The Steiner Series: Dairy Farm – Communicating Without Words

Paper covers the length and breadth of a conference room table. Sketches with notes and doodles nestle up against annual reports, brand manuals and share certificates. On one page, a hand-painted illustration depicts groceries erupting from a shopping basket: a cornucopia of turquoise, red, yellow and pink. Emblazoned with a carnival of animals, these enticing images tell an international tale of trade and plenty, with a crowned lion on a jar and a kangaroo on a can heralding the United Kingdom and Australia respectively. An attractive red tin beckons as a dragon rears its head suggesting the exotic riches and trade in tea that drew the world to Asia.

Iterations upon iterations of the same illustration lay in piles, sometimes substituting the lion for a bulldog, sometimes suggesting a milk carton in favour of a can, with handwritten notes laying out prices in Hong Kong and Australian dollars alongside British pounds. “It almost makes you cry. Looking at everything. The details,” mutters Henry Steiner, surveying the stacks. “The work that went into it. Not just the quality but the sheer labour. All of this by hand. That was a hell of a lot of work. I’m just so filled with admiration for my work.” 

These reams of material represent Steiner’s six years of graphic communication for Dairy Farm. The Dairy Farm Company was founded in 1886 by Patrick Manson, a Scottish surgeon and expert in the fields of hygiene and tropical medicine. As well as starting Dairy Farm, the doctor was a founder of the Hong Kong College of Medicine, later to become the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. 

Dairy Farm’s threefold purpose was to provide a regular supply of hygienic fresh milk to the city; to make that milk affordable for the growing population of Hongkongers and, of course, to realise a profit for the company shareholders. Chief amongst these shareholders would be Dairy Farm’s financiers and first directors, five of Hong Kong’s most influential businessmen at the time: Paul Chater, W.H. Ray, J.B. Coughtrie, Granville Sharp and Phineas Ryric. 

Initially, 80 dairy cows were imported from the United States and kept 500 feet above sea level in the bucolic surrounds of Pok Fu Lam on 300 acres of good land where the Wah Fu public housing estate now stands. There, the cows enjoyed cool breezes even at the height of summer. Safely isolated from city slums but only four miles from Central, the location was ideal. After weathering World War II, Dairy Farm went on to expand its dealings into a corporate empire of cold storage, food wholesale, supermarket retail and much else. In 1972, Hong Kong Land acquired the business in the city’s first contested takeover bid. Approaching Dairy Farm’s centenary and in anticipation of a relisting on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the company invited Steiner&Co. to freshen up its corporate identity.

Dairy Farm’s original logo was rendered in a mock hand painted script bespeaking the 1950s Americana of a soda fountain. Adorned with a crown over its capital D, the graphic was clearly anachronistic. “We really had to clean that up,” says Steiner, focusing on the crown. “A lot of junk there.”

The corporate identity that Steiner created for Dairy Farm is a mainstay of Hong Kong’s visual culture, so ubiquitous now that hardly anyone would remark about its most striking feature: the word mark has two forms, Chinese and English. Neither language takes precedence and each is a perfect counterpart to the other without compromising the graphic’s integrity nor relying on a clumsy subtitle to translate. Sitting at an oblique angle the words, ‘Dairy Farm’ and ‘牛奶公司,’ are rendered in a hefty but energetic typeface lending a sense of substance and wholesomeness bolstered by strong use of complementary primary colours, red and blue. Both legible and unique, the identity is a flexible system that can sit on either two lines or one with the rhyming forms of ‘y’ in ‘Dairy’ and ‘F’ in ‘Farm’ meeting comfortably in the middle either way. The same effect is achieved with ‘奶’ and ‘公’ in the graphic’s Chinese equivalent and ultimately it is this entirely bilingual nature that sets the graphic apart.

“It’s a matter of communication. A matter of respect for the Chinese written language,” says Steiner, as he scrutinises a sketch. “I can’t read that [character] but I know what it is and I want to make it look good.” Squinting at the drawing, Steiner thinks aloud: “That could be Victor.” 

The Victor in question is a former employee who Steiner speaks of fondly and often, Victor Cheong. Cheong’s annotations in Chinese circle corners on the character ngau4 (牛, “cow”), indicating that they should be sharper, possibly in reference to a cow’s horns, though Steiner disputes this interpretation. 

“He was a great assistant. Unbelievable. Very smart,” he says. “He was great to work with. He was the only artist who I liked so much that I had him sign a 10-year contract with me. He was very good and some of this stuff is from him.” Steiner proudly shows off a book by Cheong celebrating their decade-long creative partnership. Inside is a photograph of the two graphic designers looking seriously at a scrap of paper. “VC getting a rough time as usual from HS!” reads the caption. 

“The Cantonese have a delightful metaphoric expression for mutual incomprehension: ‘a duck talking to a chicken,’” writes Steiner in his book, “Graphic Communications Essays on Design.” “I recognize some [characters]” Steiner says, “but not enough to be literate at all. I’m a bit ashamed of it but that’s the way it is. Perhaps it says something about how accepting and cosmopolitan Hong Kong is.” Although he attempted to learn Chinese after arriving in Hong Kong, Steiner was unable to keep it up while running a business. In explaining how well his work incorporates elements of Chinese writing, Steiner is always quick to credit staff like Cheong, but the strength of his bilingual work also stems from his skill as a graphic designer. 

Viewing Chinese characters as symbols and pictographic forms rather than words, Steiner explained his process in a 1973 essay, “How to Design in Chinese (Without really being able to read it).” Many of his projects incorporate Chinese writing “because we were communicating to a Chinese audience, or because of their appropriateness, or because of their exotic flavour,” he writes. He then expands on the fundamental graphic design principles that he relies on when working with Chinese: contrast, size, texture, style, emphasis through colour and substitution of pictures for letters. Attention to negative space is another of Steiner’s favoured techniques, one that was taught to him by the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, who headed Yale’s department of design when Steiner was a student there. “The same devices apply which one would employ in designing with European typography,” he says.

Though Steiner may be illiterate in Chinese, he is no monoglot. Speaking German, Yiddish, French, some Spanish and the city dialect of his native Vienna, Steiner is well accustomed to the code switching, pattern recognition and adaptability of a survivor forced to turn weakness into strength to reckon with a world that can be hostile and incomprehensible.

“After the Anschluss, my mother, father and I barely managed to enter America in September 1939,” Steiner wrote when he was awarded the Decoration of Merit in Gold from Austria for his contribution to graphic design. “Our passports imprinted with the hooked cross [meant we] were considered enemy aliens. Not wanting to play a Nazi soldier in kindergarten games, I learnt English within two weeks while stubbornly, and unforgivably, refusing to speak German with my parents.” Steiner still looks back ruefully on the experience. “It’s disgusting but it made sense for survival. I’m an immigrant and being a Jew makes you sensitive to [these] things. We’re people that have to get along in other cultures.” 

It is partly through lived experience that Steiner has developed an ability to parse the world across languages and to process it in the way he knows best: visually. But even here he has had to tread carefully, guarding a deep secret throughout his career. “I’m colour blind,” confesses the graphic designer. “I don’t tell everybody but I’m not keeping it a secret anymore. In the past, people could have taken advantage of me. Competitors would have used it against me.” 

Discovered in childhood when Steiner drew a purple sky, the impairment would normally be a minor one, but for a man who lives by his visual acuity and colour sense, this revelation might have done serious harm to his reputation. As with all obstacles, Steiner has developed ways to cope and to understand, evading discovery simply by asking, “What would you call this colour?” whenever the subject came up. “It’s like being a spy or something. Keeping it to yourself.”

A quiet observer standing apart from the crowd, Steiner interprets the world through systems and symbols. “Perhaps if you are a wanderer and an exile and if you are shy and mistrustful, you rely on signs more than on people,” writes Steiner. “You study them and learn how their appearance and meaning can be of use to you. You know the flavour of signs in Basel and Beijing: they speak to you in specific ways and you become attuned to the nuances and potential of these marks.” 

Ultimately, it is contrast and context that give cross cultural design its meaning and part of this is informed by a designer’s identity. “You don’t have to be an outsider, but it helps,” he writes. Perhaps it is his status as an observer — “alienated in some way, as are most artists,” — that gives Steiner the ability to communicate so clearly, not with words, but with images.

Logos in Chinese and English – Courtesy Henry Steiner

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