Designer takes a graphic approach to Taiwan's history and culture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 7:09pm

When Taiwanese graphic designer Liao Tien-min moved to New York in 2011, one thing attracted her immediate attention: typography. "Here, every typeface expresses its own personality," she says.

Designers agonise over choosing the right set of characters for their projects. Even non-designers have been swept up in the obsession, thanks to Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary, Helvetica.

But for Liao, it was all new. "I didn't learn anything about it in Taiwan," she says. "It's not as important in Chinese - I don't know why. I was surprised that there were so many different typefaces. When I was in Taiwan they look all the same - I thought Helvetica and Gill Sans were very similar. I also wondered why the capital and the lower case were so different in some cases like A, while others look similar, like I."

That led to Handmade Type, a project completed while Liao was studying for a master's degree in design at the Pratt Institute in New York. By drawing 26 sets of shapes on her hands, Liao was able to create upper-case, lower-case and italicised versions of each letter in the alphabet, a process that reveals the organic origins of what has become a mechanised form of communication.

Liao's most recent project was also inspired by her move to New York - but in this case, it stemmed not from any discovery on her part but from how ignorant Americans were about her home island.

"They asked where I was from and I would say Taiwan. People usually didn't know where it was," Liao says. "Some people said, 'I love Thai food.'"

Her response was to create Ilha Formosa, a book of infographics about Taiwan created not with computer illustration but with paper. "I used paper because it's more Eastern - kind of like origami," Liao says.

Some of the information she gathered was basic (population, geography, history and weather).

I wondered why the capital and the lower case were so different in some cases like 'A'

"Others I chose to make the book more interesting," she says, giving examples like the tea-drinking and eating habits of Taiwanese. "Or the fact that 42 per cent of people are near-sighted. That number surprised me a lot. That's almost half the people. In the US, I seldom see people wearing glasses."

Even more memorable than the facts are the dioramas made to represent them: a paper dish that illustrates Taiwan's diminutive size ("If mainland China's population is the whole dish, Taiwan is just one piece of chicken"); a 3-D lesson on differences between traditional and simplified Chinese characters; and an elephant made of paper tea leaves.

The finishing touch is a bookmark capped by green mountains. "It's like there's a small island floating on the edge. It's like Taiwan - a small island next to the big, huge China."

Liao has no plans to return to Taiwan - at least, not yet. "I think I'll either stay here or go to another big city," she says. "In New York there are a lot of places to explore. Sometimes I just sit in front of the East River. I can spend a couple of hours there and just think." "Mobile APPortfolio - Ilha Formosa" exhibition is at K11 Art Mall, Tsim Sha Tsui, until Oct 31. For details, go to k11concepts.com