Can Asia Become the New Centre for Graphic Design? It’s Up to Us

The world came very close to its worst recession this century but thanks to largely vibrant and strong Asian economies, it narrowly averted that fate. What a change from a decade ago when the IMF had to bail out some of the Asian tigers and China and India were still emerging economies then. But unlike before, the Asian governments got their act together and moved as one responsible region. Before the ripples of crisis could reach our shores, governments from China to Singapore unleashed bold stimulus packages. The newly minted wealthy middle-class from Mumbai to Shanghai is also fueling some of the fastest growing demand for high-end luxury goods. No wonder the IMF is now being asked to recognise this reality by admitting China and India into its board. The winds of change have also hit the elite G8 club. President Hu’s sudden departure from the recent summit in Italy nearly paralyzed it. We are now finally witnessing what others have already predicted, the dawn of the Asian Century. But while economic strength or hard power has clearly shifted east, soft power which encompasses ideas, culture and design has remained firmly entrenched in the West. While it’s true that Asians are rising in wealth, they have continued to buy into Western concepts and way of living. Western brands of almost all categories except low-end or value-based continue to be preferred by Asians. And our consumers are not to be blamed because while our region has raced ahead in terms of purchasing power, our attraction power has remained untapped. Graphic design which is a strong visual representation of the presence of soft power is still very much undervalued in this part of the world. So what will it take to shift Asia from being the world’s producer to its centre of creative thinking?

For a long time, Asia’s economic rise has been largely linked to supporting the Western economic model and Western consumption. Therefore graphic design as an industry is not considered high priority in many Asian countries since many major brands still conceptualize their graphical direction in the US or Europe. With the exception of Japan, Korea and perhaps Hong Kong, graphic design is still seen as a commodity and not in terms of value-add. Because of this mindset, many designers take on non-creative work so as to put food on the table. As graphic design is virtually a low-entry barrier discipline, many designers start their own graphic design studios. But as competition increases, given the scarcity of good jobs, many designers resort to lower pricing and free-pitching. The luckier few who manage to serve those who understand the value of design are able to avoid this fate.

If this mindset persists then even if Asia were to race ahead, it will not be served by an equally creative industry that is confident enough to do the work which reflects the vibrant Asian identity. And given the fact that few clients appreciate the purpose of meaningful and good work, many design companies believe that this is almost utopian. So as an industry we are producing a generation of graphic designers who are still conditioned by Western benchmarks and constrained by resources to produce Asian-inspired work.

In another 10 to 15 years time, we will have a rich and large critical mass of affluent middle-class. The world is also increasingly looking towards Asia for ideas. The dazzling Olympic opening in Beijing last year and the fascination with Slumdog Millionaire shows there is a viable market for Asian creativity. But to fill up this vacuum, we need content, creative stars in order to influence the market and see the value of Asian graphic design.

So we need good work to show this and this is why I applaud the efforts of the team who put this book together. Many works featured within this Asia Pacific Design shows what the world can expect from a confident Asia. I am optimistic despite the challenges; pockets of designers are doing their part to inspire the world. The works featured here also show an encouraging trend that clients are beginning to embrace the notion of an Asian identity. But more can be done.

Perhaps it’s time to start a pan Asian graphic design fraternity. Currently design associations are nation-based, maybe it’s time for an Asian body to promote graphic design. Publications like Asia Pacific are extremely important because it helps us discover the richness of ideas that exist among us. If we choose to work together, much more can be achieved. Perhaps this fraternity could be a partnership between design firms and publishers. In this way we have a guaranteed channel to promote good design. We should also have a pan-Asian graphic design index to track the progress of the industry across the continent. If we want others to believe in our work then we have to start now. We need to change mindsets and help shape a more confident Asia. Because that is ultimately the mission of designers, it is a profession in which its work is able to influence societal norms. As many young designers enter the market, hopefully They will find more peers proud of their Asian heritage and 10 years from now, hopefully our vision for graphic design will match up to our economic ambitions. This is a good start and now it’s up to us to continue its inspiration.