fuck yeah, lens flare: theories on surrealism in chinese product imagery

I keep wanting to say something like “the mainland Chinese aesthetic tendency towards dreamlike product imagery is disappearing”, but the more I paw through the design galleries, the more I’m convinced that just isn’t true. All the single product landing pages, all the “editor’s choice” banner ad designs, all the ecommerce apps, many of them feature product pictures that have been mad Photoshopped, that are more digital rendering than genuine representative image.

This over-processed style has been common in mainland China for the last 15 to 20 years, and while the variations on it have, of course, morphed a bit over time, the essential idea has remained the same.

Before we ask ‘why?’, let’s go ahead and ask ‘what?’. If you’ve spent much time looking at any Chinese advertising, you’ll recognize the phenomenon immediately: product pictures that have been so heavily resurfaced that they look like they’re made of moon metal, that are often embellished with heavy-handed lens flares and are set in dreamlike collages of, like, doves and cherry blossom petals. By the time the designer’s done with it, the product itself doesn’t look quite real – it’s taken on a more-perfect-than-possible quality. It’s edged with heavenly light.

This doesn’t seem to be limited to any particular product type, with examples ranging from home appliances to automotive parts to beauty products. To sift through some examples:

Chinese UI Design: Surrealism in Product Images

Chinese User Interface Design: Product Pictures

Chinese User Interface Design Trends





What’s the deal?

Coming from a cynical culture that sneers at hyperbole in advertising as a relic of a more gullible past, it’s easy to scoff at what seems like giddy visual excess. And maybe it is. Maybe it’s just “bad design”. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I think that even as the style disappears (nothing stays in vogue for ever), the underlying reasons its persisted so long will still be there. It would be nice to know what those reasons are. A couple of hypotheses:

A cultural theory: Different approaches to “truth”

One common point of friction between westerners and the Chinese, particularly in matters of business, is a slightly different approach to what constitutes a “lie”. To paraphrase some great intercultural studies bloggers, what is considered a flat-out lie by Western standards may be seen as prudent or even polite in Chinese.

Given the omnipresence of that imagery, seems like mainland Chinese don’t seem bothered by evidence of obvious photo retouching. To me, an American, a heavily altered image is a lie. You, the business owner, are lying to me, you’re pulling a bait-and-switch. But I don’t think that holds true here. Rather, I’d posit that the image in an ad is giving the viewer a general suggestion or sense of the product, and a sense of the product doesn’t demand realism and specificity. Why wouldn’t you paint a product in the best possible light, anyway? Aren’t you trying to sell it? Aren’t all ads just fantasies, and isn’t the onus on the consumer to take steps to verify product quality before a purchase?

A practical theory: manufacturing and design teams are divorced

In my own experience, this isn’t just a matter of aesthetic preference, it’s also a procedural problem stemming from several factors:

First, that quality design is not highly valued, so designers are often thought of and treated as simply one more point on an product production assembly line.

Second, that manufacturing, logistics and design commonly happen in very different locations, so it’s a real hassle to ensure that designers have hands-on product access. For example, it’s not uncommon for products to be made in a cheap manufacturing hub like Southeast Asia, with a design team based in a creative hub like Shanghai. If the manufacturer is rapidly churning out hundreds or thousands of products, getting those products sent to their design department is a much bigger pain in the ass than sending a bunch of shitty pictures and letting the designers figure out how to proceed.

Third: Good photoshoppers can be much cheaper than good photographers.

Knowing all that, imagine trying to convince a bean-counting middle-manager who’s used to emailing some product pictures to his design team and receiving prettied-up photos in return – and who’s never before perceived a problem with that process – that he should implement the additional mega-hassle and incur the additional expense of shipping samples of every product to a third-party creative team, all for the nebulous benefit of having “real product images”. Real images that, incidentally, may look less polished to his eye than fake ones. Good luck in that client meeting, sir.

That leaves designers in the shitty position of needing to go through a Photoshopping rigmarole to distract consumers from the fact that actual product photography is impossible, and designers don’t have the decision-making clout to demand otherwise. All the soaring eagles and ocean waves and distant mountains and beams of light are, in other words, a visual tap dance born of necessity.

Here’s a perfect example – this designer posted a portfolio image showing how she took the complete turd she was given (my take, not hers) and turned it into a product layout. Hyper-realism in the background goes a little way towards covering up heavy photoshopping required on the product. Didn’t come out great, but do you blame her?:


I’m very curious to see if the trend disappears as designs becomes a more highly valued part of the production process, and what socio-psychological issues play a part. Are concepts of cleanliness and purity involved? Escapism? Drop me a note with your thoughts.