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How to break out of the homogenised visual culture of social media

The Graphic Design Jury President shares his methods for developing your unique point of view

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Founder and Design Director of Amazing Angle Design, Benny Au loves bringing the graphic design community in Hong Kong together. A founding member of typeclub in the city, he also founded miniminigallery at his studio — a place where those who enjoy design can exhibit their work and meet up. Passionate about paper and printing, here D&AD Awards 2022 Jury President explains how exploring mediums beyond digital can help designers to show their uniqueness.

When you browse posts on Facebook, Instagram, Behance and more, the eye-catching images on these social media platforms can quickly sink into your psyche and become inspiration for your visual aesthetics. Thanks to the Internet, designers from LA, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai or anywhere in the world can admire each other’s work in real time. Social media platforms have become a global ideas exchanging ground, a bank of visual references. But because of this the whole world is at risk of sharing a homogenised visual language, dominated by the style emanated from this shared reference bank.

To create original work, you can’t just mine visual ideas from other images. Do we really want a world with one homogenous style? Don’t we still want to see individuality? Here’s how I suggest we can avoid falling into that trap.

A simple way to bring diversity back into design is to look for references outside of the digital world. Our visual expression could be influenced instead by our cultural and historical pasts, totems that have been passed down from generation to generation. These fundamental parts of our personality can only spark inspiration when we actively engage with the physical world around us. Allowing ourselves to draw ideas from our own culture and surroundings will affect how we see the world. When reinterpreted using modern design techniques, these are the ideas that can form a unique visual language for different regions, creating a more exciting and vibrant visual landscape for the world of graphic design.

"Visual expression can be influenced by a designer’s cultural and historical past, totems passed down from generation to generation"

Apart from getting all our inspiration from social media, these days we also tend to view most work in a digital format, but when we view larger-scale designs such as posters, or books through a small mobile phone screen – we lose the benefit of interacting with the work on a tactical level. A concept is always abstract, but for it to make me feel something I want to see it in concrete formats. I’d love to encourage all designers to use the mediums that are available to us – both materials and technology – to really transform and elevate our concepts. I believe the best design work roots abstract ideas to reality.

For me, abstract concepts that I’ve imagined in my head often materialise at the printing factory. I always witness the birth of my work at the printers. I don't know why, but I just adore the interaction and union of ink and paper. It seems to me that when examined through a magnifying glass, you can see a tiny universe; the fibres of the paper, the depth of the ink, and the changes of colour are all really fascinating.

Observing the printing process also makes me think more deeply about my creative ideas. I can evaluate the technique, and even expand my creative possibilities through different binding and printing methods. At the printer’s is where I can really visualise my abstract concepts which further enriches how I’ll express my design.

"Observing the printing process has me reflect on my creative ideas"

Apart from using physical mediums for my graphic design, my interest in photography has also helped me to connect with my own perspective on my physical surroundings. Over the years I have had four digital cameras. From the first one with an autofocus zoom lens to my latest full manual prime lens, I’ve found that the equipment I’ve used has affected the time it takes for me to observe my surroundings while photographing. In the beginning, it was a quick glance and capture. Now, stand, look, adjust and hit the shutter. I’ve realised there is much more communication between my eyes and objects in front of me with my manual lens, which is deeply felt in my heart. These days, my camera is always with me, just to make sure I can record what I see. Often these are just brief encounters in places I pass by daily, or life’s ordinary happenings.

In 2014, I started a project on social media, making a record of one thing every day – sometimes an image, sometimes an emotion. These are conversations between me and the world, and the place where I live — Hong Kong. I find that what touches me the most is not anything grandiose or surprising, but the encounters in my daily life that are ordinary but joyful. I hope to save this record for when my future self sees the same thing, the same scene so that I can recall the feelings and thoughts I had before and understand how I viewed the world then.

I say, don’t just live in a world you ‘like’ from behind a screen. The real world is full of different things. Whether you like it or not, your surroundings will have an impact on your creativity. Stay in touch with the world physically, and be curious, always.

D&AD Awards 2022 is now open for entries​. Submit your work and be part of more.

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