PREACHING, POACHING OR PROSPECTING: WHAT IS CROSS-CULTURAL DESIGN?

13 November 2006
Linda Cooper Bowen, United States
Linda Cooper Bowen, United States


Above: Linda Cooper Bowen


Cross-cultural design does not have a single definition. Does is it mean the same as 'multi-cultural' , 'trans-cultural' or 'global design' ? As a currently discussed topic among many American designers, there really is no generally accepted interpretation. To some people it means working directly for clients across international cultural borders, possibly in collaboration with foreign designers, or it may simply be an opportunity for a sociable and stimulating professional exchange among peers. Idealists see this as a way to enable people in developing countries to benefit from the mentorship of a technically advanced creative community. Cross-cultural design is both altruistic and pragmatic, it seeks to create a powerful visual language which communicates broad universal issues as well as mundane problems like designing a candy box in five languages. This newly expressed need to cross cultures may hopefully be a signal of maturity within the design profession. Whatever the initial inspiration, the fact that designers want to challenge their existing preconceptions and habits and expand their range of experience is a positive development. Travel, either actual or virtual, cannot help but make people more sensitive to the customs and cultures of others.

Is cross-cultural design a philosophy, style, political mandate or marketing strategy? Christopher Leighty, of Meyer + Leighty, Designers and Consultants for Global Marketing, is Chair of the recently formed AIGA Center for Cross-Cultural Design (AIGA/XCD)*, he explains the goals of the organization, "A few years ago AIGA/XCD was established to help designers increase their knowledge and skills, connect with designers around the world and raise client awareness of the cross-cultural capabilities of the design profession. With an international network, designers will be able to share information and collaborate on projects." This young organization represents the nascent desire of a growing group that wishes to develop an understanding of other cultures and now is eager to join the global design community. Primarily monolingual and monocultural, American designers are nevertheless curious and eager to see the latest work of foreign designers. One would assume therefore that the concept of crossing cultures would include being part of an already established international network of designers, but AIGA, the largest design organization in the world with 17,600 members including 6700 students and 49 chapters and student groups, is not a member of ICOGRADA*, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations, a professional world body for graphic design and visual communication. Founded in London in 1963, this organization "focuses on graphic design, design management, design promotion, and design education and promotes the graphic designers' role in society and commerce. ICOGRADA serves the worldwide community of graphic designers as the world's non-governmental and non-political representative and advisory body. It's purpose is to raise the international standards of design, professional practice, ethics and status of the graphic designer, to extend design's contribution to understanding among people and promote the exchange of information, views, and research." They sponsor congresses, conferences, seminars, and symposia throughout the world and publishes and distributes information regarding graphic design including an online newsletter and web site www.icograda.org. Although AIGA encourages its members to join ICOGRADA as individuals, AIGA membership now automatically includes membership to the subgroup, AIGA/XCD, which confusingly appears to be in competition with the other organization. The younger community of designers hopes to put pressure on the 90-year old AIGA and insist that it join ICOGRADA as a fullly responsible member, however this has been a hotly debated issue within the membership for the past 20 years. What is the reason for the AIGA's non-participation, is it simply a matter of money and priorities or an American isolationist policy?

AIGA director Ric Grefe agrees with the general premise of cross-culturalism, "Virtually all of the divisions of today's world are created by lack of understanding of cultural differences. Communication design is the means of using words and images to improve understanding. If there is to be global harmony and civilized discourse it will depend on the success of creative people to communicate despite their differences. AIGA believes this wholeheartedly, however our membership does not support spending large amounts of money maintaining membership in ICOGRADA, a strong advocate for design and social responsibility. Since membership fees are based on the number of members, we would have to pay a hefty fee and dominate the budget of ICOGRADA, yet few of our members would actually attend international events. Another issue is who would represent the AIGA at their meetings abroad? We therefore encourage members who want to be active in ICOGRADA to create their own community of interest within AIGA (AIGA/XCD)." The fact is ICOGRADA has a cap on membership fees and the actual fee for AIGA joining would be $32,000 a year, (the cost of a single latte per member) and anyone can attend their international events without being a member. There is some progress toward improving the present situation. In 2006 ICOGRADA and AIGA/XCD will jointly host the first collaborative cross-cultural conference in Seattle.

"Cross-cultural design only exists in America," says the recent president of ICOGRADA, Rob Peters. He finds the term puzzling. "I don't think I know what it means. Is there such a thing as cross-cultural design and if so what does it look like? An attempt to create this may result in a kind of visual coleslaw! Here in Canada we accept multi-culturalism, but ironically in the United States, the 'melting pot' , cross-cultural design has become a popular new notion because American designers are only fed American design. They largely remain myopic regarding globalism, international issues and foreign cultures. I am happy to see that the AIGA/XCD community wishes to promote broader cultural understanding and exchange." We presently live in a large post 9/11 national vacuum, a sense of isolationism exists in the United States which once considered itself to be the richest, most powerful, technically advanced and indestructable country in the world. It would seem that it is the designers, not design itself, who are feeling a strong need to cross borders and reconnect with the rest of the planet."

For San Diego designer Bennett Peji, cross-cultural design is a local experience, not only an international one. "We need to know the languages and customs of our own neighborhoods, crossing cultures to communicate effectively." Peji, one of the active founding members of AIGA/XCD, proposes the concept of the 'citizen-diplomat' that would create a forum promoting a database of international guest designers. Inspired by the U.S. State Department s International Visitors Council, designers who visit cities in the United States would be greeted by local designers for a cross-cultural exchange of ideas and customs and their peers around the world would extend the same welcome. This year the AIGA will sponsor an international exhibit, 'Global Design' with each country's region or city self-curating their entries. Being so close to the borders of Mexico and the Pacific Rim, San Diego designers find the cross-cultural concept an obvious one. Calvin Woo, President of CWA shares his insights on a subject that is at the heart of his work. "I call it 'border blends'," he explains, "In the United States cross-culture is represented in the evolution of a pictorial language. The reason is to reduce redundancies and eliminate territorialism. This pictographic way of seeing communicates throughout the world, consolidating language. Designers need to develop new methods to understand this phenomenon which requires openness and sensitivity."

It should be possible for morally responsible American designers to extend beyond their own business concerns and reach out to less developed countries without any profit-making agenda. Designer and educator David Stairs believes that design as capital-generating is only one aspect of design. In 2000 he founded the non-profit organization Designers Without Borders to assist developing countries through communication design. "I'm proposing that we use design the way we use food, medicine and other necessities, as a means of enabling people to participate in the human conversation. I'm not interested in cajoling them to accept an industrial or post-industrial model, but in letting them work with the same tools to share their innate wisdom." The work of DWB has largely been in Africa but the group corresponds with designers abroad and is considering an online mentoring program.

As a marketing consultant, I am certainly aware of alterior motives beneath some high-minded statements on the subject. Some self-serving intensions are obviously present with designers who join this latest movement in the pursuit of new clients. There may be an agenda of enlightened self interest and a desire to open foreign markets in this sudden crossing of borders. 'Cross-Cultural Design' is also being used as a synonym for 'Global Marketing' , the branding of products sold around the world. There is definitely a danger of this becoming a sign that aggressive American designers aim to spread their style in a global design domination, the Americanization of the world. One expects designers in far from backward countries to say that they are wary of a movement that threatens to poach their clients and markets away from them. For example, I asked Steven Rigley, coordinator of the Glascow School of Art, for comments following his excellent lecture on globalization at the Atyp I Conference in Prague 2004. "Fearing the loss of national identity many reacted with anger against the expansion of the EU. This has led to protest rallies and bomb threats. Such reactions are symptomatic not only of the concerns within Europe but of the wider world as trade barriers are lifted and regional, national and religious identity face the pressures of globalization. Critics of globalization would argue that we have suffered a loss of identity both individually and collectively as well as the erosion of indigenous cultures. I see cross-cultural design as a movement within the design community characterized by a general recognition and respect for 'otherness' . It is in part a reaction to the homogenizing effects of western culture facilitated by the liberated market and advances in communication technologies. In my teaching practice I find that students are increasingly drawn to these issues. The omnipresence of western brands and the ongoing post 9/11 paranoia has built real barriers between the west and the rest. These need to be overcome with sensitivity and a willingness to listen. The last thing we need are western designers on a global rape and pillage! We must encourage a new generation of designers to grapple with ethical issues and do more research before using non-western motifs and cultural stereotypes." American designers must consider these negative perceptions before launching their announced mission. At a time when Americans are more unwelcome throughout the world than any time in our history, visiting other cultures requires openess and humility.

Ann Willoughby, an AIGA Board member and principal of Willoughby Design Group in Kansas City, shares her personal views on the cross-cultural theme: "Design, is first a problem-solving process then it has to have a beneficial effect, it has to enhance life. We cannot do it only for a core group of developed nations. In my own experience with creating a global brand for Proctor & Gamble I learned the importance of accomodating local customs and culture, but now I am not so sure about the validity of global brands. I think brands have to become more local to be accepted. Globalization has to include the voices of everyone, it s not about making money, this is a changing paradigm among people. It is a political problem and ultimately it is the systems that need to be changed. Only the countries who have established 'rule set's as Tom Bennett explains in 'The New Pentagon Map of the World' , are able to participate. Other countries in the Middle East and Africa, for example, are not included. We have to talk about the way the world is ordered. How do we come together, as markets, in ways that ultimately increase the opportunities, wealth and lives of others? American designers have the chance to create things that will help people build what they need that add value, but I am uncomfortable with the inequities and those people who are left behind. The underlying issue is that social beliefs need to change."

Social consciousness within the design profession is hardly a new idea. It is disheartening to see that since Victor Papenek wrote 'Design for the Real World' in 1972 we have made so little progress as a society, with technology dominating our lives in ways Papenek could barely imagine. No matter how you choose to practice cross-cultural design it should allow not only you to grow, but to change others in positive ways. The American design profession today is narrow and obsessed by the look and feel. If there is a Power of Design, it needs to be more than about selling products and more about selling a better way of life for everyone. Design, as Willoughby says, is a process, not a product. To have a meaningful effect it must be taught and shared across all economic, social and geographic borders, inclusive rather than exclusive. What can a designer lose by offering some pro bono time and talent to a needy worthwhile enterprise? Rather than limiting free services to a local dance company as a largely self-promotional opportunity, socially aware designers can choose to participate as citizens of a world creative community. Historically, artists have always had a revolutionary outlook and future vision in pointing out the realities of life on this planet, it is time for designers everywhere to exert their positive influence and value to society.



*Important Note
AIGA was accepted by the Icograda Executive Board as a Provisional Member in May of 2005 and is expected to be ratified as a Full Member at this year's General Assembly in Copenhagen. This article was written prior to that.

About Linda Cooper
Linda Cooper Bowen is a former graphic designer (Carnegie Mellon BFA) who changed to the new business development and marketing side of the profession after enjoying 12 years as a 'creative'. She then worked for several successful design firms in New York and Los Angeles before consulting with designers to help them improve their practice. She has recently taught marketing at the Pratt Graduate Department of Communication Design in New York City and frequently lectures at conferences in the U.S. and Canada. As a journalist specializing in design issues, her articles have appeared in Graphis, Communication Arts, HOW, I.D. and Print. Her book, 'The Graphic Designer's Guide to Creative Marketing: Finding and Keeping Your Best Clients' was published in 1999 by John Wiley & Sons, NY.