and Typography book. It was important to me that she be presented with this in the presence of “our” students.

Ludong Teaching 5

It was cold, snowing every couple of days, and heat is extremely carefully used. Coats are worn by everyone all the time, outdoors and in. Twice-per-week celebratory dinners with professors, deans, and key administrators were occasions to eat until failure: a brilliant ritual!

There were several opportunities to visit extraordinary cultural sites. This huge Taoist temple is near the town of Guzhen, Qixia City, very near the Mu Family Man­or, the largest (480 rooms) intact feudal landlord manor in northern China and a protected historical site which was begun in 1723.


About Alex W. White

Author Designer Professor
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