A wider horizon

With the recession and impending winter gloom, working abroad might seem particularly tempting right now, but designers should be realistic about the challenges. Anna Richardson explores the opportunities for expat creatives

The perceived glamour of working abroad is a powerful pull – most people have dreamed at some point about packing up and pursuing their fortune overseas. Designers – with their thirst for communication, influences and inspiration – are particularly inclined towards those experiences, especially now, as recession triggers the travel urge.

Mark Budden, managing director of Design Bridge Asia in Singapore, has noted an increase in applications from the UK in response to recruitment briefs in the past six months, for example.

Claire Parker, creative director of Design Bridge Netherlands, who left the UK during the previous recession and is currently based in Amsterdam, believes that a downturn might make people a bit more fearless. ‘You don’t have anything to lose and you can always come back,’ she says. ‘[During a recession] companies are always restructuring and changing, so maybe you do that a little bit with yourself.’

But having realistic expectations is vital. Designers interested in working in Asia should expect to work harder, with longer hours, shorter timelines and less sophisticated briefs, says Budden – only the entrepreneurial-minded should apply. ‘Ernest Hemingway defined guts or courage as “grace under pressure”,’ he adds. ‘You need to learn this to succeed in Asia. Generally, it’s a more challenging environment in which to deliver outstanding creativity.’

Those who are too specialised might also struggle, believes Johan Engelbrecht, creative director of Start Creative in Dubai, where you have to be a ‘jack of all trades’. And, says Bengt Eriksson, managing director MENA and South Asia at Landor Associates, there are fundamental differences between the Middle East and Western Europe in how work is sold, done and delivered, from the kind of support you need to give clients to haggling over price and making sure you get paid. There tends to be greater scope, with big creative licence, he adds. ‘For me, these are all pros. It could be comfortable, with a more structured and predictable decision-making process, but the Middle Eastern way makes it so much more personal,’ he says.

Despite – or because of – those challenges, overseas opportunities are tempting, with many creatives citing Asia as the place to be. If she had to do it all over again, Parker says Shanghai or Beijing would be top of her list. ‘You just have to look at the amount of new business in China,’ she explains. ‘There’s a real culture of people who believe they have the opportunity to become something. To be among that is a great opportunity, no matter what you think of the political situation.’

A new generation of big brands is coming up in China, South-east Asia and India, says Eriksson. ‘If you want to have your name on those brands, go east – that’s where the new action is.’

The Middle East is still a very big market, and Engelbrecht suggests that even places like Afghanistan will see activity in the next decade, once the conflict there is over.

Moving to cities within Europe can also provide attractive prospects. Parker’s Amsterdam office has a staff of 12 different nationalities. ‘Most of these designers are expressing their thoughts not in their first language, and that’s such an impressive skill,’ she says. ‘That’s what design should do – communicate clearly. So perhaps [working abroad] has made us better story-tellers, because you’ve had to tell your story more clearly – I’ve certainly lost my northern accent.’

The US, meanwhile, is still the biggest market for branding, and places like New York continue to attract good people, says Eriksson. ‘Maybe not as interesting as moving to Tokyo, but it still [offers] solid opportunities.’

But when it comes to the US, securing visas proves particularly tricky, with consultancies facing a difficult and costly process in order to sponsor relocating designers. ‘It’s a shame, because we miss out on a lot of talent,’ says Lisa Simpson, creative director of Pearlfisher New York. ‘So it’s very difficult for people to get a job unless they work for a consultancy such as ours.’

The more junior you are, the more organisational hassle you are likely to have to deal with when moving abroad, and Simpson suggests that younger designers are better off building their portfolios in the UK. Particularly in packaging, the standard of designers in the US is not as high as in the UK. ‘It’s more about gaining experience [in London] first and then bringing that over [to New York],’ adds Simpson. ‘Many brands are looking to do more on the shelf and not rely on advertising so much, so they’re looking for what can differentiate them from the competition. Having that UK design experience would make you more employable.’

The multiculturalism of places such as London and Amsterdam makes them great places to learn the trade, adds Mike Dorrian, creative director of Start Creative Hong Kong. ‘Once you’ve done your slog in London and braved the winters and long hours, then you can cherry pick a bit,’ he says.

Ultimately, it’s down to the individual, whether or when to heed the travel bug. ‘It’s more the attitude rather than the level of experience – how open-minded you are to new cultures, languages and ways of working that are sometimes less than perfect,’ says Budden. ‘Those designers who have travelled the world with rucksack and Rough Guide, driven by the need to explore the world first-hand, would be better suited, in my view.’


Bengt Eriksson, Managing director, MENA and South Asia, Landor Associates

  • Be open-minded. Don’t leave home with the idea that you will ‘teach them how it’s done in London’ – you’ll be surprised how unimpressed the rest of the world is by that approach. Be realistic. Living abroad is different from going on a holiday there.
  • You will find that a lot of everyday things – shopping, driving, banking, meeting clients – work differently from what you are used to. If you see every difference as a ‘problem’, you will never be happy. Shrug it off and adapt.
  • Don’t be naive about money. The ‘expat packages’ are gone forever and you will need to adapt to the pay-scales and lifestyle of your new country.
  • Be sure to make friends. It can be very lonely out there.
  • Finally, trust your talent. It was your talent, not your London style, that got you this foreign job in the first place. Trust that you are good enough to design for a different culture and a different vernacular, without just repeating the kind of stuff that made you successful back home. Now, lean back and enjoy the ride.

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  • RitaSue Siegel November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The good news about working in the US is that visas are now available because they have all not been spoken for as they have been in the recent past, (due to the rotten economy). That said, proportionately, there are no more design jobs available here than there are in the UK. And, if anyone is focusing on coming to NY, broaden your thinking. New York state is as big as England. THE us also has Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, etc., and did you know that Cincinnatti has more people involved in branding than any other city in the US? Be prepared for some resistance to the British graphic style of packaging, with the ability to articulate that you understand that how to appeal to consumers regardless of the market you are designing for. In the past, British designers were considered the best of the best. Although this attitude no longer prevails, there are still vestiges of it. And the accent doesn’t hurt. Be prepared also to pay for your own recruiting trip and relocation. The article made a very important point I cannot emphasize enough: adapt to local conditions. It’s an adventure to move to another country and if your life can accommodate being uprooted, do it!. Enhance and enrich your life, short and long term.

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