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Can Asia Help Western Designers Think Differently?

Gianmarco Caprio

Writer and editor at Phase with a fondness for photography, typography, design and travel.

Asia: the new design hotspot?

With their distinctive atmosphere and architecture, Asian urban centres can be an inspiration in themselves. And it's not only the eyes that get stimulated but also other senses, leading to new ideas that can be translated into one's output and give birth to inspiring work. This is especially true if in the field of visual communication. Nick, CEO at Phase and a frequent contributor to the magazine, has recently sat down with designer Mikhail, who now resides and works in Guangzhou, China, to delve deeper into the topic.

Seeking Greater Creative Freedom

The notion that design coming out of the East is merely a copy of its Western counterpart is one that doesn't do justice to the emerging creative scene in Asia. It is perhaps due to the very fact that visual communication as we know it in the West is still a fairly recent phenomenon in countries like China that local creatives are more daring when it comes to trying new ideas. In Europe and North America - two continents which have undoubtedly led the way in graphic design for the greater part of its history - it feels like there are certain boundaries which can pose a limit to unconventional thinking.

Mikhail is among those designers who have naturally progressed from print to UI design - as it is often the case. Before coming to China, he had worked and lived in different cities in Germany. What brought him to Asia was the desire to “try something completely new”, although at first the thought alone moving to a country so foreign (for Westerners) as China was one that filled Mikhail an equal amount of anticipation and fear. But when an offer to do so came, he decided to accept it. 

Mikhail is not alone in his quest to try something different. Many designers who previously worked exclusively in the West are now looking eastwards to ignite their creative fire once again. Asia is a continent where Western-style visual culture isn't as ingrained in the society and new ideas are allowed to be shaped and come to life, something which is very tempting for many designers from the West. Those working in this field who have acted upon this need and relocated eastwards to try and pursue greater creative freedom are many, mostly motivated by a need to leave a safe but often limiting environment in search of something new.

Being a Designer in Asia: What to Expect

“I had no expectations. I didn’t know much about the people and the culture, but I wanted to get rid of stereotypes and see it for myself.”

Mikhail’s thoughts reveal a mindset that is shared by a lot of Western creatives who decide to move to the East. He finds that one of the main differences of working in a European (German) and Asian (Chinese) company is the lack of interdependency between departments in the latter. Each department is, in a way, a company of their own, which differs greatly from how companies are run in Europe, where cooperation between different teams is often promoted.

Of course, there are some obstacles which designers who decide to move to Asia face regularly which can prove to be quite hard to overcome, with the most obvious one being communication. While knowledge of English in Asia is certainly on the rise, it is often still not on a level that guarantees a flawless exchange of ideas between people working on the same project. This can lead to people losing their desire to try and fulfil their potential somewhere other than Western countries.

Businesses have been trying to bridge the gap between their local and foreign workforce by employing interpreters, which are tasked with translating and conveying the view of a foreign creative about a particular project or idea. Mikhail, too, has his personal interpreter at his current company in Guangzhou. “Almost every foreigner who doesn’t speak Chinese has an interpreter”, says Mikhail. “This person also helps me translate documents and she goes to meetings with me so I am up to date with projects”. While having a person who is there to make sure you get your point across definitely helps, this isn’t always an easy task, as there are deeply rooted differences between Western and Asian cultures that can lead to misunderstandings.

Companies based in Asia fully understand that if they want their Western creatives to integrate with their local counterpart, they need to offer them the support they need. This often comes in the form of language classes, which can help during the transition period. Mikhail has language classes twice per week, but as Chinese is a difficult language these are not an all-in-one solution to the underlying substantial difference in approaches and work ethic which exists between the two cultures.

While on the one hand these cultural and linguistic differences can prove limiting, on the other they can sometimes lead to unexpected and potentially extraordinary results. We all know way too well that, throughout history, a lot of things have been discovered by sheer fluke, and the same is valid for visual communication. It will be interesting to check back with Mikhail again at some point down the line and see if Asia - and China, in particular - has fulfilled his expectations, or if, on the contrary, it hasn’t proved quite as capable to allow him to “try something completely new.”

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