The Graphic Image of Beijing

Published on by Lingqi Kong

This online visual archive of graphic urban wayfinding signs used in Beijing in the 21st century were taken by Lingqi Kong in 2011 as an important component of his PhD research, which is mainly concerned with the interaction between graphic urban wayfinding systems and urban identity or meanings. Since China joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO), won its Olympics bid in 2001 and successfully hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 2008, Beijing’s graphic wayfinding systems have been injected with multiple cultural meanings, commercial values and even brand awareness to achieve its goal of being a significant cultural, commercial, tourist destination. Beijing’s graphic wayfinding signs have been used to systematically and purposefully support and create a definite urban identity or brand for Beijing – an international and modern city with its own local characteristics.


More specifically, the traditional and the modern, the local and the global, are expected to be culturally linked in Beijing. Skyscrapers of Central Business District (CBD), avant-garde urban sculptures, high-tech transportation and public infrastructure constitute the modern image of Beijing. In the meantime, the city remains the traditional cultural centre of the oriental ancient country, having preserved its many historical relics and traditional values and ideologies. Against this background, since 2001 Beijing’s graphic wayfinding systems have been systematically organised and improved to increase urban circulation and transportation efficiency, enhance cultural experience, actualise city brand individuality and boost urban competitiveness.


On the one hand, the Beijing municipal authorities promoted one important aspect of Beijing’s brand as a historical and cultural Chinese capital city, an attractive tourist destination with a sense of history, Chineseness and uniqueness, through different approaches. This included the continuous use of the red-white and blue-white doorplates, and red-white alley signs, regarded as a legacy of the past century. On the other, since 2001, bilingual or even multilingual traffic signs are now widely used in Beijing. International standard compliant traffic signs, safety symbols and information signs can be seen everywhere in Beijing.


This visual archive shows how the graphic elements in Beijing respond to and interact with the urban design to help define the city image. The pictures are divided by usage: doorplate, alley sign, primary road sign, directional sign, subway sign and pedestrian sign. In order to show how Beijing’s graphic wayfinding signage contributes to the present identity and urban design of Beijing, the signs are presented, along with their corresponding urban landscape. The sign is shown on the left of the picture; the surrounding historical or modern environment where the sign is installed is shown on the right side. For example, as shown in A1, A2 and A3, the special signs shown on the left are specifically used in the historic districts of Beijing, shown on the right. The form and colour combination of the primary road signs shown in A4 and A5 are particular to Beijing. The green-white sign (A4) designates a north-to-south road; the red-white sign (A5) indicates a west-to-east road. The combination of red-white and green-white is well-matched to the grid-like road networks of Beijing.


Generally, all signs presented in A1, A2, A3, A4, and A5 play an important role in shaping a traditional graphic city image of Beijing. A6, A7, A8, and A9 show how these indoor or outdoor bilingual and multilingual signs contribute to the formation of a modern graphic city image of Beijing.

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