08 November 2006
by William Harald-Wong
by William Harald-Wong

After the Icograda Regional meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, William-Harald Wong travelled extensively in South East Asia. A region he knows very well, for he set up an international network of graphic studios in these countries. William depicts here the state of design in Vietnam, Thailand and The Philippines.

Vietnam underwent a dramatic transformation in the mid 1990's. The dour, Soviet-style police state is changing into a vibrant, dynamic and increasingly open society. However, the old mindset and the new open-mindedness co-exist rather comfortably. It is not uncommon to find the streets plastered with emblems of the Party next to the Swoosh and Party officials spewing Marxism-Leninism wisdom as they embrace consumerism.

Graphic design has a long history in Vietnam. All currencies for Indo-China were designed and printed in Vietnam. The country is renowned for its superlative stamp designs, propaganda posters and publications on fine art and photography.

When Vietnam opened its economic door, there was the inevitable rush of international advertising agencies into the country. These agencies were not allowed to work for local clients but only to service multinationals. This restriction spurred the growth of local advertising agencies and together, they now dominate the creative industry. Unfortunately, as the nation reaches for prosperity, only a small part of the fortunes trickle down to the crowded design community. There are nearly 1,000 design studios - they run the gamut from small publishing houses to signboard painters.

Fees for design services (rather than production costs) have not even begin to appear in the budget plans of Government or local companies. The majority of small to medium sized companies design their own logos and do so only when jolted by the sudden realisation that one is needed for a business card. Many local CEOs find it too time-consuming to spend a month or so working with a professional designer on a corporate identity programme. Vietnam is still far from creating its own Legend or Haier, the powerful Chinese brands.

Vietnamese designers work in isolation and are cut off from the rest of the world and information on graphic design is scarce. The bookshops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - the two largest cities in Vietnam - stock the occasional book on Western design, usually published a decade ago. Even Chinese reference books on floral and animal/bird motifs and patterns are rare. Only one shop carries materials for advertising agencies (Pantone colour swatches, colour markers, even Letraset transfer sheets!) but these are priced beyond the means of most local designers.

Training courses for graphic designers vary between software training and the more traditional exercises of 'decorating squares and circles,' painting flowers and leaves and studying traditional motifs. Advanced classes include designing logos, posters, packaging, paper bags, invitation cards and product catalogues. Even today, colleges are not equipped with computers nor do they have access to the Internet. College libraries are poorly stocked, often with instruction books dated from the Soviet era.

But the Vietnamese are resourceful and exceptionally hardworking. Many hold two, sometimes three jobs at the same time, working 12 hours, seven days a week. And the fiercely independent, yet gentle Vietnamese spirit will exert itself - observe the Communist Party flags fluttering atop the stark, grey buildings, they are not the red/black combination one expects, but in pretty shades of yellow, baby blue and pink.

The graphic design scene in Bangkok, Thailand, couldn't be more different. Bangkok is a carefree, daring-do, almost-anything-goes society. Its people; a mix of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Khmer, are laid-back and hospitable. Thailand is dubbed 'The Land of Smiles,' but locals prefer to call it 'Land of Laughs.' Humour and irony feature prominently in advertising and design.

The free-spirited environment has spawned many creative hot shops with names like Smaller & Better Design, Blind Co., Grandma And Her Maid, and has encouraged many independent designers to create their own projects - exhibitions and happenings, handmade books from inkjet printers, designing funky objects for retail, etc.

Like Vietnam, the advertising industry dominates. Many graphic designers support the art directors, though of late there has been a growth of design firms specialising in branding and corporate identity. The field is highly competitive. For big projects three bidders are usually required to take part in a free pitch, and in some cases the number could reach up to 10 to 15!

This Buddhist city has undergone several reincarnations - from a sleepy backwater city, to a boom city, to a busted city (badly hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997) and currently as Asia's new metropolis of cool. Thailand is experiencing a film revolution and has a booming music industry. Many graphic designers have taken up filmmaking or are creating 'designer' and household objects for export.

On weekends, many graphic designers are seen at the famous Jatujak Weekend Market, the biggest open craft and design retail and wholesale market, where they negotiate with buyers from lifestyle shops and luxury department stores from around the world. Ironically, the superior design quality of Thai household objects are directly linked to the financial crisis when many out-of-work graphic designers switched to home industries.

The Philippines
The Philippines has always been, from the viewpoint of neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, slightly out of the radar screen. This is because of its perceived distant geographical location, and also because it occasionally announces itself to be the only Christian nation in Asia - somewhat out of synch with its largely Taoist/Buddhist/Muslim neighbours. (Philippines, of course, is quintessentially Asian, with many indigenous peoples and a large Muslim population in the south).

Again, the advertising industry reigns supreme. Because of the consumer-driven nature of its economic growth, shopping malls and consumer-based companies generate the most work for graphic designers. The most successful work incorporates strong emotional values (family relationships are important) and humour.

Jollibee, the biggest fast-food chain in the Philippines, has beaten multinationals such as McDonalds and Burger King at their own game by aggressively franchising and tailoring its food to the Filipino palate. It is successful in many parts of the world, especially where Filipinos are concentrated. Therein lies a lesson for the rest of the region.

Filipinos are known to be artistically and musically inclined and these inherent characteristics have produced excellence in the entertainment industry, performing arts, fine arts and crafts. Unfortunately, society has not given graphic design its due recognition. Many Filipino graphic designers, who have been educated in the USA or who are working in the Middle East, do not return home.

In recent years, the web design community has been highly active - there are many community websites and online magazines for Filipino designers, e.g. and others. One only need to look into these websites to realise that there is electrifying energy and creativity zapping around in the Philippines.

Three Countries
Diverse as these three countries are, there are stumbling blocks common to all, which are stifling the growth of the graphic design profession.

- Corruption and favouritism are prevalent, especially when bidding for large projects
- Free-pitching and professional ethics among graphic design practitioners are worrisome
- Clients cannot differentiate between the services offered by advertising agencies and design firms
- Technology is moving at a rapid pace, but clients knowledge and understanding of graphic design remain limited
- Lack of awareness of intellectual property
- All designers wrestle with the pull of trends in the West and nostalgia for an indigenous style.

Asian Design Articles
Articles on Singapore, Malaysia and Laos have appeared in past issues of BoardMessage. If you know of any designer or design company in Cambodia or Myamnar (Burma), we would be interested in establishing contact. Please e-mail any information to

About this article
This article was previously published in Icograda BoardMessage 5 - Barcelona, available in pdf format here.