Talking Design in Myanmar

In July 2012, Lamar School of Art assistant professor of graphic design Moon Jung Jang was one of three international designers invited to participate in a three-week design workshop in Yangoon, Myanmar.
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Organized to cultivate discourse on the power of visual design in the Southeast Asian country of many languages, ethnicities and linguistic groups, the workshop was a learning experience for Jang even as she was invited to be one of its instructors.

“It was great opportunity to talk about and share ideas on design concepts with a diverse of group of professional illustrators, designers and artists,” Jang said. She was invited to present at the workshop, Tactical Media: Publication Design - Creating Critical and Creative Journalism for a New Era of Myanmar, along with Fumio Tachibana of Women’s Art University in Tokyo and Bart Haensel of the Artemis Academy in Amsterdam. The three presented separate design sessions over the course of the workshop on a variety of topics organized around social development and capacity building in Myanmar. The three-week experience culminated in an exhibition of new graphic works developed by the participants.

The workshop was organized by Mizzima, a Burmese news and multimedia company, in cooperation with Arts Network Asia, an independent group of artists and activist from across Asia.

“All the participants understand very well that publications are a powerful medium, especially so as a country goes through a transition period of democratization, such as Myanmar is,” Jang said. “They are very talented cartoonists, artists and designers, but they wanted to know what else is going on - and so they invited designers from different parts of the world.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand and thus affected by all of these neighboring cultures. The government officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups, with at least 108 ethno-linguistic distinctions among its nearly 55 million people living in a nation about the size of Texas. “It’s a society where the modern and the traditional are mixed with so many cultures together, which creates such a very interesting and exotic place,” said Jang, a native of South Korea who had not previously visited Myanmar.

Participants were professionals already working in the field: cartoonists, artists, journalists, designers and animators, most working locally in Yangon, the former capital. “Though they are professionals in the field, they did not go through what we might call an official design education,” Jang said. “They needed some basic design principles in order to develop design strategies - not to change what they do, but to use more design concepts like, for example, developing a typography for the different Myanmar languages.”

Technically ruled by a military junta since 1962, Myanmar has held several rounds of parliamentary elections, most dominated by its main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Kyi lived under house arrest for about 15 years between July 1989 and November 2010. Though the fairness of recent elections has been debated and many national-level government appointees are current or former military officers, the government has initiated a series of political and economic reforms leading to a substantial opening of the long-isolated country.

In this context, the design workshop was organized at a crucial juncture for those already working in various forms of journalism as Myanmar attempts to transition to an open society. “They have limited resources and very strict censorship,” Jang said, “but they want to use the tools and skills they have to further empower their practice in publications and journalism.” All work and participants in the final exhibition had to be submitted to a censorship board to determine whether any content was politically, culturally or religiously inappropriate before permission was granted to hold the show.

A former designer of Design magazine, Korea, and a founding member and former art director of studio AGI society (Active Graphic Imagination), Jang’s workshops focused on the fundamentals of design structure. She talked with participants about the importance of typography, about methods for organizing information and creating hierarchies through design, and building a message through rhetorical expression. As a part of her workshop she emphasized configuration as one of the most significant practices in visual communication. She believes the choices designers make to create configuration effect the messages to the audience, and shape their way of seeing the world.

“I talked a bit about my work, which they were very interested in, and also about decentralization as a visual concept, which was relevant because their country is going through a major transition,” Jang said. In part of her workshop, Jang had participants create a pagoda, a major feature of the culture and Buddhist traditions of Myanmar. In this assignment, they needed to redefine a pagoda based on their personal experiences and create their own pagoda as a form. “The result was creation of various messages: the relationship between religion and women; democracy; and transparency, to name a few. It allowed them to practice different forms such as typography, photography, drawing and paper sculpture to convey their ideas.

“For me, even though I wasn’t at all familiar with their culture, we happily adjusted to each other because of visual language we used during the workshop,” Jang said. “I knew that visual language is an amazingly powerful tool to connect people, but I feel enriched to have re-affirmed this, not to mention how fabulous it was to get to know the participants and other instructors, and specifically to observe their culture, architecture and traditions. It’s all design, and it sort of blew my mind.”

Authored by: Alan Flurry