Identity beyond Vision: Discover the Cultural Genes of Yuelu Academy


Prof. HE Renke,

School of Design, Hunan University, Changsha, China


YUAN Xiang, BE, MA

School of Design, Hunan University, Changsha, China




Designers usually consider the word “identity” simply as some visual similarities, which may lead to a lack of creativity or even misunderstanding. In order to address this issue in the process of exploring the identity of Yuelu Academy – a famous institution in ancient China, the concept of cultural gene is employed to provide us a completely new perspective to understand identity.

Keywords: Identity; Cultural gene; Yuelu Academy


Yuelu Academy, with over 1,000 years’ history, used to be one of the most prestigious institutions in ancient China. Today, as a mirror of China’s educational system and academic culture, Yuelu Academy reflects the light of Chinese civilization, and attracts the attentions of both scholars and tourists from all over the world. Yuelu Academy represents the conventional image of Chinese academic authority, whose core value has been pursued by Chinese scholars for a long time.

As for designers, Yuelu Academy is a source of inspiration, with which they nourish their thought and create artifacts with a strong national personality derived from Yuelu Academy. Such personality can also be thought as an identity whose attributes are too complex and abstract to explain specifically. The whole set of attributes function as genetic codes and every thing branded with such codes is an instance of Chinese culture. Those attributes are called cultural genes – the essence of identity.

Cultural gene is generally defined as certain information in various forms, which can be forged into artifacts by designers to indicate their social context and cultural relationship. The cultural genes within Yuelu Academy which are thought as both precious legacies and shared attributes of Chinese traditional philosophy have been widely employed in today’s Chinese design, especially the design of the artifacts in academic (or related) use. Many designers in Changsha city (where Yuelu Academy locates) not only harness the power of cultural genes to their everyday design practices, but also dedicate themselves to developing unique design methodologies with Chinese characteristics by discovering or defining the genes of Yuelu Academy. Issues in this field include: 1) what are the cultural genes of Yuelu Academy; 2) how can these genes be found and 3) how can the genes be employed in designs. The first two issues will be discussed carefully and openly in this paper to reach a general agreement on the essence of identity, while the last one should be addressed from different points of view of designers with respect of their individual design philosophies.

Obviously, before those cultural genes can be distilled from Yuelu Academy and re-encapsulated into designs, designers must show a good understanding of the fascinating cultural tradition and mysterious charm of Yuelu Academy. In addition, designers should present an appropriate definition and thoughtful methodologies so that the genes will be used correctly and the designs with such genes will tone harmoniously with the core value of Yuelu Academy. In short, the better one understands Yuelu Academy, the closer he will stand with the essence of identity and the more robust genes he will find.

Visual identity

Identity can be defined as the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable. People mainly use their eyes to capture needed information so that they can recognize and distinguish one thing from the others. Similarly, the term “identity design” always refers to creating something conveying consistent visual information to target audiences – for example, to create logo and icon graphically for a website or set a color specification for a series of products. With this reason, a designer, if asked to build an identity consistent with certain object, will as usual extract visual characteristics from the object (there must be a key premise that the object has any visual characteristic) and apply them to the artifacts they are designing. All artifacts then have been linked visually as a group by the visual characteristics, or in other words, a visual identity has been produced.

The routine methodology above has already been employed by many designers in the process of abstracting the cultural genes of Yuelu Academy. They concentrate on the visual characteristics, and as a result the artifacts they create are combined with some visual elements from Yuelu Academy including graphics, colors, font-faces, patterns, textures and so on. When one who has visited Yuelu Academy before sees the artifacts, he/she will immediately recognize the certain visual characteristics and will ultimately understand the relationship between them.

Contents of Yuelu Academy are in abundance, but only two in substantial form. One is architecture, the flesh and blood of Yuelu Academy. The other is literature, also considered as necessity of its existence. Both of them are channels, through which people in today’s real world could communicate with the past. With this reason, architecture and literature are always compared to the mine of cultural genes – an invaluable treasure awarded contemporary designers by our ancestors. (See figue1& figue2)

Figue1. Envelop design, employed the graphic elements from the architecture of Yuelu Academy.


Figue2. Cover design for CD, inspired by the architecture, book and ancient script in Yuelu Academy


One thing must be clarified is that those visual elements themselves should never be considered as cultural genes but the instances of the genes. Gene is invisible, but it can generate certain appearance, and that’s what we see. Gene is the reason beneath the surface. Of course, if a designer duplicates only the appearance but fails to explain the cultural genes within, he can still suggest the identity. The key is, despite of the uncertainty of the reasons in-depth, people can still be able to make a good guess based on the visual similarities. However, such guess may lead to an ambiguity or even a fundamental misunderstanding to the essence of identity, which a designer should avoid with all his endeavors.

Identity beyond vision

Identity is usually established upon visual information, which can only be thought as a medium for the cultural genes to reside in. If the genes are capable of surviving in various media, then identity can undoubtedly be shown in different visual forms. Many things similar to this can be found in our everyday life. For example, you encounter a man who used to be one of your best friends but have not met you for many years. You find his face quite different from what is stored in your memory, but you can still be able to recognize him based on the manners/attitudes he interacts with others (or with some unspeakable reasons). Certainly, the man’s image in your brain is not visually consistent with the vivid one in your eyes. Therefore, it must be from an identity beyond vision that you can make a correct judgment.

As for designer, the establishment of an identity does not equal to producing pure visual similarities. Identity supported only by pure visual similarities is absolutely superficial. It is designer’s responsibility to not only understand the cultural genes himself but also unveil its mystery to audiences in a sophisticated and tactful way. Furthermore, designer should break the limitation of visual identity. A talented designer will find, if he exactly grasps the cultural genes, the artifacts embedded with the same genes are not necessary to be visually consistent.

Figue3. Tablets in Yuelu Academy


As mentioned previously, architecture and literature is the mine of cultural genes which should be carefully examined before we start discovering the essence of identity. Architecture indicates the function of academy, a space for living, learning and teaching. Tablets and windows in Yuelu Academy are the most remarkable features of the architecture. Most tablets are granted by Chinese emperors in different dynasties. Those tablets are not only the evidences of its glory in formal days, but also key to open its history (see figue3). Yuelu Academy is famous for its government-supported institution background. So the tablets – the symbol of authority – become a main headspring of its reputation.

In China, the word “window” has a special meaning referring to study. A famous Chinese saying is “ten year’s cold window”, which means that one must pay many years (ten years at least) of his lifetime for study and endure the pain of cold (because of his hungry and lack of money during the study) before he can built a brilliant academic achievement in his life. Window in Yuelu Academy doesn’t function as a simple ornament but a channel. It connects the material world and the mental world, and implies that Yuelu Academy is just a window through which you can see your good prospect. (See figue4)

Figue4. Windows in Yuelu Academy

Figue5. Literature can be found everywhere in Yuelu Academy

Literature is the necessity of Yuelu Academy, which also suggests communication and civilization. The relationship between literature and Yuelu Academy is more like the one between tree and forest: Without tree there is no forest, and similarly without literature there is no Yuelu Academy. Literature is the symbol of intellect. It shines and directs people in Yuelu Academy all the time. Everyone here pays great respect to it. In fact, they worship it. Articles, essays, phrases and words are recorded everywhere in Yuelu Academy and in all kinds of formats available (book, stele, script, et al; see figue5). Only in this way, can people here show their regards to it. And also in this way, people can keep it shining forever.

In the discussion above, we have examined the mine of genes carefully. But what on earth are the cultural genes of Yuelu Academy? Apparently, neither architecture nor literature is the cultural gene, not speak of tablet, window, book, stele and script. The cultural genes of Yuelu Academy are the way people understand it, the manner people interact with it, the attitude of people towards it and the worship and respect to the knowledge in people’s heart. All of them are invisible, but they are right there, controlling everything in Yuelu Academy, including people’s thinking. They are both the core value of Yuelu Academy and the essence of identity. They are the identity beyond vision.

Designers then should create something in free visual forms that articulate the cultural genes. Such artifacts may look different, but are endowed with the same soul. People who see, touch or use them will ultimately find their true nature and understand their identity.


Identity can not be simply considered as visual similarities but the product of cultural genes. Hence cultural genes should be examined carefully before designers establish the identity. Nowadays, designers focus too much attention on the visual representation to pull them out of the ordinary. With the findings above, designers may change their viewpoint on the relationship between the identity and the artifacts they are designing. Furthermore, the new way to understand the mission of identity design provided in this paper may inspire designers to create something more meaningful.