Henry Steiner. Cross-Cultural Design
A Harmonious Encounter Between East And West
Henry Steiner introduced the discourse on cross-cultural design, re-working Chinese characters, symbols and local cultural features and transferring them to a more international dimension.
Text by Ester Greco
This article has been featured on Progetto Grafico, an international graphic design magazine published by Aiap, the italian association for visual communication design. The issue #32, “Here, elsewhere”, has been edited by Serena Brovelli, Claude Marzotto and Silvia Sfligiotti. You can subscribe to the magazine here and buy the current issue here.
Henry Steiner’s work is one of the most emblematic examples within the wider historical context of 20th century design in China. After the earlier experience of the Shanghai Style, his design is considered as an important meeting point between Chinese cultural symbols and Western design styles and concepts. Unlike the early Chinese developments of the 1920s and 1930s, what emerges is an interpretation that, in its pronounced modernist design approach, is typically Euro-American.
Born in Vienna in 1934, his family moved to the United States in 1939. Steiner grew up in New York, studied graphic design at Yale University with teachers such as Josef Albers and Paul Rand, and came into contact with the feverish environment of the New York School in the years of the Big Idea. He went to Hong Kong in 1961 for a nine-month assignment as design director for The Asia Magazine. What was originally intended to be a short-term stay gradually became permanent, and was further consolidated with the opening of his studio, Graphic Communication Ltd (1964), later called Steiner & Co. Since then, Steiner has been recognized as the “father of Hong Kong graphic design”, having forged the image of major companies in the city and, by extension, of Hong Kong itself.
Here, at the crossroads between East and West, Steiner has evolved his own unmistakable brand: a rationalistic cross-cultural design with a pragmatic, intuitive and informal approach typical of the American school, but reinvigorated by assimilation and reworking of elements from the Chinese visual and cultural tradition.
His thoughts are collected in the book Cross-Cultural Design: Communicating in the Global Marketplace (1995). Intended as an early investigation of the subject, it is the first anthology of texts and images to document the results of designers from around the world who have worked on assignments for clients or a public outside their own culture, or in multicultural contexts.
The introductory pages briefly cover his design method. He points out the need to connect elements from different cultural traditions through juxtaposition by similarity. While avoiding blending, mixture, or hybridization, the different cultural entities need to be kept distinct to maintain their own identity, commenting on and mutually enriching one another so as to establish a dialectic balance of “contrasts” as it happens in the Yin and Yang symbol.
Steiner emphasizes the importance of subjecting the visual material to a process of “transformation”: it is not enough to quote or mimic a subject: it needs to be reinterpreted and recontextualized if a new view of the subject is to be achieved.
Steiner identified five cross-cultural design techniques – Iconography, Typography, Symbolism, Split Imagery, Ideography — through which visual material could be redefined. Although these schemes are common in ordinary design practice, they are considered particularly suitable for cross-cultural assignments.
Iconography concerns the basic study of the image. In order not to appear as a superficial, passively reported quotation, the image should always be personalized, arranged and put together with other elements in an original way through a contrast in form or concept; in this way it will assume “new significance” and be seen from a new angle, as a comment from the designer, according to the specific needs of the assignment.
For Typography, Steiner suggests using the “ambiguity” that develops at the moment of reading, bringing about moments of non-clarity and doubt in the interpretation of texts and words.
A device the designer often uses to ensure ambiguity is that of code-mixing, that is, inserting the signs of one linguistic code within another. Specifically, this takes the form of replacing alphabetical letters in words or phrases in English with Chinese characters, according to a certain analogy of form and meaning.
Another device Steiner adopts is what he himself calls typography without type and which he defines as a particular form of ready-made. The process consists in composing texts using photographic images of typographic or calligraphic materials found in everyday use.
Returning to images, with Symbolism Steiner makes use of the evocative value of figures from different cultural repertoires and their displacement and recontextualization in unusual, unexpected scenarios according to carefully defined semantic relationships.
These transfers of meaning at first have a surprise effect on the observer, then offers a wider scope for interpretation of the subject since it is proposed in atypical terms. Rhetorical devices, wit and humor are widely used in Symbolism.
Unlike the previous techniques, Split Imagery implies a specific procedure. The subject is cut in half, preserving its distinctive characters, and then placed next to a counterpart with which it shares continuity of form and a semantic commonality, to create a third image.
The result is a dynamic game of matchings, focalizations and recognition of images from different historical and cultural backgrounds, in a cognitive counterbalancing that generates interest in the assembled images.
Finally, Ideography integrates image and letterform. The result is a stratification of meanings within an image that might look simple at first glance.
To summarize, Steiner’s cross-cultural design is characterized by modern Western codes of expression, with a surprising number of references to Chinese and Asian culture. The crucial features are the dichotomies and dialectical parallelisms between Chinese and Western elements, or ancient and contemporary Chinese elements, which are always set in an original and supremely clever manner. The instantly recognizable, eye-catching design elements, specifically chosen to appeal to a broad public, are put together using enigmas and visual interferences that immediately deliver a sense of the unexpected. The aim is to reach an alternative perspective: while on one hand the design enhances the observer’s interest and curiosity for the other culture, on the other hand it drives him to question the meanings of his own culture. A game of discovery, where the unfamiliar is perceived as closer by virtue of its association to something we do know, creating that “invaluable sense of distance in seeing — albeit briefly — the exotic as commonplace and oneself and one’s beliefs as being, after all, alien.” 1.
1 Henry Steiner, Ken Haas, Cross-Cultural Design. Communicating in the Global Marketplace, London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.