An Ideal University Life

Material Information

An Ideal University Life
Geng, Rongfei
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla
College of Fine Arts; University of Florida
Publication Date:
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Project in lieu of thesis


Subjects / Keywords:
Chinese culture ( jstor )
College students ( jstor )
Cultural values ( jstor )
Empathy ( jstor )
Graduate schools ( jstor )
Graduate students ( jstor )
Graphic design ( jstor )
High school students ( jstor )
Universities ( jstor )
Websites ( jstor )


Having been studying in both China and the US, I experienced two different cultures and thus two different value systems. According to my experience and observation of Chinese college life, a lot of students were and are in a state of bewilderment. Once they enter college, they are no longer solely focused on the Entrance Exam and, without a plan for future directions, become lost and bewildered. Many lose their interest in studying or aspirations in life. They become apathetic about many things, such as self-realization, knowledge-seeking, or social accountability and many thus simply follow trends, doing things that they have to do, are told to do, or follow what others are doing. In this project, I explore how concepts, strategies, forms and methods of graphic design can be used to explore and to communicate questions about values to Chinese college students. This includes the values they hold and new values that they are exposed to, and will be mainly narrowed down to self-development and social responsibility. My goal is to develop their empathy and awareness for active and critical thinking, to communicate messages that have long-standing influence on them, and to empower them for a more meaningful college life, both to themselves and to others.
General Note:
Graphic Design terminal project

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University of Florida Institutional Repository
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University of Florida
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All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
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915046499 ( OCLC )


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RONGFEI GENG MAY 2013 Summary of Project in Lieu of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulllment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts Committee Chair: Maria Rogal Committee Member: Brian Slawson


i ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to express my deep gratitude to my committee chair, Maria Rogal, for being a great mentor, who has always supported me through her knowledge, criticism, and guidance, as well as much encouragement in this project and my MFA graduate study as a whole. My deep gratitude also goes to my committee member, Brian Slawson, who has always been resourceful and open-minded; he helped me throughout this project and the three years leading up to my MFA thesis. I extend my appreciation to my peers in the Graphic Design MFA program at the University of Florida, whose critical feedbacks helped me grow as a designer. I thank Dr. Dori Grin, Mengfu Zhang, Dr. Guolong Lai, and the faculty members who taught me at the University of Florida, for unselshly helping me in my academic growth. I thank my brothers and sisters at the Gainesville Chinese Christian Church, especially the F4 young adults fellowship, who supported me with love and encouragement as a big family would throughout these three years. Last but not least, I thank my beloved parents, my in-laws, and my wife Dan Zhai, without whose love and support I wouldnt be at this point in life.


ii Abstract Project Background My University Life: A Story of Higher Education in China Dierent Experience When I Studied in the US A Glance at Students Value Views in Chinese Universities Problem Statement Points of Departure: Some Questions Justication and Delimitation Target Audience Methodology Reading About Related Literatures Borrowing from Ethnography Co-design and Storytelling Project Process and Design Iterations Visualizing the Problems Call to Action Storytelling and Critical Thinking Public Exhibition Other Ideas Conclusion Future Directions Terminologies Bibliography Appendix A Appendix B Appendix C Biographical Sketch iii 01 01 03 05 08 08 09 10 11 11 12 12 14 15 18 20 23 28 29 33 34 37 42 43 48 52 TABLE OF CONTENTS


iii ABSTRACT Having studied in both China and the US, I experienced two dierent cultures and thus two dierent value systems. According to my experience and observation of Chinese college life, a lot of students were and are in a state of bewilderment. Once students enter college, they are no longer solely focused on the Entrance Exam and, without a plan for future directions, become lost and bewildered. Many lose their interest in studying or aspirations in life. They become apathetic about many things, such as selfrealization, knowledge-seeking, or social accountability, and many thus simply follow trends, doing things that they have to do, are told to do, or follow what others are doing. In this project, I explore how concepts, strategies, forms and methods of graphic design can be used to explore and to communicate questions about values to Chinese college students. This includes the values they hold and new values that they are exposed to, and will be mainly narrowed down to self-development and social responsibility. My goal is to develop their empathy and awareness for active and critical thinking, to communicate messages that have long-standing inuence on them, and to empower them for a more meaningful college life, both to themselves and to others.


MY UNIVERSITY LIFE: A STORY OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN CHINA In the past few decades, China has gone through great changes. The ending of Cultural Revolution is followed by the Opening Up Policy, and the unied faith of Maos vision (Schwartz, 1968) to transform Chinese society into a Communist utopia eventually faded out with Maos death (Shirk, 1982). Chinese people entered into a state of being lost, lost in faith, in personal emotion, in language, etc. (Bei Dao in Cha, 2006) New thoughts, cultures, fashion, technologies, life styles, and values from the west came and diversied peoples mind. Chinese who were born in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s were divided into dierent generational groups, and are considered to have notable dierences in the social environment that create the generation gap. I was born in 1985 and therefore belong to the Post-80s Generation, which is the generation born right after the One Child Policy 1 was strictly enforced. As the only child in my family, I grew up with parents and teachers indoctrination that good grades would lead me to good life, and getting into the best schools at the next level became goals of dierent phases in my life. Therefore the College Entrance Exam became the ultimate goal in my life at that time, because I was told once I entered a good university, I could do whatever I wanted and no longer had to labor for study. My entrance exam score got me accepted to a tier-two university. We chose our major after the Entrance Exam but before entering college. I wasnt able to study what I wanted to because the major 1 PROJECT BACKGROUND 1. One Child Policy is a population control policy in the Peoples Republic of China, introduced by the government in 1978 and enforced since 1979. The policy requires one urban family can only have one child, except some special cases.


English was decided in a family meeting by senior family members. But my parents and my high school teachers didnt lieonce I entered college, no one would force us to study, though some teachers would still encourage us to study hard. We barely had any homework, nor did we have a lot of things to memorize like we did in primary school and middle schools. We didnt have another big exam like the Entrance Exam to ght for, except one called TEM-4 (Test for English Majors, level 4) (Jin & Fan, 2011). We had to pass that exam to graduate. But that was in the end of the sophomore year. The life goal I had always been working hard for became reality, yet another three quarters of my life were still waiting ahead of me. I felt lost, and didnt know what to do. So were many of my peers. Bewilderment was a word frequently found in our daily conversions and blogs we wrote on the web. Such bewilderment was just a microcosm of the bigger social contextjust like how Chinese people became lost in diversied values after the Communism faith faded out, when we no longer had the single mission in our lives to ght for, we only felt emptiness and started to look at dierent things with our abundance of free time. Sadly, because of the exam-oriented education system, few of us knew what our interests were. Therefore some of us maintained what we were doing prior to college, studying hard and trying to 2 FIGURE 1 A classroom of the university I attended during lunch break. Many students studying in the room are out for lunch and some remaining students are taking a nap.


3 get good grades on exams, because we knew that was what we were suppose to do; Some of us realized how erce the competition we had to face when we graduate, and therefore carefully chose what was useful to work on, trying to get as many credentials as we could; Some also organized and participated social activities, joined student government and then the Party, preparing the future path of ocialdom, etc. And a lot of us, just stopped caring about anything and indulged ourselves into the pleasures of idleness watching time elapsing. I have always been a hardworking student, as I was told to be since childhood. I couldnt agree with lots of other students around me, who started playing video games all day long. But most of my time was devoted to student government activities instead of studyI designed poster boards, yers, and websites for activities, I organized new student orientations, lectures, speaking contests and singing contests, and emceed most of them. I became recognized, and earned much respect. I was considered an excellent student model in many others eyes. But I still felt lost, because I didnt know what I could do after graduationI didnt have a goal, until one of my professors recommended I further my studies aboard. DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE WHEN I STUDIED IN THE US Unlike China, there are no unied values in the United Statesit is dened as an individualistic society (Georgianna, 2007). From the beginning, this is a country formed by dierent people coming from dierent cultures and places. It is a country that respects free spirit, and that believes in peoples unalienable rights in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I met students coming from dierent parts of the world in the United States. Students lives before and in universities were quite dierent here. They do have a entrance exam, called SAT or ACT, but it wasnt anything they had to ght for since they started school. The score they get on the standardized test was not the only standard to evaluate them, nor would these scores, or the universities they get in, be compared and ranked and posted on bulletin boards in campus. They actually dont have to take those exams or go to collegesome go to work after they graduate from high school, and they would still be respected by others because of their hard work.


4 As I observed, American students dont have to compete with their peers much. They dont have to go to the best universities, and attending a community college doesnt mean their lives will become a failurethey still will have responsible teachers, they still can work hard and be respected by society. Everyone has their own path, and their parents wouldnt compare them frequently with other kidsactually, parents will do the opposite: they will encourage them, and stop their children from comparing themselves to others. The students I met in universities were actively seeking direction based on their own interests, and they went to graduate school not because they only think that provides them better jobs. They set goals and work hard to achieve them. They work hard because they love what they do and they are being responsible for themselves. They stay up over-night working on projects. They conduct research and independently solve problems, they care about things happening outside this campus and issues beyond their future career. They do projects to promote biking and food health, to promote equality and human rights, to comment on cultures and other social issues. FIGURE 2 Art majors doing a critique in class. Many of these students have a strong interest in what they are studying and the future direction they will pursue.


5 The academic honesty policy is highly reinforced and plagiarism is punished. Cheating on school work will be criticized not only by instructors but also by peers. They may ask for help, but most of them tend to independently confront problems, instead of paying someone to do it. I can recall when I was in the student government in China, I received an oer letter from someone to pay me to take a standardized English exam for him. And little yers selling standard answers to certain exams were not dicult to nd on the walls of restrooms. Many of these observations in the United States amazed me, because they werent found in my college life in China. I barely wrote any papers before my undergraduate thesis, nor did I do any projects. I didnt know what research was, nor did I nished reading one book from cover to cover. But ironically, I was still considered to be an excellent student in China. A GLANCE AT STUDENTS VALUE VIEWS IN CHINESE UNIVERSITIES Before entering universities, most Chinese consider the Entrance Exam as the top priority. Once they are accepted, things they value become dierent. These dierent values can be manifested through the phenomena below. I am using the term phenomena because they are not necessarily mutually-isolated stereotypes, even though some students might possess only one of the phenomena and seem stereotypical. Overall, these phenomena are seen in many students and they are interlaceda student might possess more than one phenomenon at the same time, or possess dierent phenomena at dierent periods of his/her university life. One phenomenon that dierentiates itself from others is that students do not care about anything at all. They stopped laboring for anything as they used to do before entering university. Instead, they would go to internet caf day and night or persuade their parents to buy laptops for them so they can immerse themselves in video games. Other activities include sleeping, downloading and watching movies/TV series, online chatting, dating, etc. They attend few or no classes, and their grades usually suer. They generally ignore teachers and peers warnings until the end of their university life. Ming Zhang, a professor and a critic in China, thought this was due to the generation gap and those students had dierent value views at the beginning, but he later concluded that it was not the FIGURE 3 An internet caf in China. Some college students spend days and nights here.


6 case, because those students didnt have any value views, they were just becoming numb (Zhang, 2011). Among the other phenomena, competition is the most widely seen and it is an overarching one. There are many sub-phenomena such as students working hard for grades and ranking, ghting for opportunities to be recommended for graduate school, and ghting for other credentials that are only assigned to a certain amount of students. Competition can trace long back to the early history of China. In ancient China, the Imperial Examination was used to select ocials of dierent level, and the Confucian slogan He who excels in study will follow an ocial career set a norm that the purpose of education was to become an ocial, and the exam score determined the ocial ranks, therefore dierent levels of power, wealth, and dignity. Even today, ocialdom is still considered, especially by parents, to be the best future direction for students. Not only because this provides the iron rice bowl (meaning secured employment), but also many other benets and welfare oered by the state. For a working family or families in rural areas, becoming an ocial also brings honor to the whole family, and some will even celebrate with banquets and recrackers (Lin et al., 2013). In Chinese university campus today, the competition for ocialdom was also witnessed by students eager to take the Civil Service Exam and joining the Party. Being a Party member in China means you are standing out from other students, and a lot of students make eorts to do so in order that they can later nd good jobs in government or state institutions or increase the chance for a graduate school recommendation. Competition is also widely seen in grades and other credentials. Those who arent necessarily interested in the ocialdom path will focus more on their grades from class, and the scores they get from every exam will become their goal and the thing they care about the most. Georgiannas comparison study of goal striving across culture (2007) reveals that Chinese students consider hard work and preparation for the exam as the path to their goals. Such phenomena is an extension of the exam-oriented education they received prior to college. Chinese students are often referred to as rote learners, who are reported to replicate behavior and passively receive knowledge rather than understanding it, and to demonstrate obedience and compliance to their in-group (SadlerSmith & Tsang, 1998). Focusing on hard work and exam scores


7 provide students good academic standing but many still do not think about anything beyond grades, and therefore they still feel lost when they face graduation. Students may also realize that hard work in exams is no longer a must in universities, thus become smart to carefully calculate how their time can be spent as if they are making marketing decisions. In Chinese this is described as being utilitarian, which means students tend to acquire the greatest benets with the least amount of eort. Typical examples include students evaluating what is useful to study, what major can earn more money after graduation, what courses or credentials might increase chances of better jobs, which professor gives better grades so they might get a better GPA, what extracurricular professional certicate is easy to get, etc. Being student leaders and joining the Party mentioned heretofore are also examples of such phenomenon. The pressure of the bigger social context and most parents expectation is more and more directing students focus on the end results of higher education. These end results range from small things like test scores to larger things like how well a job pays after graduation. Fewer students are concerned with their interests, their dreams, their curiosity for knowledge, or their seeking for truth. A high-school student commented on contemporary Chinese students in her composition: Dreams, courage, persistence, and creativity, all vividly and truly existed in their hearts at the beginning of their lives, no matter they are the citizens of the old China who became numb, or the current Chinese youth who lost their ability to critically think (Zhang, 2011).


POINTS OF DEPARTURE: SOME QUESTIONS According to my experience and observation of Chinese college life, a lot of students were and are in a state of bewilderment. They lose their interest in studying or aspiration for life, and thus become apathetic about many things, such as self-realization, knowledgeseeking, or social accountability. They follow trends, doing things that they have to do or are told to do, or what others are doing. They live in the background of what are Chinas fastest changing decades, with the diversied thoughts, culture, knowledge and an inundation of information, and colliding cultures between the west and the east, the new and the old. After their matriculation to college, their priority in life is no longer limited to the Entrance Exam that they had to strive for when they were in high school, nor are they compared to those older generations who pursued the unied faith of a communist utopia before Chinas opening up. What are their values now? Are they aware of these values? Do they have other options? Why are they feeling lost? How can they develop a critical judgement while still being inundated with the pressure from the social context and their parents? In what way can they develop critical attitudes about their current value views? As a designer and visual communicator, my intent in this project was to explore how concepts, strategies, forms and methods of graphic design could be used to explore and to communicate questions about values to Chinese college students. This included the values they hold and new values that they might be exposed to, and was mainly narrowed down to values related to 8 PROBLEM STATEMENT


9 self-development and social responsibility. My goal was to develop their empathy and awareness for active and critical thinking, to communicate messages that can have long-standing inuence on them, and to empower them for a more meaningful college life, both to themselves and to others. JUSTIFICATION AND DELIMITATION I explored how a social/cultural problem could become a design problem and how can such problem be solved through design methodology and process. At the same time, I also explored the power of graphic design concepts, strategies, forms, and methods, such as how visual and verbal information could be integrated, how concepts were communicated through forms like a designed notebook, an illustrated story, or a web-interface on a digital device, etc., to inuence Chinese college students and develop their awareness on value problems they face, and provoke deep thinking on their value views. While the word value contains vast breadth and depth of philosophical contents and aspects, I limited my exploration on aspects related to students self-development and responsibility to others, such as how normative ethics like utilitarianism and egoism inuenced their decisions on choosing majors, making career plans, spending their time in their university years, and interacting with others when there was limited resource, etc. Students values on certain existence beyond this delimitation were not specically explored, examples of this kind include how they value modern culture over traditional culture, how they value a certain philosophical trend, or their moral choice on certain ethics problems, etc. In this project, I did not directly comment on the Chinese higher educational system or policy from an educational science perspective, nor did I attempt to solve problems in this system from a scientic approach that follows a literature reviewdata collection analysisconclusion process, even though some education-related, China-related, value-related and design-related literature was reviewed to inform this creative project. Examples of these problems from a educational science perspective include teacher salary, institution evaluation system, teacher motivation, students learning style, curriculum arrangement, or corruption phenomena in the academic realm, etc.


10 Finally, I studied ways and media that Chinese college students use to access information to the extent of informing design choices in this project, but this project was not intended to become a purely theoretical discussion on dierences between media, such as the printed and the digital. TARGET AUDIENCE There are three layers of target audience, to three different extents this project will be addressing. The first layer, or the core, of the target audience definition includes Chinese students who are currently registered in universities in China, or those who just graduated from universities in China. The second layer includes all the stakeholders of higher education in China, for instances teachers, parents, to-be college students, etc. The third layer includes the non-Chinese audience who are interested in this project and the related problems. For the first and second layers, this project aims to develop empathy, critical thinking, and attitudinal and behavior changes; for the third layer, this project aims to inform.


This project is based on and informed by design research, combined with explorations of design prototypes. From the preliminary research phase to the nal iterations in the public exhibition, methodologies have been borrowed from various disciplines, including literature review, ethnography, narrative, and participatory design. REVIEWING RELATED LITERATURES My literature review was used to inform this project. I reviewed books, newspapers, websites and blogs, and other design projects that are related to 1) Chinese higher education, 2) value studies, and 3) design as activism/design authorship. These three categories also corresponded to the three dierent phases of my projects. During the ideation process in China, I started my preliminary literature review process on research about and critiques of Chinese higher education, which helped me identify problems in Chinese academia, such as pressure for faculty members, governments evaluating criteria of universities, bureaucracy and corruption in universities, students erce competition, etc. I highlighted and wrote down key words to inform the next phase of my research for developing questions and interviewing students. The second and third literature review phases happened when I came back to the United States and informed the process of building design prototypes. 11 METHODOLOGY


12 BORROWING FROM ETHNOGRAPHY In this project, qualitative research methods were borrowed from ethnography, which is an anthropological approach to discover and describe the culture of a group of people (Johnson & Christensen, 2008). During the ideation process, observation of the urban Chinese peoples lives in the public space was made through recording, photographing and taking eld notes. Once the research problem and questions were narrowed down to Chinese college students values about self-development and social responsibility, a semi-structured interview was developed based on the reviewed literatures and my own experiences in college. These were conducted via either face-to-face manner or online communication. Interviews were audio-recorded and notes were taken. This qualitative research data was later used to inform my design decisions when developing prototypes. In addition, some developed prototypes (e.g. the story book and story posters for exhibition, see p. 22 and p. 26) were also brought to a setting for audience-testing, in which the potential audiences read and interacted with the prototypes. During the audience-testing, I observed and documented the interactions of and feedbacks from the audience. This documentation was used to inform further improvement and iterations for the prototypes being tested. CO-DESIGN AND STORY-TELLING This project also combined the concept of design together (FuadLuke, 2009) and the strategy of story-telling. The design together concept was discussed by Alastair Fuad-Luke (2004, p. 146) as he agrees with Woodhouse and Patton (2004) that the inherent nature of design as a human activity is being deeply socially oriented. Participation in the design process emancipates people by making them active contributors rather than passive recipients, and it leads to transformation of the participants (Fuad-Luke, 2009). Such transformation can become empowerment for participants, which is one of the goals of this design project. Stories written by the participants were collected from a designed website, and my interaction with participants was through this website. Each participant was promised a copy of the book. I also asked them to select visual materials that illustrate their stories, FIGURE 4 An question sheet with open-ended questions and notes taken during the interview. An enlarged version can be found at Appendix A.


13 and at the same time informed them that they are designing these stories together with me. On the title page of the designed story book, I listed participants, along with myself as the co-authors of this book. It was intended that, through this process, our relationships would become beyond binarydesigner and user, or researcher and participants, but a combination of both, as well as collaborators, co-designers, and co-authors. The hope was that such transformation would not only empower the students who participated in this project, developing their empathy to the stories of other participants, but also would become a call-to-action to the readers of the stories and encourage them to participate in future volumes of the book. FIGURE 5 The title page of the story book, with names of all the authors/designers listed.


In the summer of 2012, I went back to China and started ideating for this project and collecting materials. The combined personal experience of growing up in China and attending graduate schools in the United States enabled me to look at social happenings in China from both emic and etic perspectives. I witnessed cynicism and peoples apathy towards each other, and at the same time egoism that stimulates young people to become rich and successful. I observed people on the streets, documented their facial expressions, photographed books on bookstore shelves, and collected news about happenings such as one where a two-year-old girl was run-over by two vehicles and no one was trying to help (Landreth, 2011), or a girl jumped into the lake and no one went to save her (Shi, 2011), etc. I also observed cars wouldnt give way to pedestrians and people on the bus ght with each other just because of a slight body collision. Everyone was trying to protect their own benets and resources, and it seemed like no one was happy. I kept the things to be documented very open in this phase, in order to identify and then delineate emerging problems to work with. These observations compelled me to think about current Chineses values, and I couldnt help but relate these observations to the bigger historical context of China. Twenty years ago, China was not as rich, and the social disparity wasnt as big, people did not seem to be this apathetic or upset with each other, with this society, nor were they so desperate for the benets they could getat least not in my memory. As a designer and visual communicator, these observations thus led me to think about how design can contribute in nding out, telling, and communicating these value-related problems. 14 PROJECT PROCESS AND DESIGN ITERATIONS FIGURE 6 TOP: Chinese trying to get in a metro in a chaotic manner. BOTTOM: Books selling on the shelf entitled You have to win at your thirties Things those successful people did in their twenties.


15 While the scope of complete society is too big to look at, I narrowed it down to universities in China, because universities prepare individuals who will not only create but also inuence Chinese society. Problems happening in universities will happen in society, and values identied in universities will reect values in the society. On the other hand, I also recall that myself and many peers constantly had the feeling of bewilderment, at the same time many desperately sought benets without hard worka university campus is being a microcosm of the society. I therefore start to focus on value-related problems in Chinese universities. VISUALIZING THE PROBLEMS After my preliminary phase of literature review and interviewing several Chinese students, I combined the research ndings and data with my own experience, analyzed these materials using highlights and side notes to develop themes about students values. These were used to help me start building design prototypes. The rst step of my design explorations was to communicate these ndings to the target audience in an engaging way. Examples of these ndings about students values and pursuits are included: going to graduate school (without exam if possible), ocialdom or Civil Service, going abroad to study, good jobs after graduation, etc. These values and pursuits were only embodied by students who still care or were still trying to working hard, whereas there were students who do not care about anything and no longer work hard in college, and those students dier fundamentally from the students who were pursuing things. After interviewing three students, reviewing self-published journals and comments on Chinese online social media, and reading on other literature, I discerned a universal phenomena that students holding opposite attitude between caring about things very much and not caring about anything, working very hard to not working at all. This can be utilized as a visual metaphor of axis diagram, or infographics (Figure 7), based on which I started to add other axes about values such as altruistic vs. selsh, spiritual pursuit vs. material pursuit, etc. At the same time, I attempted to develop some archetypes (Figure 8) based on the research ndings, such as student A being hardworking but conforming to norms, student B being smart but


16 FIGURE 7 value spectrums. not hardworking, rebellious and innovative, student C somewhat hardworking but very critical, so on and so forth. These archetypes would be illustrated in a style that is abstracted but funny, instead of too representational and therefore being too serious and lacking the layer of engagement. This was borrowed from design research methods of personas (Visocky OGrady, 2006). While these archetypes were temporarily emulated, the idea behind them was that an infographic could be later used to show real Chinese students and they would be able to nd their own place, therefore it became an interactive way of story-telling that prompts critical thinking and self-examination. Through feedback from other designers it became clear that many axes of values can not be put together in a two-dimension


17 coordinate system that was only based on x and y, because every axis was one dimension; and that the concern that using stereotypes of people might get personal. I therefore revisited my research data in order to further develop the prototype based on the feedbacks. I realized many of the pursuits themselves are stereotypes and they all have a Chinese word that is widely known and used by all the Chinese students. For example, entering graduate school via recommendation without taking exams in Chinese is referred as baoyan literally meaning guaranteed for graduate school. This had been a goal of many good students after they entered universities. When translating those words into FIGURE 8 Emulated archetypes on typical students who hold combined value views.


18 English, the cultural context and recognizability of the original text was lost. Therefore visually communicating the concepts along with cultural context through graphics became the problem to be solved, aiming to explore the power of visual language and how it can enhance verbal language. On the other hand, these goals and pursuits can be compared to goals and slogans that Chinese people were striving for in Maos era. Their similarity lies in the fact that they both were/are widely known and pursued by many Chinese people to change their fate. Since the value problem in universities can not be separated from its bigger social context as I mentioned heretofore, borrowing from the visual language of Chinese revolutionary posters then become the idea to develop story-telling prototypes for the next step. I used stereotypical values/pursuits of college students in China, and designed them in the form of posters with the combination of illustration and typography (Figure 9). The concept behind this is to tell the story to Chinese students in a way of the revolutionary posters in the new era, bringing humor and nostalgia together, combining the retro and modern visual language together. I named the series of posters What to Pursue in Universities in order that the audience are not only engaged to the narrative that the posters present, but also think about the question they raise. The posters received positive feedback, along with question for the next step now that I had communicated the problem, what was next? CALL TO ACTION The second phase of my prototype building was based on the design problem of how to communicate the values further and deeper, how to develop more empathy of student, and then how to engage them to take actions. Students live in an age where they are being inundated by information. The new media has changed their ways of perceiving information. The posters can not be carried by students in their daily lives and therefore fall short to provide longstanding impact on them. I then started to ideate on smaller objects that can be used and carried by students, such as booklets, cardholders, calendars, stationery, zines, etc. At the same time, I developed the concept of how these smaller objects can have an impact on students as they were carried by them in their daily lives. I went back to researched data and found out students tend to do things without thinking why, such as they FIGURE 9 The What to Pursue in Universities poster series. BOTTOM: Entering graduate school without exams.


19 pursue graduate school study because they were told by teachers and parents or their peers, but barely thought what that meant to them. I developed questions such as: What did my parents want me to do?, What do I really want to do?, What am I doing now?, What is meaningful to do?, etc. in my sketchbook. I also thought about those students who are feeling lost and do not know what to do, and sketched out an action notebook that contained steps of suggestions to help them nd their interest and meaningful things to do in universities. I also revisited my own experience of what I wanted to study and what my parents wanted me to study. The reality (what students eventually end up doing) had already being emphasized, but the ideal (what students originally wanted to do) were lost in students certain period of lives. So instead of comparing the ideal and the reality, I decided to emphasize on and call their attention back to what the ideal is, the ideal that many of them had given up because of the reality. I built prototypes and called them Inscribe Your Childhood Dream on Paper, which are notebooks with the visual message of 1) what they really wanted to do, and 2) why they wanted to do it. The latter questions is very important as it can be contrasted with why students were convinced to give in to reality, which are mostly materialistic reasons such as good jobs, good salary, social positions, etc. The word inscribe connotes remember and therefore encourages them to keep pursuing. I interviewed some Chinese students with these two questions, and used these responses to design small notebooks (Figure 10). I also utilized this opportunity to explore hand-made objects that dierentiated themselves from the omnipresent digital media that inundate people with information. As part of the design problem was to create long-standing and deep impacts to the students, the notebooks should be able to draw their attentions to the essential questions about what and why they wanted to do something, and enable them to think quietly every time when they open the notebook. I therefore combined hand-drawn illustration, folklore and nature-inspired motifs, Chinese character forms used in moveable-type era that are designed by myself, and traditional printing technique such as silk-screen printing and letterpress. FIGURE 10 TOP: Process of letterpressing quotes from interviewd students. BOTTOM: Finished products of the notebooks.


20 STORY-TELLING AND CRITICAL THINKING As I pushed the project forward to the third phase, I was reading discussions about designer as author (Rock, 2006; de Almeida & McCarthy, 2002) as well as design approaches that encourage participation (Fuad-Luke, 2009). I also intended to push the strategy of story-telling as it is familiar, accessible and engaging to many people, and it is characterized of empathy, personality and the spirit of sharing. The idea of inviting university students in/from China to share their stories was thus developed, in the hope that this can become a collaboration instead of a linear, one-way persuasion endeavor. Through sharing stories, co-designing, and co-authoring these stories with me, the students who participated will be empowered to think, reect on, and question their values, and later be enabled to empower others. I started designing a website and branded it with the name daxue lixiang in Chinese. Daxue means university, lixiang can be either adjective or noun. When being adjective, it means ideal; when being noun, it means dream, as in the phrase American dream. These two meanings give the name two layers of meanings, one being the question of what someone wanted to pursue in college, namely want his/her dream is, the other being the question of what should be pursued in college, namely what constitutes an ideal university life. The website used bold color and a modern, geometric visual language. I also referenced typeface in posters in Maos era, and designed the logotype based on gothic Chinese typeface with a slanted angle of the horizontal strokes, the direction pointing up right connotes to look forward to a promising future. The website was launched at the end of 2012. I promoted the website through Chinese social media, including,, and I also invited people I know who are still in college and who graduated from college within years, and have them refer people to participate in the story collection process. The website was built bilingually, in both Chinese and English. On the website I wrote paragraphs encouraging people to critically think the purpose of attending university and what do they value the most. I intended to use a neutral tone of language without guiding them and kept the theme for their stories really open. I provided an online form, a Microsoft Word template, and an email address for them to choose whichever way was convenient for them to submit their stories. I announced on the website that I would design those stories into zines/books and promised to give each participants a copy. FIGURE 11 TOP: Screen shot from website home page. BOTTOM: Screen shot from the story page.


21 One of the challenge in the process is to really get peoples attention and get them interested. The way social media communicates information has formed the users habit to quickly scan though information, so asking them to sit down and write a story became quite challenging. Another reason might also be that they could not see what the designed book looked like and therefore could not develop empathy or interest. I also contacted some students who agreed to participate but didnt submit their story at the beginning, and got dierent responses such as no time to write, no interesting experience to write a story, needing to recall college life details, etc. I therefore realize the story-collection process itself became a user-testing process for the website as a designed object. It not only generated some feedback for the design of the website, but also revealed new problems that are related to the culture/social problem being explored. For example, more than one participant said they do not know where to start, and suggested I use more specic and guided questions, rather than keeping the theme of the story open, so that the participants could just answer the questions. Such feedback reected the fact that those students do not have critical thoughts about their college life, and the exam-oriented education taught students how to passively answer questions instead of to positively create. To this extent, the story-collection itself surprisingly become a design strategy that can be utilized to further explore and dig deeper the value problem and sub-problems. In late January of 2013, more than twenty stories were submitted to the website. I decided to call that the rst phase of story collection and began to design those stories. I contacted the participants via email and discussed with them how visual materials could be used. I also informed them that by writing the story and selecting visuals, they were co-designing their stories with me. The visual materials I collected from participants were digital, taken by dierent cameras, some scanned, and of varying quality. Given the dierent sources of the collected images, and the concept for story-telling the happenings in Chinese students college lives, through which I intended to communicate the truthfulness of these stories to people in order to develop empathy, I considered using photo collage. Traditional collage allowed free composition independent of subject matter, and the texture of collages usually signify objects (Meggs, 1992, p. 239). Dada artists such as Hannah Hch and John Hearteld use this technique, manipulating found photographic images from dierent sources to create jarring juxtapositions and chance associations (Meggs, 1992, p. 246).


22 More recent work using similar collage technique such as Robert Rauschenbergs posters (Dring, Gundel, & Rauschenberg, 2001) also inspired my design decisions. I went for the route of using digital photo collage, acknowledging that the pictures were cut from dierent sources like magazines, newspapers, family photos, etc. Digital collages enabled me to also add my own hand-drawn illustrations that reected my understanding and emotion, combined but also contrasted with the photos that communicate the truthfulness of the stories. I also made all the photos in halftone eect to 1) recreate the textures of cut images from printed media such as newspaper, 2) solve low resolution problem of part of the pictures, and 3) respond to some participants requests that people in their photo should be somewhat blurred to protect their identity. In contrast to the website which mainly served as an data-collection research tool and only had stories as digitally displayed texts, the FIGURE 12 One spread of the story book. More sample pages can be found at Appendix B. FIGURE 13 One photographed spread of the story book. More sample pages can be found at Appendix B.


23 stories in the book had personality, emotion, and voices by utilizing the collage of images, colors, textures and also visual hierarchies of both imageries and typography, as well as the materiality of the paper, from which the books were made. As a designer and visual communicator, I was putting my voice and interpretation into the book through these formal choices and design decisions. I developed my own empathy when visualizing the stories and endeavored to use such visual language to communicate my understandings and emotions to the reader and later develop their empathy. The design process became an authoring process, and as I design I became the co-author with the participants, just like when participants wrote story and selected imagery, they became co-designer with me. Designing and authoring were thus combined through this process. PUBLIC EXHIBITION The public exhibition took place in the University Gallery at the University of Florida, where a majority of the audience for the exhibition would know English but not Chinese. My intent was to exhibit the collected stories because they had the most potential to engage to an audience not familiar with Chinese culture. The FIGURE 14 First round of iterations of posters intended to communicate the collected stories to a amount of information in one poster and use principles of typography to communicate.


24 exhibition thus became a sub design problem to communicate collected stories about Chinese university students values to a broader audience that included both Chinese and non-Chinese, in a non-Chinese cultural setting. While it was not possible, given the time I had, to translate the entire book to English, I translated one story to see if I could design that complete story in the form of one poster, in both English and Chinese. I made some quick prototypes (figure 14) using only typography and colors, along with the visual principle of hierarchy and layering, resolving the problem to communicate heavy amount of information. But one poster could hardly include the one entire story, even though I made the poster in a large size of 16 by 29 inches and I was only using Chinese, without adding English or images. After collecting feedback, it became clear that posters could not be read like a book, they exist in a public setting and are read by many people at the same time. With too much text and long stories, the audience often loses interest and gets bored. The prototype was then developed to be several posters (figure 15), each containing an excerpt from one story, with the idea of them FIGURE 15 Mid process of designing story posters. Information was reduced and stories from more than one stories were translated and designed. The idea for this phase was to develop 8-10 posters like these.


25 being enlarged book pages and having a coherent visual language as the story book in Chinese. In this way I could t both Chinese and English for dierent audiences, and the visuals in the book (illustrations, photo collages, textures, etc.), as those were also important content for the audience to be read. I selected several typical stories and translated the key excerpts into English in order to create several posters of dierent stories, with each representing a unique value/phenomena. The values that are represented through these stories included: grades, personal interests, social responsibility, ocialdom, material wealth, love, following the majority, freedom, ambition to win, etc. In order to test how the design prototype worked to communicate the stories, I did user-testing with both American and Chinese audiences by displaying the prototypes to English-speaking graduate students who were studying design and Chinese students who were studying dierent disciplines at the University of Florida. The following activities were included in the user-testing: 1. I observed how these audiences interact with the posters, where do they look at and how long do they looked at it; 2. I also asked questions such as: a. What elements in the posters interest you? b. What elements in the posters confuse you? c. Which part arouses your own memories? 3. I documented their responses to the questions I asked on notebooks as reference for further developing the posters. This time the feedback I received included questions about some specic terms mentioned in the stories, and possibility to push hierarchy to have dierent layers of information, possibly with my comments and descriptions, and the recommendation to increase the size of the poster so its easier for dierent people to read while also providing a stronger visual impact. The nal iteration before the exhibition (Figure 16 ) included several adjustments to the prototypes, which were: increased poster size, stronger color, increased hierarchy of visual elements ranging from extra large to extra small, my descriptions of cultural specic terms in the story and background information of the protagonists of the stories, etc. The exhibition space (Figure 17) was designed in the form of a Chinese classroom, with framed posters hanging on the wall, a


26 FIGURE 16 Final round of iterations for the story posters to be displayed in the public exhibition.


27 FIGURE 17 Photographs of the public exhibition.


28 computer showing the story-collection website, and two copies of the story book, one on the desk and one on a bookshelf. OTHER IDEAS Because of the time constraints I had, there are many ideas that I was not able to execute. In addition to the above-mentioned infographics of value axes and students stereotypes (Figure 8, see p. 17) that stayed in its drafting phase, and the action books, I also sketched out possibilities of a web-based app, that can be accessed through computers and smart phones to help students share ideas, projects, and readings. In addition, I had sketches of a time-tracking notebook that help students document how their time had spent, and a digital version of the action book, so that they inspire and empower each other to lead a signicant university life. FIGURE 18 design prototypes.


This project focused on how design can be used to communicate concepts related to values, which are essentially broad, philosophical, and sometimes, vague, specically in contemporary Chinese society. It incorporates theoretical models of the design process (Nini, 2006; Lupton, 2011) with the practice of testing these processes in solving real-world social/cultural problems, which are reected in one generation of Chinese young adults. It therefore become a reference for designers and design researchers who are making relevant endeavors in exploring design as a problem seeking and solving process in a specic social and culture background. The exploration also expanded my understanding on relationship between a social-cultural problem and a design problem, and my experience of borrowing research methods from social science and design theories to inform design decisions, while utilizing design strategies to empower people and develop empathy. Upon the completion of the project and the several dierent design explorations, I do have an expanded knowledge about Chinese university students values. Yet I have also come to realize that this is not the most important outcome for this project. More importantly, I also have new knowledge on understanding design as a problem solving process, and on the relationship between a cultural/social problem and a design problem. The quest to know more about Chinese university students values can be actualized by reading, collecting data through interviewing students, and using a scientic method that involves inductive and deductive reasoning. In fact, I was doing all these at the beginning until I realize that I was approaching a cultural or social problem 29 CONCLUSION


30 using only a social science method, instead of integrating design methods. I particularly needed to explore what design forms and methodologies could contribute to exploring the social-cultural problem, and to what extent those forms and methodologies can address it. A design problem comes from other problems, be it a social problem, cultural problem, scientic problem, medical problem, mathematics problem, learning problem, or even small needs in our daily life like opening a bottle or drilling a hole. When we seek, choose, and evaluate methods of solving these existing problems, for example determining what to use to open a bottle, it then becomes a design endeavor, and such process of seeking, choosing, and evaluating then denes a design problem (Figure 19). Therefore in this project, reading and interviewing is just one step of learning about Chinese college students values and empowering them to critically examine their values, the design exploration of infographics, posters, and website to solicit stories, etc. denes the design problem and compose the process of addressing it. This also helped me to develop a deeper understanding on making as a research process. Successful design solutions are based on FIGURE 19 Diagram how a real world problem evolves into a design problem.


31 a process of iterations, which contain the steps of gathering information, visual analysis, ideating and building prototypes, user-testing, developing prototypes, and a repetition of certain steps. The denition of research is not limited to gathering information, making observation, or collecting data through questionnaires and interviews, it also includes making the prototype and testing it. This can be comparable to scientic experiments in a science project. Through this project, I also explored how designers can think both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantity and quality are both important parameters to evaluate design decisions. For example, when I designed the website to collect stories from Chinese students, it reached a very broad audience, yet it did not generate much of emotional feedback, nor did it have any strong impact on those studentsmany looked at the site and just ignored it; whereas when I designed and handcrafted the story book, it only reached about 50 Chinese, but it aroused empathy, emotional feedback, and critical thinking. Some readers asked if they could buy the book. The website had only one copy but could reach unlimited numbers of people as long as there is internet access. The book has to be mass produced to reach a certain group of people. Each medium impacts people dierentlyone succeeded in quantity but not quality, one succeeded in quality but not so much in quantity. Additionally, when I was evaluating the dierence of the two approaches, and thought about the question: to what extent should we use the web media and to what extent should we use printed media?, I realized I could also use both quantitative and qualitative ways to address itI could calculate the cost of making a website or a book and compare with the size of the audience I intended to reach. I could also investigate, observe, and document what responses of the audience response when using a website or a printed book, and decide on whether and how a hand-crafted object can be combined with a virtual platform. In this case, quantity and quality were not only used as parameters to evaluate designed products, but also methods for the evaluation. I also explored design authorship along with the concept of participatory design. In his discussion about designer as author, Michael Rock (2006) argued that artists books using words, images, structures and materials to tell stories or invoke readers emotions may be the purest form of graphic authorship. He also


32 mentioned a reading of exterior social and historical phenomena directed at a specic audiencethe illustrated book, often overlooked by the design community, is almost entirely concerned with the generation of creative narrative (Rock, 2006). Through the combination of photo collage, typography, texture, and the choice of paper materials and structure, I added extra layers of emotion, personality, and message to the stories. I not only communicated the participants voices through their stories, but also integrated my own voice. My designing became part of the authoring and their authoring became part of the designing. While we are co-authoring the book, we are also co-designing the book. In this process, design is authoring and authoring is design. When these participants witnessed such process, they themselves became empowered, as well as rewarded. When their stories were shared with others, they not only repetitively and critically reect upon the message they delivered, but also allow others to critically think about the values those stories communicated.


Design exists in peoples lives, in real social and cultural contexts. As I considered the exhibition in the gallery setting to be an opportunity for user testing, I still plan to bring this project back to the target audience and keep pushing it forwardbecause design also has no end, it can be constantly optimized through the iterative research process, based on dierent or changing contexts, people, and other subtle parameters that inuence the problem. There are still stories being submitted. As I promised on the website during the rst phase of story collection, I would give each participant a story book. My immediate next step is to further develop the story book and share it with a larger audience of Chinese college students, graduates, and stakeholders of Chinese higher education. I will also publish it online, to respond to the request of many readers who didnt have a chance to participate in this project. Ideally, if the website keeps getting new stories, there would not only be this very rst volume of the An Ideal University Life book, but also volume two, volume three, and so on. My hope is to actualize some of the unexecuted prototypes, and prototypes that werent pushed enough. In addition, I would also love to see how these prototypes can really become solutions in the real context of Chinese higher education, how they can promote more critical thinking, attitudinal change, and behavioral change for students in Chinese universities and university graduates in contemporary Chinese society. 33 FUTURE DIRECTIONS


While commonly understood as a profession and act of writing (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, April 2, 2013), designers and design critics broaden this concept to refer to a person who originates or gives index authoritarian and existence to things (Rock, 1996), and more specically in the design realm, to initiate content and to work in an entrepreneurial way rather than simply reacting to problems and tasks placed by clients. The concept hinges on a nostalgic ideal of the writer or artist as a singular point of origin (Lupton, 2005). This term is used to describe the state of students who are confused about the purpose of attending college, or who have lost their directions or goals in their academic or professional life, when they have to maintain the process of pursuing the degree out of social and family pressure. Exams used by dierent countrys governments for admission to the civil service. In China, the history of this exam can be traced back to the Imperial Examination in ancient China. Many Chinese students and parents consider it to be the gate to ocialdom, which in Chinese culture leads to secure employment, good salary and welfare, high social status, and honors to families. A catch-all term used by Fuad-Luke (2009) to embrace design approaches that encourage participation. A fundamental premise of co-design is that it is predicated on the concept that people who ultimately use a designed artifact are entitled to have a voice in determining how that artifact is designed (Carroll, 2006). 34 TERMINOLOGY authorship bewilderment civil serviceexamination co-design


35 Reective reasoning (Ennis, 1987) that calls for a persistent eort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems (Glaser, 1941). In this project, it refers Chinese university students tendency to independently examine and reect on the values they hold or told to have. A philosophical or ethical theory that advocates selshness, or selfinterest, as the correct moral stance, and that people should always act in what they take to be their own best interest (Palmer, 2005). The phenomenon of people care about self-interest is surprisingly found in a collectivist society like China (Shirk, 1982). A human impulse entangled with sympathy or compassion or commiseration, and submerges into altruism. It can be broadly understood as the ability to feel for another person, to imagine ourselves in the same situation, enduring those same experiences and emotions. (Gibson, 2006) For example, Chinese student A describes how she feels lost in college in a story and student B sees the story and immediately recalls similar feeling and thus has empathy for A. A dynamic process that gives power to somebody, that releases individual potential within a workforce and use that potential to the benet of both the organization and the individual (Cartwright, 2002). National Higher Education Entrance Examination, also known as National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) or gaokao in Chinese, is a nation-wide examination held annually in China, taken by students at the end of their high school years. The exam is a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level (Wikipedia). It also marks the end of secondary education for Chinese students. A research method that is originated from anthropology, which discovers and describes the culture of a group of people (Johnson & Christensen, 2008), and produces a detailed, in-depth observation of peoples behavior, beliefs and preferences by observing and interacting with them in a dened environment (Ireland, 2003). Known in Chinese as baoyan literally meaning guaranteed for grad school. Chinese universities have a quota for a certain amount of excellent students they recommend enter graduate school without taking the graduate entrance exam. The policy is made by Chinas Ministry of Education and is executed by universities. Because egoism empathy empowerment entrance exam ethnography graduate school recommendation critical thinking


36 preparing for exams is a laborious process and the quota is limited, these opportunities are usually highly competitive. Known in Chinese as shitu ocialdom is a literary word meaning the path to become an ocial. As an authoritarian country since ancient times, China has a predominant ocial culture, in which the social values are ranked by the levels of ocialdom. Positions associated with the government brings power and authority, is highly respected, well-paid, and provide better welfare and secured employment. Ocialdom had always been the goal and purpose of academic endeavors since ancient China, and today it is still pursued by many students as their life directions. A term mostly used in mainland China to refer people born between the year of 1980 and 1989. Originated from the Chinese literary circle to refer to writers who were born after 1980, it later became widely used in mass media and thus known by most Chinese. People born within this decade share a common historical background of China, for example they are the rst generation eected by the onechild policy, a generation born right after the opening-up policy, etc. Terms like post-70s, post-90s, and post-00s were derived from post-80s and also became widely known. Often known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), namely an entitys obligation to act to benet the whole society at large. In this project it specically refers to Chinese students attention on happenings outside the campus, the phenomena of whether they care about others in addition to their focus on their own benets. A philosophical or ethical theory that advocates the maximization of happiness, underlined by two fundamental ideas, that the results of our actions are the key to moral evaluation, and that one should access and compare those results in terms of the happiness or unhappiness they cause, or more broadly, in terms of their impact on peoples wellbeing (Shaw, 1999). While philosophically dened to produce greatest amount of happiness on the whole, that is, taking into account all whose happiness in aected by the conduct (Sidgwick, 1966), the term utilitarian is used in China more specically referring to individuals pursuit of the end results with the least amount of eort. In this project, the meaning of value are reduced to the personal perception and opinion on what we consider as important, what pleases us, what is desired, and the object of our interest, which contain the characteristic of polarity (negative and positive value) and hierarchy (implied order of importance). (Frondizi, 1971) ocialdom post-80s generation social responsibility utilitarianism, utilitarian value


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APPENDIX A Sample Page of Question Sheets Used for Interviewing Chinese Students APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Pages APPENDIX C Sample Page Feedback for the Public Exhibition 41 APPENDICES


42 APPENDIX A Sample Page of Question Sheets Used for Interviewing Chinese Students


43 APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Page 01


44 APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Page 02


45 APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Page 03


46 APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Page 04


47 APPENDIX B Sample Story Book Page 05


48 APPENDIX C Sample Page Feedback for the Public Exhibition 01


49 APPENDIX C Sample Page Feedback for the Public Exhibition 02


50 APPENDIX C Sample Page Feedback for the Public Exhibition 03


Rongfei Geng was born in southwest China. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Yantai University in China, where he focused on learning technology for foreign languages. He later studied at The University of Southern Mississippi and graduated with a Master of Science in Instructional Technology. He continued his graduate studies in Graphic Design at the University of Florida and received the Master of Fine Arts in May 2013. Rongfei has worked in both educational institutions and commercial companies where he designed various projects including multimedia textbooks for college-level English courses in Chinese universities, web-based applications, illustrated books, visual branding identity, environmental graphics, and so on. During his graduate studies, his research interests focused on his cultural identity and was informed by his experience of living and working in a dierent cultural environment. His explorations resulted in a range of scholarly and creative outcomes that addressed these and related issues. They include comparisons of western typographic study with East Asian characters, how storytelling could be used as a strategy to communicate values in Chinese culture, and how design activism can be used to approach social problems, especially those that are culturally-specic. His creative project, An Ideal University Life can be viewed on his website 51 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

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