Taiwanese designer Borsan Zeng has been working in Shanghai since 2008. You might not have heard of him, but you’ve definitely seen his work. He has designed flyers and visuals for underground labels such as STD, Deck FX and DOT Records, alongside more commercial projects for the likes of MYST, Brown Sugar, and Cool DJ Agency. Chances are that if you see a sharp looking flyer for a Shanghai club night, this guy is behind it.
Zeng is also the co-founder of Daft Idea, a creative agency with projects ranging from website and logo design to bespoke accessories. Basically, this is a guy with his fingers in a lot of different pies, and after he put together such an awesome piece for our Blank Canvas towards the end of last year, we invited him out for a drink to see how he’s finding being one of the most sought-after graphic designers in Shanghai.
‘I came to Shanghai in 2008 as part of a Taiwanese company, but I left after a year to start Daft Idea’ he says. ‘My background is actually in Chemical Engineering. That’s what I studied at university in Taipei, but from a young age I loved skateboarding and graffiti, so I guess that’s how it all started.’ That might seem like a pretty major career switch, but Zeng is adamant that there is plenty of cross-over: ‘A lot of the skills I learnt while studying engineering, particularly having knowledge of all the different computer programs, is really helpful to my work today.’
There are stylistic links as well. A lot of Zeng’s recent work features 3D constructions assembled from a number of basic shapes, with brash colours and stark imagery grabbing the viewer’s attention. Walking me through how he puts together these compositions on his laptop, he explains that for most of his recent designs for clubs such as Dada and Arkham, what appears on the final flyer is often just a small section of a larger landscape. It is in these landscapes that the engineer in Zeng also reveals himself. The constructions are immaculately rendered, balanced, and meticulously thought out, transporting the viewer into some kind of relentlessly groovy netherworld, perhaps what the future would look like if Daft Punk were undisputed rulers of the universe.
‘I only use basic shapes, and usually only about five colours in any given design, but I often find that is enough’ Zeng considers. ‘I think that might be the graffiti influence. I’ve always loved bold shapes and colour. You don’t have to overcomplicate things in order to make an interesting image. In fact, simplicity is often the best way of making something accessible. I think it can be easier to get meaning from simple, bold designs, than from things that are overly complex.’
Despite having one of the most recognizable styles of any artist operating in Shanghai, Zeng is quick to dismiss the idea that having a unique style is necessary to make it in the cut-throat world of free-lance graphic design. ‘I don’t have a specific style’ he declares. ‘I think it’s very important to always challenge myself and mix things up. Beyond that, if you’re designing for commercial purposes, you have to tailor your style to the client. My designs for a nightclub are always going to be different from my branding work for a restaurant. Because clients want different things, it’s more important to be flexible and able to adapt your style. Obviously this is more of an issue on the commercial side of things: if I’m doing work for underground club nights, I have more freedom to do something more personal.’
As we look through an extensive set of folders from his extensive client list, it’s clear how popular Zeng's work has become. When asked how he juggles so many different commitments, he considers that if anything, he sees it as an advantage: ‘I have designed over 100 unique posters in the past 18 months, and that’s just for nightclubs. In any given week I might have five or six different projects going on. I prefer it this way, because you can leave things and come back to them. Even a relatively simple design can take several hours to put together, so I often find it’s a good thing to leave a project for a while and then re-assess it with a clear mind.’
Whilst at the moment things are going well, Zeng is quick to point out that things weren’t always this way; that there are inevitable peaks and troughs in the career of a freelancer. ‘I’ve been very lucky during my time here' he considers. 'I’ve made a lot of good friends and I have a lot of contacts. If you know the right people, and people like what you do, then you can get work. But when I started out and didn’t know anybody, it was difficult to get things off the ground.’
Whilst recently he has been bringing his skills to bear on more commercial ventures, working with the recently opened club MYST amongst other things, Zeng is unsurprisingly more interested in talking about his own projects, which include expanding his interests beyond graphic design: ‘This year I have done a couple of jobs designing the interiors for club nights. In July there was a two day mini-festival called Asia Coast, hosted at the new Logo. That was a lot of fun. It was a great space to work in and it gave me a chance to experiment with lighting and sculpture.’
‘Open your mind- don’t limit yourself. You have to be willing to try new things.’ Borsan Zeng
Never content with staying in his comfort zone, Zeng also has plenty of ambitious projects in the pipeline. ‘With Daft Idea, I am planning to expand into accessories’ he says excitedly. ‘I want to take the aesthetic I have been developing and apply it to different kinds of merchandise. I have been working on a few prototypes for lamps and things like that. You see, things are changing here in Shanghai. Just a few years ago, people wanted to just have something. They wanted to have the latest or most expensive brand of whatever. But now it’s not just about having something; people want something unique, that says something about them as a person. It’s less about price, and more about individuality. That’s why we want to create bespoke designs that are like nothing else out there. We want to combine technology and design in a new way, and carve our own niche in that market. But I don’t want our designs to be prohibitively expensive. I want them to be accessible.’
And his advice to other creatives trying to make it in the big smoke? ‘Open your mind- don’t limit yourself. You have to be willing to try new things.’ You heard it here first folks. Now, the red pill or the blue pill…
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
IMAGES COURTESY OF BORSAN ZENG