A4 Studios’ Ben Hughes on INDIGO – Designed to Delight

Awareness and understanding of design in China has advanced hugely in the last 10 years. Products, services and spaces are all better designed, more attractive and simpler to use. The challenge for many of today’s designers is to create things that are not only useful but that can also surprise and delight their audience.

INDIGO – Designed to Delight curator Ben Hughes, from Beijing’s A4 Studios, thinks this layer of surprise can be achieved through the revelation of unexpected connections or hidden meanings in design processes and products.  

BJDW: For BJDW 2015, A4 Studios’ program is moving from the quiet courtyards of Caochangdi art village to one of the city’s landmark luxury malls. How does this shift influence your curatorial approach?  

Ben Hughes: CaoChangDi was all about celebrating our community with an audience of about 50% design literate outsiders and about 50% local visitors. The focus was on fun activities that visitors could observe and participate in as well as gallery shows with more traditional content. With over 40 separate events and activities it was a challenge to manage the communications so that everything was clear. Everyone is aware of CaoChangDi as a creative community, but not everyone has been there and those that do often end up getting lost as there are no street names. One of the first tasks was to make a legible map of the area that didn’t rely on traditional signposting.

Indigo is different in that we have a large audience and as we have the fabulous Winter Garden, we don’t have to worry about the weather! This has given us the opportunity to incorporate several large installations that will be seen by thousands of people. These include local architects, Studio O, as well as digital craftsman Zhang ZhouJie and well-known local designer Lin Jing.


Expanding the experience of the shopping mall customer, from consuming finished products to understanding design processes, is one of the ideas behind INDIGO – Designed to Delight. What kinds of processes will audiences encounter?

We hope that visitors will see how the majority of designers are not driven by the desire to make money or become famous, but the ability to make people happy. Of course this can be achieved by making better products and spaces, but also by making an emotional connection with their audience. The events at CaoChangDi last year had a joyous atmosphere which I hope we can translate to this larger venue without losing some of the intimacy that made them special. There is less of a focus on activity this year, but we have tried to find designers who are doing something a little different with their practice so that there will be something to surprise even the most seasoned design-watcher. There is less of a focus on doing and making this year, although we are very pleased to be able to reprise our Plug-In Stations with a broad print-making theme. Here visitors will be able to see and take part in different forms of print making including silk-screen printing, woodblock printing, 3D printing, transfer printing and more.

How are some of the designers you are working with approaching the retail context? In what ways are their installations site-specific?

Working with Indigo has given us the opportunity to re-imagine some familiar spaces in unusual ways. Temporary installations within shopping malls are typically heavily commercial in nature. We hope that our designers’ exhibitions will give visitors the chance to experience the space in a different way. Zhang ZhouJie’s installation is sculptural in nature whereas Lin Jing’s are explicitly intended to be used and interacted with. Studio O’s architectural installation lies somewhere between the two – a sculptural form which will transform the space while at the same time providing a setting for our other exhibitions.  

How will you be you collaborating with Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) students on the program? What are they bringing to INDIGO?

My recent graduates from the Industrial Design Department at CAFA will exhibit a series of projects that respond to social and cultural issues that they have encountered. We mounted a similar exhibition last year in CaoChangDi that proved to be very popular. This year the projects include familiar things such as domestic recycling and electric vehicle recharging, but also some more unusual areas such as high-tech systems for square dancing Ayis and sleep management systems for over-stressed shift workers. My personal favourite is a cross-generational system of (marriage) match-making that uses both high-tech and low-tech methods.

You have said designers are always focused on the future. What assumptions about the future are INDIGO – Designed to Delight designers challenging?

There are many unpleasant visions of the future that we are keen to avoid. Designers are generally quite idealistic and you can see this in the students’ work, which is focused on improving education, creating equality, avoiding waste etc. Our more commercial designers are seeking to avoid the bleak homogeneous cycle of joyless work and consumption. Whilst it could be argued that designers are partly responsible for this, I hope that we can show they can also be part of the solution by showing fun ideas in interesting ways.

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Image: Zhang Zhoujie, Digital X. Courtesy Zhang Zhoujie and A4 Studios.