Duration: Four years.
Location: Shanghai, China.
Key creatives: Scarlett Xin Meng, founder and creative director. Scarlett holds an MFA in graphic design, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence, Rhode Island; and a BFA in studio art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
Career path: “I trained as an artist at Cornell University before going to RISD for my graduate study in graphic design,” says Meng. “Since then, I have worked at various studios as well as art and academic institutions like the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Because I saw many possibilities for my practice in my formative years, I didn’t bother to label myself for a long while; eventually, I discovered that graphic design lay at the intersection of my interests.
“In 2017, I founded Related Department in Shanghai initially as an experimentation, a preconceived studio model turned into a physical form,” she continues. “The name Related Department in Chinese suggests that the practice is intended to be undefined. We embrace an open-ended, flexible and highly experimental approach in our daily practice.”
Cultural influences: We are inspired by how images, symbols and other visual materials shape our everyday environment. Our work explores how to harness the power of images and typography or deconstruct their meanings within specific sociocultural contexts.
In Shanghai, graphic designers up until a few years ago still mostly applied neoliberal or outdated propagandist approaches to their branding and marketing. However, more independent designers and studios have emerged ever since, and they subvert conventional trends in their own ways. There’s a lot of room to experiment here, and it’s quite exhilarating overall.
Favorite projects: Nice Day, a new American Chinese food restaurant focusing mostly on takeout. It was launched by Junzi Kitchen, a chain of fast-casual Chinese restaurants developed at Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. American Chinese restaurants have witnessed generational stories of immigrants and have nurtured unique aesthetics of their own, which share strategies in typeface choices, modes of image representation, symbols and artifacts, outdoor signs, and interior decor across the United States. We tried to maintain this visual legacy while applying a new systematic treatment to deliver a refreshed visual concept in contemporary American Chinese food culture.
Can World Order Reshuffle Alphabetically?, our book for an exhibition curated by Re:Re:Publication in which we were invited to re-create and publish a new body of work based on existing books together with other artists. We chose an English as a Second Language test–preparation book, essential for non-English speakers to find opportunities in English-speaking countries. English as a lingua franca reinforces the global power structure, where the world order affects the value and universality of language as the currency of communication. This project responds to the changing condition of the world order, in which the distribution of power and global dynamics are subject to an extraordinary uncertainty in a postpandemic reality.
Approach: Related Department is not a traditional graphic design agency that has a clear hierarchy and categorizes our projects into boxes. A lot of our work tends to be sporadic and spontaneous in nature. Graphic design on its own can be too one-dimensional and focusing too much on the surface, and we want it to be more conversational—to be able to exchange values, roles and social commentary with other media.
Aspirations: “I hope we continue to explore more topics of interest with new tools and work with interesting people from various communities,” says Meng. “I’d like to see what else we can do with graphic design and where it can take us in the long term. The pandemic has made everything fall into an extremely uncertain state, and it’s hard to plan far ahead. But I’m a Taoist and I go with the flow!”
Philosophy: We have a research-based methodology. To us, graphic design is authoring a narrative in the public domain with its own linguistic and visual vocabularies. We are hyperaware of our own voice in both our commissioned and self-initiated projects.
Anything else? We founded our independent publishing practice Page Bureau in 2018, where we publish printed and digital materials from emerging creative talents. Although independent publishing is a difficult landscape, it is another exciting sphere of experimentation beyond our everyday practice.