The Importance of a Design Identity in Asia

This morning I was watching the News show on TV when they had a little chat session with some artists visiting to promote The Asian International Art Exhibition. One thing that hit me was:

Each piece is an artistic expression that embodies the culture and history of the country from where the artist comes from.
From indigenous artworks to contemporary paintings, the artists also drew inspiration from recent events like tsunamis, bird flu outbreak, and the struggles with development and globalisation.
The Exhibition is not just a celebration of Asia’s artistic achievements, but also of what makes Asians unique in their own identities.
The similarities and differences of Asia’s physical appearances, cultures and traditions are reflected in these works.

Asian International Art Exhibition
Since being a guest of the Design Singapore Council’s International Advisory Committee last year as a representative of local interests in a Singaporean Design Identity, I am increasingly more convinced that some kind of Design Identity is important for Singapore, or any (Asian?) country for that matter. This is especially, if that country wants to succeed in the competitive world of design in this new millennium.
In this case here, I have a sense that the artists will have an important role to play here in developing a design identity. Simply because they are the fore-runners in developing a unique local style that is inspired by their immersion in their local cultures, and to me a unique local style is the seed of a local design identity. Thus an artist’s reflection of a local taste or style will have far reaching influences in design, fashion and architecture. Artists really are the ones to do this as their works are free to explore art forms as their only restriction is the canvas or clay.
The next group in line that could contribute very readily to a design identity, in terms of increasing complexity and restrictions, are perhaps the graphic or fashion designers. In a sense the simplicity of a product plays a roll when it is being considered as a possible reflection of a design identity.
However if we zoom out, and consider Asia as a whole, things start to get more difficult. The majority of the design industry in an Asian context has its footing and development over the back bone of Asia’s manufacturing industry. Unlike the west, design in Asia does not have a craftsman’s past.
Designers in general, don’t have it so easy, as we are bogged down by many things such as manufacturing constraints, economic factors, and perhaps even the brand and client. Thus the bridge between a unique artistic style and a design identity, particularly in Asia, is difficult to build.
Below are some of what I think can be useful things to consider when building this bridge towards a national design identity.
1) Unique yet world class.
Personally I think designers need to start creating unique designs that are inspired by their local influences. Then these designs need to win world class competitions, make their mark and be recognized and considered to be world class.
Too many designers in Asia either live under a brand name or produce designs that have styles influenced by western design ethos. To often Asians rather look out to the west for ideas, then to look inwards and find inspiration locally.
2) Conceptual work
In Asia, designers are just too busy. Not to say that designers in the west are not, but there is lacking of activities for designers to feed the soul. In the fast pace grinding in major Asian cities like Singapore, Shanghai and Taiwan, designer’s noses are always on the grinding blocks of CAD software, deliverables, and shorter lead times.
There is no time to just stop and think. As a result bad styling habits keep on rearing its ugly head, designs produced all look the same, and a designer gets pigeon holed into a particular product, look or style.
Thus contrary to what many nay-sayers gripe about, brining the Red-Dot Concept Award into Singapore and Asia, not only implies we can think out of the box, but provides a platform for designers to explore their “hungry” side.
For me I do hope my little social-entrepreneurship venture The Frimwareproject can give an added boost in further showcasing the conceptual talents of Asian Designers, with the ultimately aim of creating a national design identity.
3) Schools are run by people that are western trained
I caught up with my former design lecturer early last year, when we came to a discussion of the University’s success at the Electrolux Design competition. He mentioned that what occurred to him was when students were asked to dig deep into their cultural influences; the students approached this design competition of everyday white goods in so many different ways that it surprised him greatly. Many of the approaches and view points were even contrary to western design culture or ethos.
We then had a great robust discussion on whether a western based design education was appropriate for Asian designers, and perhaps there should be a shift in design education that aligns more closely to how Asians learn.
My take on this is that we have to realize that our local design education taught today, are delivered by either westerners or by Asians trained in a western school. Furthermore many designers, including myself, have learnt our trade by attending western institutions again by western trained designers.
This will make a great topic for a master’s thesis and I would kill myself if I go into more detail. However what I like to argue is that there definitely must be some kind of cultural impact in this as simply western designers and educators are not brought up in an Eastern context. It is left to be seen if this impact may or may not be advantages for Asia’s struggle for a design identity.
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So in conclusion I like to humbly hazard a guess of what Singapore’s design identity is? I strongly believe our design identity will be a lovely mesh and a confluence of styles. The best Singapore designs will pull the best elements from our influences by passing visitors or our regional hub and combine them with great wit and dexterity.

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