There are two major scenarios that explain how Asian design works. First, it follows global trends, adopts their key features and naturally adds the cultural component. Second, it precisely reflects the national culture, so brand new movements and styles originate this way.
Following the first scenario, a well-known Japanese brand Muji picked the concepts of Bauhaus and minimalism and sprinkled them with a traditional vibe. Now, looking at the products, the one will hardly tell where their Asian aesthetic comes from. Alternatively, Yohji Yamamoto’s deconstructivism is based on the philosophy of wabi-sabi — so a traditional feature was the basis of a more recent style.
However, there is a design story that develops beyond either of these ways — modern Chinese illustration & character design. The core traits, which are overcute drawing style and anthropomorphism, draw this trend pretty close to the Japanese kawaii. But then, why does this movement arouse our interest today, and not thirty, twenty or even ten ago?
The Roots of Cute Style
Traditionally, we associate cartoon-like style with kawaii. The movement became really popular overseas, and the culture of cuteness became universal, with its local adaptations and variations.
However, while in most of the world, kawaii is about superficial cuteness, in Asian countries, it has gone much further than pretty stationery and themed makeup. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and China, the style has transformed into a powerful tool to help build collective imagination and national identity. It is actively used in branding, app and web design, advertising — and even politicians resort to related characters to get closer to the voters.
The Chinese Drawing Style Features
In fact, modern kawaii in China is an eclecticism. It means that artists blend multiple styles, and as with most digital artworks, it’s hard to attribute them to anything precise. To tell you more, I’m not sure, that naming this style “kawai”is correct either, as the only feature they share is maximized cuteness. So let’s treat it as a modern Chinese drawing style instead.
So, the style is eclectic, with no strict visual guidelines — which makes it so different from a casual design phenomenon today. It equally allows 3D character design (which is the most popular of all), minimalist cartoony drawings, modern digital art (right the way you imagine it: with intensive use of brushes and attention to details), stylized classic art — or any combination of them.
However, what lies in the core of the style and presents 70-80% of cute or charming illustrations is 3D character design. It was so masterly adopted by Chinese artists that we can call it their calling card.
Despite the drawing style and overall prettiness, there are two important features to define the movement:
- Anthropomorphism (attribution of human traits, emotions, or even appearance to animals and objects). It’s a focal aspect of folklore in multiple cultures, which has been very well preserved in Asia — due to religious and mindset peculiarities. Anthropomorphism is a powerful means of storytelling, which allows to approach the audience and get more lively feedback. Chinese illustrators know how well it works, so human-like bunnies, fruit and whatever else are as common as humans themselves. Or even more.
- Complex characters. With lots and lots of personal features and traits, they reflect the Chinese desire to stand out. Which is especially true for the youth. Artists try to pack their characters with a maximum of personality, so even if the visual style is quite minimalist, you can easily catch the emotion and pick the one you’ll associate yourself with.
Why So Popular?
Speaking of the Chinese adaptation of kawaii, there hasn’t been anything abrupt and extraordinary. It simply spread across the country quite soon after being introduced in Japan. And therefore, the popularity of modern Chinese drawing and character design is a logical consequence, accompanied by the evolution of the style and turning it more free-standing.
However, we shouldn’t disregard social and psychological factors that influenced the perception of the style as well.
First, there is enormous pressure over the Chinese starting from school. Intense competition, expectations of the society and family, strict discipline make kids, then teen seek support. Second, adults have to deal with stress and overworking, which dip them into distress.
Overcoming stress, opposing harsh reality, ensuring psychological safety and comfort are the tasks which the Chinese artists and illustrators are trying to solve. With merry/cute/cheerful characters, they create a sort of a niche where the one can hide and relax. And as more and more people admit the existence of the problem and how urgent it is, the more actively we expect the movement to develop.
The way the Chinese artists develop illustration and character design is mesmerizing. Pushed by the flexibility of the style and the social mission, they create stunning 3D artworks, tell stories and create a universe where it’s so good to get lost.
The style precisely meets the global trend of human design (which we expect to stay all the rage in 2021), so artists from overseas are welcome to draw ideas and images from their Chinese colleagues’ works. And well, as we see how popular 3D illustrations and characters have become in advertising and app design, maybe it’s finally time to say goodbye to the flat style?