HOW'S BUSINESS? DESIGN FIRMS ABROAD DISCUSS THEIR PRACTICE
My father, a traveling salesman, used to say, "How's business?" It
was his typical greeting regarding both business and life in general,
and like "Comment ca va?" effectively prompted an immediate, telling
response. After interviewing U.S. design offices that work
internationally for my article "Going Global" (CA Nov. 2002), I was
curious about their counterparts around the world, especially in less
developed markets. I have not included European countries here because
culturally they are more familiar to us, but reports indicate that they
are suffering from the same economic recession that we are. What is it
like to manage a graphic design practice in countries like India,
Taiwan or South Africa? How do designers in the Philippines or Israel
develop new business? I wanted to know what problems and opportunities
are unique to each country and, in today's problematic world economy,
When we see the published work of designers from abroad we rarely consider the cultural and business environment where it originates. Apart from the distinctly different languages and vernacular styles, there are serious problems and restrictions that affect designers in ways that may be surprising to us. Consider the many advantages American designers have over those in developing countries, particularly our strong design organizations that lend support and guidance to the profession. Our design school students can join groups early and transition into the job market having seen major designer leaders present work at local meetings and national gatherings. This stimulating and collegial network is an ongoing educational experience. In the United States we have 5 major design magazines, numerous competitions, conferences, workshops and seminars throughout the year. Imagine what it would be like not to have any of this available for designers.
As a profession global acceptance of graphic design is slow and many design schools abroad focus more on technical proficiency in programs like CorelDraw and Photoshop rather than graphic design, yet the graduates are considered to be designers. The quality of the work, without a basic understanding of communication and process, reflects this deficiency, and firms complain that it is hard to find good staff people. Although the Internet allows designers everywhere to see work produced around the world, this is not a comparable substitute. This virtual awareness has created frustration for graphic designers, often educated in the United States, who find their own practice less respected than that of advertising agencies already well established in their country. In the U.S. in the 50's and 60's design "studios" existed primarily to produce work through ad agencies. It was only later that they managed to become independent and stopped referring to themselves as "studios". While advertising is considered necessary to a mass consumer society, graphic design is still seen as a luxury for the few in most of the developing world. In my interviews I am able to identify the more sophisticated offices by their language and references to currently popular phrases like "branding", "value-added design" and "strategic management tool". But many young design firms that still are service-only businesses have not yet learned how to also be strategists and planners. A further indication of the less marketing-driven firms is that when asked how they found new clients, many designers said, "Referral", which in our country is considered to be a rather passive approach to business development.
Originally I expected to find designers abroad distinctly different, with particular cultural customs like the client entertainment ritual in Asia or certain regional taboos relating to color, language or graphic images. For example, in India black is inauspicious, while white is often the color of mourning. But I discovered that designers everywhere are more alike than not, and almost all complain about the fact that nobody understands or appreciates what designers do. Sound familiar? Whatever the language or languages a graphic designer deals with, his business concerns are the same universally staffing, new business development, marketing, client relationships and profitability in a difficult global economy.
Of all of the countries interviewed, only designers in South Africa have reported that business is good. According to Jacques Lange of Pretoria-based Blueprint Design, "The current South African economy is quite stable and most companies are doing well. Small design studio business is growing due to a globalized, technology-driven economy and our changing socio-political picture. We also have the competitive advantage in generating foreign business during the recession in Europe and the U.S. because of our weaker currency value. We can design, print and ship projects to an American client for 1/7th of their cost. Some years ago we were in the opposite situation with major South African clients only hiring foreign design firms. They paid a high price for these imported services and finally realized that there was little or no difference in the results." 10 years ago Blueprint Design also assumed the role of educator by providing mentorship and training services in response to a government affirmative action initiative. The firm assists client companies with informal learning programs for newly hired marketing and communications department design buyers and additional client workshops are conducted on the principles of visual communication. Their clients include financial services, government departments and tourism as well as aviation and technology, and they work with the UN in the field of AIDS and population development. With their mentorship initiative, Blueprint's outreach program has created a network of dedicated clients and continuous referrals.
The process of developing from a "shop" into a "firm" depends on many things, and design talent is not always the primary factor. Business and marketing skills, the ability to communicate corporate strategies both visually and verbally and a more comprehensive understanding of business are attributes that set one firm apart from the local competition. For a fortunate designer like Don Chang in Seoul, merging with Interbrand, a large multi-national consultancy was a shortcut to his success. As Interbrand DC&A, the office has enjoyed increased visibility and stature with a threefold increase in sales since the merger 4 years ago, and clients include the top 100 multi-national Korean companies such as Hyundai Motors, GM Daewoo and Samsung. The firm offers brand strategy, naming and valuation in addition to brand and corporate identity. Like Lange in South Africa, Chang sees education as an important way of gaining client support, cooperation and better-trained staff designers. "We do seminars, workshops and conduct brand forums as well as advertise in design magazines and through our web site. "He adds, "Our future plans include the publication of several books on brand strategy and identity work. I am also serving as Department Chairman and became a professor of branding and design management at Hongik University in 2000."
In Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay) Elephant Design has developed a sophisticated multi-disciplinary practice with a staff of 50 designers, architects and planners, offering graphic, product, packaging, interior and exhibit design as well as consulting. A member of Design Alliance, a consortium of design consultancies in 10 Asian countries, principal Sudhir Sharma believes that Elephant is well positioned to source work throughout Asia. "Since we have considerable experience in brand design for the banking industry, we were able to help another Design Alliance partner pitch bank projects in his country." Sharma believes in the importance of high visibility as a marketing strategy. "We promote ourselves by lecturing at seminars, writing articles about our projects, and are often interviewed as representatives of the design industry. Recently we participated in the recent Indian Color Prediction held in Mumbai. Unlike the U.S., we find less pressure from competition here because design has not yet reached a high point in our country. We anticipate a lot of growth and look forward to bigger and better projects. "
Visual communication still lacks recognition in India and designers who want to create a demand for their services must separate their identity from advertising agencies that dominate the field. Although English is the language that unifies the masses in India and is most understood, every state is proud of their own regional dialect (there are 22 official languages) and insists that it be used on all signboards. With the introduction of international companies with strong visual identities, Indian designers found that they could no longer ignore the importance of marketing and brand development. The first Indian design association Indian Graphic Designers Forum (IGRAF) has been formed recently to educate the public and raise the standards of design.
Robert Peters is an active member of Graphic Designers of Canada and Board member and former President of Icograda. He is a passionate design advocate, frequent writer and lecturer, and is a respected personality among his peers. Peter's extensive travel has allowed him to develop a network of important contacts throughout the world, and this international presence serves as his primary marketing and promotional program. His firm, Circle, is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "Because winters are long and cold here (and summers short and hot) many of the decision-making executives take fishing, golfing and camping vacations. This means that not many new projects are initiated until late August or early September with, of course, very tight fall deadlines." Circle is identified by its strong ethical concerns and values. In addition to the usual client projects, the office does a considerable amount of free and donated work and offers a special rate to non-profit organizations. "Of prime importance to us is a good ethical fit with the values of Circle, Peters explains. "We are moving toward a more international context and in 1998 we formed 'co-design worldwide', a coalition of similarly minded design firms on 5 continents. I believe that designers as business people should not focus solely on the artifacts we produce (logos, brochures and web sites) but on our ability to successfully guide the strategic design process."
Baby Imperial-Anne studied in New York at Parsons School of Design and later moved to Paris where she met and married Frenchman, Damien "Coco" Anne. "We were both art directors working in the same advertising agency, then we opened our own studio in Paris before moving to Manila and forming B+C Design". Their work has an international outlook and a distinctly European flavor. Their projects include fashion, food retail, corporate, and healthcare as well as arts and cultural institutions. "The Philippines is quite unusual in Asia because of many influences following our Spanish colonization. We are the only predominantly Catholic nation in the region. Our culture is a strange mix; very Americanized, (most of the population speaks English) and terribly Spanish regarding religion and machismo morality, with the addition of Chinese and Malay ancestry". In this class-conscious country, B+C Design finds its target market among the higher socio-economic group that they find more sophisticated and open to design. Anne-Imperial stresses,"Social connections are very important. Your name and where you went to school has clout, so a lot of our business is through references. Since Filipinos are extremely hospitable, client entertainment and dining out is very much a part of our business. Graphic design in the Philippines is still very seminal, but the big challenge is to make design more than a commercial venture. We want to use it to equalize and educate in a range of non-commercial projects from the environment to socio-political and cultural concerns."
How does the current unstable political climate affect a design practice in Israel? In Tel Aviv, David Grossman who teaches at Shenkar University and heads the firm Daedalus Design, describes the situation this way, "The Israeli economy is extremely sensitive to political developments and this creates a very volatile business atmosphere. Things change quickly, which makes long term planning very difficult. We have been in a serious recession for the past three years, but there are some signs of improvement. When negotiations on some type of peace settlement arrangement in Israel seem possible, the economy improves. When progress begins, the extremists become concerned that real action might be taken, and the danger of terror attacks increases. Terror attacks stop the negotiations and we are back where we started. Besides the political sensitivity, we have a small local economy, design is not well understood and is undervalued, and we must deal with our own particular culture. We work in Hebrew a language that is only used in Israel and presents its own special typographical limitations. In our small country design is not widely appreciated and underpaid, but in spite of everything, our culture and design environment is active and the level of quality is high. "
"Design is not a respectable industry in Taiwan," says Ben Wang, principal of UP Creative Design & Advertising Co. in Taipei. "Clients here think that commercial benefit comes only from a good product and that a good package design is not important. Taiwan is not a 'free' country for designers. Sometimes we must follow the will of the ruling political party. For example, the color for our DDP party is green, so we cannot use blue or orange for a DDP project because these are the colors of the opposing parties. Ridiculous? Right, but that's Taiwan. Established in 1988, UP Creative has a varied client list including Unilever, Dow Corning, Reebok, W.L. Gore and American Express Bank Ltd. as well as public enterprises. Wang considers UP as a specialist practice. New business is generated from referrals and the UP web site. Wang shares his professional experiences and thoughts in his publication, UP Workshop, with information translated from foreign publications. He is optimistic about the future, "Taiwan, with the same language and culture as Mainland China, has easy access and unlimited opportunities. As our initial step into the vast China market, we have opened a branch office in Beijing."
The designers interviewed are mostly all Friends or members of ICOGRADA, the international design organization that has forged a connection within the global design community and engages in an ongoing dialogue about mutual concerns. It is this passionate commitment that will gradually improve conditions for designers and design schools in developing countries everywhere. For American members, this organization has given us an opportunity to participate in this experience by attending ICOGRADA conferences and teaching workshops, or simply sharing information by e-mail. Perhaps in the future multi-national design teams will be created through such relationships and collaborate on a variety of projects. It is my hope that the American design community will become broader in its perspective and more generously inclusive toward fellow design practitioners throughout the world.
About this article
This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Communication Arts. Copyright 2003 All rights reserved, Reprinted by ICOGRADA with the permission of the author.
About Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen is a New York-based marketing consultant who writes on current design business issues for leading American design publications. She has taught at Pratt Institute and has been a guest lecturer in the U.S. and Canada. Her book, "The Graphic Designer's Guide to Creative Marketing" was published by John Wiley & Sons, and is available on Amazon.com. You are invited to meet her on her website.
About Communication Arts Magazine
Founded in 1959, Communication Arts is the leading trade journal for visual communications. It's the largest design magazine in the world and showcases the top work in graphic design, advertising, illustration, photography and interactive design. Each year includes eight issues of creative excellence. The magazine has an audited paid circulation of 74,834.