From May 2008

Design Perspectives

What do you notice about the design of these web pages (aside from the fact that they’re not English)?

The top 3 are Korean and the bottom 3 Chinese – all are popular portals. Naver is Korea’s premier search engine (with 77% of the market there) and Cyworld could be compared to Facebook (with over 20 million users).

If your first reaction is that all these sites are very crowded and densely packed with content then you’re not alone. Your second reaction might be to ask why would they design something so cluttered, and from a western perspective lacking in the clarity and simplicity that we’ve come to expect from “good design”. It’s certainly not very “Web 2.0”, as we know it anyway.

It turns out a lot of other people are thinking the same thing. Different theories for why there is this marked difference are abundant, ranging from the influence of Buddhist principles whereby “strong and rich colour, density, and opulent presentation symbolize happiness and wealth”, otherwise termed the ‘aesthetics of abundance’, to different advertising models and the way in which people read/scan different languages. It seems no one has a definitive answer which means there’s definitely room for research here.

What I find fascinating is that two almost entirely different ways of looking a web design have emerged from a common set of technologies used by different cultures. It’s even more applicable when you consider western firms doing business in East Asia where a simple re-branding exercise is clearly going to be insufficient.

Another interesting point in fact is that whereas in the west we are used to accessing and advertising websites by their URL (e.g. randomwire.com), in East Asia the search box is king and URL’s are virtually redundant. These so called “navigational searches” may have something to do with the complexities of typing roman characters on input devices especially designed for Japanese/Korean/Chinese but still seems a pretty good idea to me and one which I expect will slowly make its way westwards in time, especially with the rise of the mobile internet where typing is even more cumbersome.

Solidarity in Numbers

I thought I’d share this heart-wrenching story I received from a friend in China yesterday relating to the devastating earthquake last week –

This is just one of many such harrowing tales emerging from the disaster which really brings home the reality of the situation.

I sometimes feel that it’s all to easy for us to divorce ourselves from tragedies which happen on the other side of the world. We sit and watch them unfold on the news in near real time with the media doing their bit to dramatise the situation ala 24. However, the suffering is very real and the numbers involved almost unthinkable – whatever we may think about the way the Chinese government sometimes conduct themselves in this instance it’s difficult to find fault.

I find it sad that it often seems to take a national tragedy to unite people but at the same time encouraging that there is still a thread of humanity left in the world. The scenes on the streets in China during the time of national mourning were a particularly moving testament to this. Perhaps if everyone felt this sort of compasion for each other all the time the world we live in would be a much nicer place…

Peking University Ruins

One of my most curious discoveries in Beijing came on my final day when I visited the grounds of Peking University (colloquially known as Beida) which can be found in the northwest district of Haidian (very near where I used to live). The rambling grounds are located on the former site of the Qing Dynasty royal gardens and retains Chinese-style landscaping as well as many traditional buildings including a large lake and pagoda.

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It’s ranked as one of the best universities in Asia and, having been originally established by a group of Americans, has a rather colourful history – during the Cultural Revolution students were sent for “re-education” (they call it “re-adjustment“) to cleanse them of their liberal misunderstandings!

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I wasn’t entirely sure if visitors were allowed to wander around the campus uninvited but none of the guards bat an eyelid at the gates, possibly because I’m still young enough to pass as a student, but nevertheless I was allowed to continue unimpeded! Having walked around the lake, passing a number of groups taking kitsch wedding photos (as the trend appears to be) I ventured off the main path into an altogether less well kept area and stumbled across a cluster to abandoned traditional-style buildings which I can only presume used to be classrooms.

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As the whole area seemed to be deserted I decided to have a poke around inside. Most of the rooms were filled with rubbish and mother nature was clearly starting to get the better of the interior but what intrigued me was the rather artistic graffiti which previous inhabitants had left on some of the walls. As if echo’s from the past the walls clearly had a story to tell although sadly I have no idea what any of it says. If anyone out there would be kind enough to translate I’d very much appreciate it.

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Whilst walking through the silent courtyard overgrown with weeds it struck me that the whole place had a bit of a bleak atmosphere and it was a great shame that it had all been left to rot. It remains a mystery as to why it has been abandoned but hopefully they’ll get around to restoring it before the deterioration gets much worse…

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And so, after a very delicious dinner of Beijing Duck with my former colleagues, my second stint in Beijing came to a close. It had been a busy week to say the least but I was extremely glad to get another glimpse of this amazing pre-Olympic city with its many faces both young and old. I’m not sure when I’ll be back next but I’m sure we will meet again!

Sidenote1: If you’re into urban exploration then you may like this list of websites which feature rich photo galleries, stories and other background information including maps and building plans (for the more adventurous!).

Sidenote2: If you’d like to donate to the earthquake relief effort in China then Google have setup a site to do just that. They have options to donate to two different bona fide charities.

London -> Tokyo by Train

Sometimes you come across an idea which is so mad that it might just have a chance of success. This was the case when I first heard about proposals to dig a 200km+ undersea train tunnel between Korea and Japan in a similar fashion to the Channel Tunnel which connects Britain and France (albeit 4 times longer). The tunnel has a number of proposed routes, a couple of which would see it also pass through the territorially disputed islands of Tsushima and Iki on it’s path.

It’s estimated that it would cost around 100 trillion Won (£1=W2000) and 15 to 20 years to build the so-called “peace tunnel” which would be a joint venture between the two countries if it ever comes to fruition. The technical, economic and political feasibility of the project is currently being estimated but it is still far from clear whether it will ever get the go ahead given the uncertainties.

Aside from improving relations between the two countries and promoting economic growth what excites me about this project is the wider implications for trans-continental travel around the world. With the cost of flying rising every year and the environmental impacts ever more present could high-speed rail links, taking advantage of new connections such as this, be part of the solution?

If the tunnel is ever built it would be physically feasible to travel by train all the way from London to Tokyo without the need for flying (ignoring the small problem of North Korea for the moment!) and combined with new technology in the future such as magnetic levitation the journey time wouldn’t necessarily be a huge amount longer than flying.

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in China yesterday you have to wonder whether building a massive underwater tunnel in an area of tectonic instability is a good idea but as pipe dreams go (excuse the pun) I’m all in favour! Humankind has always strived to push the boundaries of science, technology and engineering and it can’t be a bad thing if this helps bring together two historically hostile neighbours.

Art 798 District

One of the last things you would expect to find in a former military factory zone on the north-eastern fringe of Beijing is a thriving contemporary art community but that’s exactly that case in the 798 Art District in Dashanzi.

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Having been recommended to visit by a friend I managed to find the sprawling complex of workshops, galleries and cafes scattered within a rabbit warren of semi-derelict factory buildings some still in active use with Communist propaganda slogans adorning a few untouched walls and the sounds of industry emanating from within. It’s a rather surreal mix, yet at the same time the perfect setting for the “co-existence of avant-garde consciousness and traditional sentiment” (or so to speak!).

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The state-owned factories were constructed during the late 1950’s and was a collaboration between China, Russia and Germany until their abandonment in the 1990’s. It’s alleged that China’s first atomic bomb was developed here but today has become the focal point of the Beijing art scene.

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Whilst I cant say much about the art itself, not being particularly knowledgeable in this field, what fascinates me is that a place like this is even allowed to exist under a regime which frowns on the notion of independent thought and is suspicious of those who step outside the social norms. One can only hope that this oasis of creativity is not subsumed by the inevitable commercialisation which will follow.

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Expect Art 798 to be appearing in all good guide books soon but until then directions for how to get there can be found here.