08 November 2006
Praseuth Banchongphakdy
The State of Design in Laos
Praseuth Banchongphakdy

Laos is a genuinely fascinating, friendly and, above all, exciting destination, according to those who have travelled throughout the region. It is a country where a foreigner is still welcomed and often showered with hospitality, where people have time to talk to people because their lives are still governed by tradition.

'Pure' and innocent
Lao design is often categorised as being fabulously 'pure' and innocent. There is a wonderful tradition of art, for example, in the rich heritage and stunning temples of the old royal town of Luang Prabang.

The graphics and advertising industries are very new in Laos, and visitors are often surprised by just how far 'behind' and unsophisticated the market is for this industry. With minimal domestic industry, limited exports and a small home market, there is limited demand for packaging design or promotional materials.

There is a Lao saying that can be used to express the current situation in this country. 'Noong oon, kin iim,' it says. This translates as 'dress warm, eat full.' In other words, dress only to stay warm and eat only to be full, not dress to look good or eat to enjoy food. This saying expresses the situation of most Lao, 80% of whom remain subsistence farmers. In such an environment design is often considered a luxury rather than a priority.

Little scope for design
Advertising targeted at Lao consumers is not widely practised except by large companies such as Pepsi or Beer Lao. This is partly due to the small market and low purchasing power of most people, but also due to the fact that those Lao who can receive Thai television watch it. Companies already advertising on Thai TV therefore feel it is unnecessary to duplicate the advertising here.

There is often little scope for design. Shop signs are a good example. Government regulations state that certain colours must be used on certain signs. For example, a private shop must use red letters on a yellow background, whilst a government shop must use white letters on a blue background. These are the rules design considerations are not allowed! Increasingly, shops now flaunt this regulation, but it costs them officials collect monthly 'fines' for incorrect signage.

Limited design education
In terms of education, there are very limited opportunities to learn design in Laos. There are 250 students enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. This is the only school in Laos that offers courses in fine arts and design. The students study three years for a degree, or four years for a master. Ecole des Beaux Arts is divided into two schools: The Art School offers courses in Drawing, Traditional Motif Design, Decorative Arts, Printmaking and Signwriting. The Sculpture School offers courses in Woodcarving, Sculpture, Engraving (Metalwork) and Pottery.

Many students take up these courses because there is little to do except to study in Laos. Upon graduation there are few job opportunities in the fields they have studied. Their hopes are to be employed as art teachers, but because of limited places, many start their own small stalls selling souvenirs to tourists, often a rare sight outside Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Opportunities for a distinctive identity
The positive aspect about the lack of development in graphics and design is that many great opportunities still lie ahead, and Laos still has an opportunity to build its own, highly distinctive graphics identity.

BlueGrass Design Group feels that the immediate opportunities here lie in marketing rather than design. There is plenty to do if clients can see it. One example of a marketing opportunity can be seen in the telephone boxes around Vientiane. There is one in front of the Tai-Pan hotel, a hotel only frequented by foreigners. Despite this, the telephone box situated outside has no English signage. In fact, there is no signage except a sticker saying 'chip card.' There is no mention that the telephone belongs to Lao Telecom or that it is in fact a telephone box. Only this month has the situation started to change Lao Telecom has started to introduce new phone boxes that are branded.

The arrival of the new telephone boxes shows that attitudes are changing in Laos. BlueGrass has worked in Laos for seven years and over that time it believes it has done a little to influence this process. There is now more recognition of the value of logos and brand identity. The value of good printing is also more widely recognised. When I first came back to Laos, most printing entailed sticking photocopies onto trees with nails! There were no billboards other than government propaganda billboards that, at least, has changed.

No international competitors
Following the recent closure of Kinnary Design and the proposed sale of Exprim, it now looks as though there will be no foreign-trained design companies in Laos apart from BlueGrass Design Group. There is another advertising/marketing firm called Mekong Orchid, which has some foreign staff, but they are specifically a marketing rather than design agency. There are printing or computer companies who undertake simple design jobs, but the staff is not adequately trained in design, only in using design software. There is very little in-country competition for professional design work, yet some companies source their design work from Thailand.

How Icograda can help design in Laos
I encourage fellow designers who wish to visit Laos to give talks or conduct workshops at the cole des Beaux Arts or Dong Dok University (The National University of Laos), which offers architecture. Perhaps it is possible to offer international scholarships to talented Laotian students who are deprived of information about the practice of graphic design. This will enable them to return home with the knowledge and practical experience to start a design business and employ fellow Laotians.

Praseuth Anchongphakdy

Back home for good
Praseuth Banchongphakdy was born in Laos but is now an Australian citizen. After spending his childhood in Laos and Paris, he was educated in Sydney, Australia, and had a successful design career there for many years.

In 1993 Praseuth chose to switch direction, and returned to his homeland. He was motivated by a desire to do something to help his home country, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the world. The Lao Government had enacted reforms that allowed graphic design companies, both locally owned and foreign-owned, to start up.

In 1996 he set up his own graphic design and advertising company in Vientiane, BlueGrass Design Group. The contrast with Praseuth's previous work in Sydney could not be greater, because the market for graphics work had to be developed from scratch. Not only was demand low, but there was minimal understanding of design values or even the purpose of advertising. Furthermore, as there are no opportunities to learn graphic design in Laos, except in the workplace, it has been hard to recruit trained staff. Graphic design is unknown as a subject for study in Laos.

These challenges have been overcome, and BlueGrass has become well established in Laos. The company has worked in most media, including website design, video production, TV and radio commercials, multimedia CD's, print advertisements, books, brochures and outdoor advertising.

About this article
Article was first published in Icograda Board Message 01 Vol. 2001-2003 and is reprinted with permission.