2020 / 9月
Seed Design’s Aesthetic Efforts Bear Fruit
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau has attained a higher profile among the general public in recent years.
From a bureaucratic backwater about which most people had only the vaguest of impressions, it has become a much-discussed “trendy brand.” How has this transformation occurred?
Entering the Forestry Bureau offices at No. 2 Hangzhou South Road Section 1 in Taipei, we leave behind the busy traffic of the street outside and are greeted by a large cypress tree encircled by orchids in the building’s atrium. Soft lighting accompanies the cypress scent. One almost has the impression of having entered a forest.
We ascend to the reception room on the second floor, where the winding corridors are lined with large wood panels that impart a strong sense of history. Here and there hang boldly colored works of art on the themes of forest flora and fauna. The Forestry Bureau would thus seem to be holding fast to tradition. But in other ways, not so much.
Lin Hwa-ching: From education to administration
Over the past few years, the Forestry Bureau has been like a rough gem being polished to reveal a surprising luster. The figure who has presided over this transformation from ugly duckling to elegant swan is the bureau’s director-general, Lin Hwa-ching.
In only four years he has been on the job, the Forestry Bureau has taken many impressive steps. These have included the release of desk calendars, wall calendars and planners with a quirky, hipsterish vibe, as well as publications that look no less fashionable than commercial periodicals. In design circles, these moves have been called “the transformation of public-sector aesthetics.” But from Lin’s perspective, they have but one aim: “two-way communication.”
Government agencies used to be much criticized for being out of touch, wasteful of public funds, and inefficient. How can they avoid these pitfalls? “In the process of formulating policy,” Lin says, “they can explore a variety of perspectives through formal or informal conversations with the public.”
But why has he taken such a mold-breaking approach? Some threads in Lin’s career of government service provide clues. Before entering the Forestry Bureau, he served at the Taipei Zoo and the National Taiwan Museum. Unlike the Forestry Bureau, which is purely an administrative agency, those two institutions also hold research departments and carry out important educational functions.
For example, “There are people who oppose the existence of zoos,” Lin explains. “To make the case that we’re justified in sacrificing these animals’ freedom, we have to show that those sacrifices will bring the greatest value—namely education and the promotion of nature conservation.” Toward that end, the zoo administration adopted prudent methods to enhance communication with the public.
Before taking the reins at the Forestry Bureau, Lin served as deputy director of the National Taiwan Museum. To keep its relevance for society in the modern age, the museum has likewise emphasized public relations, actively staking out a place for itself in the era of digital information to attract people who are not typical museumgoers.
A new calendar paradigm
“The first step was to get the Forestry Bureau into the public eye,” says Lin, explaining his line of thinking. “With greater visibility, people will pay attention to you and naturally notice what you are doing.”
The bureau has long been printing and distributing wall calendars, and they have been much loved among certain groups. Hung in homes for a full year, they are an excellent form of publicity, so they became an early focus of Lin’s efforts as director-general. Previously, Forestry Bureau calendars had featured photographs of grand landscapes, but Lin suggested that the images be painted by hand instead, with the aim of “highlighting the various ways that forests and their biodiversity are valuable.”
First produced for 2018, these new calendars have been created by Seed Design, a firm that excels at illustrations. The themes of the calendars have hewn closely to the main themes of government policy for their year of publication, and they have employed a generally retro style—highly stylistic and not especially realistic, yet evoking the botanical drawings of an earlier era.
That first year the theme was “The Forest of Food,” and it featured leaves, flowers, seeds, mushrooms, ferns, and so forth. Month by month, the calendar introduced the forest’s abundant produce. The following year it moved from flora to fauna with “The Animals of Satoyama.” (The Japanese term satoyama describes the area between mountains and arable land.) Mammals, birds, and insects were all featured. For 2020 the theme is “The Forest of Wood.” Starting with traditional agrarian life, it introduces all manner of wooden implements, including toys and kitchen equipment that used to be commonly seen in farming communities, as well as the hunting gear and canoes of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.
Cooperation and mutual torture
Seed Design made important contributions to the Forestry Bureau’s makeover. The firm “has one foot in food-related design and the other in exploring the natural world.” Its design director, Kan Ko-ping, is a romantic who loves to “write, paint, and make things by hand.” Those three endeavors have become the focal points of the firm’s business.
Kan explains that Seed had previously worked mostly in the private sector. Whenever it made a design plan for a client, the goal was to help them succeed on the commercial battlefield. The “slow cooking” of government agencies demands an entirely different approach, so Kan has been reluctant to take on public-sector jobs. Why then has she made an exception for the Forestry Bureau year after year? “I wanted to see how determined they were about nurturing the brand. Would they be willing to reach out to people who hadn’t already warmed to it?” It was the Forestry Bureau’s decision to take a new approach and attract the notice of new groups that in turn made her want to become their partner in launching those new products.
Kan places high expectations on herself and confesses to being rather strong-willed: Regardless of the client, she throws her all into every case she handles. Illustrations are at the center of the firm’s design style. “But we don’t want our illustrations to be marginal and decorative,” she says. “As long as we’re illustrating, we might as well do it right.” Take “The Forest of Food.” There might be space for only 20‡30 plant species in each month’s spread, but behind the scenes she was leading the firm’s team of illustrators to create drawings of more than 100, from which they would select the most outstanding. They took the same approach when working on the Satoyama Train for the Taiwan Railway Administration. In preparation for decorating the train’s eight cars, the team made illustrations of numerous animal species from Taiwan’s satoyama.
As design professionals, the team at Seed upholds aesthetic standards, whereas the Forestry Bureau adheres to the rigors of science. The designers submit drafts of all their illustrations to scientific experts for review. The smallest of details must be captured realistically. Fortunately, Seed is strongly supportive and willing to make repeated changes without complaint for the goal of perfection. Looking back on the development of their happy partnership, Lin Hwa-min says: “Our collaboration has been a process of mutual torture.”
The road to the mountains
The wall calendar was their first project together, and later the two partnered to launch a desk calendar and notebook, which likewise proved popular. Seed Design went on to apply its fresh design sensibility to other Forestry Bureau products, including a recently published picture book, Lokot—The Fish that Lived in a Tree, with text by Amis indigenous author Maya. Breaking new ground, the book draws from the orally transmitted legends of the Amis people, and the polish of its design compares favorably to commercial releases.
In truth, the strengthening of the Forestry Bureau’s “brand image” through the marketing of these products is merely a means to an end: Lin is clear that the ultimate goal is to allow people to gain greater understanding about mountain forests, experience them up close, and learn how forests hold much value beyond their lumber. There are, for instance, peripheral products such as essential oils, as well as the benefits found in the under-forest economy, forest recreation and forest therapy. Some 60% of Taiwan’s land area is covered by forests. The resources they hold are rich, and their ecologies varied, but without the Forestry Bureau’s makeover, the public’s understanding would be more limited. “If you are close to the sea, you eat from the sea,” runs the old Chinese idiom, “and if you are close to the mountains, you eat from the mountains.” The people of Taiwan’s interior are naturally children of the mountains. Were they to lose their connection to the forest, asks Lin, “would they not be like beggars sitting on a mountain of gold?”
The Forestry Bureau is intent on inviting more people up into the mountains.