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How Obsessively Copying Poems Helps ShaoLan Hsueh, Who Reimagined Chinese, Stay Creative

The woman who made learning Chinese easier by redesigning pictograms into visual cues shares her creativity secrets.

Chinese is notorious for being one of the more difficult languages to learn, especially for Westerners. Its ideograms aren’t an easy switch for the Roman alphabet.

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Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh wants to change that with Chineasy: A New Way To Read Chinese. In the book, just out from Harper Design, renowned illustrator Noma Bar reimagined Chinese characters as playful, minimalistic pictograms–convenient visual cues to what those characters really mean. She illustrates the character for person, for example, with a head and a pair of feet, so it looks like a person walking.

These pictograms serve as the basis for Hsueh’s visual learning system. “Learning Chinese used to be painful, difficult, and complicated,” Hsueh tells Co.Design. “We sought to reverse that. Now it’s easy, playful, and simple.” Studying the book alone won’t make you fluent in Chinese, but Hsueh is confident that its 200 pages can teach you to navigate a Chinese menu, to read signs and billboards, and to understand basic newspaper headlines.

Hsueh’s 2013 TED talk describing Chineasy has racked up 3 million views. She’s calling her mission a “social movement” to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultures and to break down the Great Wall of Language. We sat down with Hsueh and found that her creative process and work habits have much to teach designers and creative people of all stripes. Here are a few of those lessons.

Understand your audience.


ShaoLan got the idea for Chineasy while watching her English-speaking children, 9 and 11, practically beat their heads against the wall trying to master the Chinese language. It was this deep understanding of the plight of non-native Chinese learners that allowed her to design a new learning system that actually works. “The majority of my team are non-Chinese speakers,” Hsueh says. “They suffer the pain of our audience, who are also non-Chinese speakers.” Any designer, she says, should “suffer the pain, suffer exactly what their intended audience is going through, then think about the solutions. Good design is about simplifying complex problems,” she says, and the best designers understand the problems they’re trying to solve from a firsthand perspective.

Find patterns.


As the oldest written language, with more than 60,000 written characters created by tens of thousands of people, Chinese can seem like it has no rhyme or reason. But Hsueh simplified it by finding patterns–namely, by creating a system based on what she calls “building blocks.” Using a computer program called “The Brain,” she spent a “tedious” few years mapping out a jumble of 20,000 characters and phrases to identify a few key building block characters. These building blocks can then be combined to create more complex characters and sentences.

For example, when two of the characters for “person” (a building block) are put next to each other, it creates a new character that means “to follow.” As long as you know the simple symbol for “person,” you can easily decode the various combinations of that symbol. “It’s like DNA decoding,” she says. “I found the key. Chineasy is not going to answer all the questions about every single character–there are some ‘orphan’ characters that don’t quite fit into the system–but it makes it organized and manageable.”

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Meditate, in whatever way works for you.

Born in 1971, Hsueh was raised by a ceramicist father and a calligrapher mother–an upbringing that deeply informed her understanding of the artistic potential of Chinese letterforms. “The way I understand and appreciate Chinese characters is different from what most people see,” she says. Now, Shaolan herself finds respite in repeatedly writing poems in Chinese lettering. “I write out the same poem again and again, concentrating on every single stroke, syncing it with my breathing and focusing on my core,” she says, displaying an impressively neat poem written out in ballpoint pen on a scrap of stationery.

Before one particularly nerve-wracking meeting, she occupied her mind by doing exactly that–by writing out one such poem over and over again. “I came to the meeting sharp, full of ideas,” she said. “The focus on lettering eliminated my nervousness.” While obsessively copying poems may not be everyone’s favorite Valium substitute, her point–that taking time to think about anything but work ultimately helps us work–is one we could all do well to remember.


ShaoLan confesses she sleeps “very little” given her early morning kid-shuttling routine, but she sticks to a ritual of spending every day between 10 a.m. and 12 a.m. meditating and exercising. “It’s a way of emptying my mind and consolidating my thoughts,” she says. “I swim, and I spend 10 minutes every day in a steam room. This is the most creative time of my day.” Any mental block or creative bottleneck, she says, seems to mystically evaporate during these vital periods of introspection when she focuses on the physical.

Hsueh has had a lot of fun developing Chineasy–she recently collaborated with British fashion designer Paul Smith for an exhibition at his store in London’s Heathrow airport, and design rock star Stefan Sagmeister, a friend of Hsueh’s, is also a big fan of the book. “I want people to feel like learning is fun,” Hsueh says. “The joy of fulfilling curiosity is something we want to encourage.”

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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