Design diplomacy needs to be a two-way street

Over recent months there have been a number of official Far Eastern design delegations to Europe. Since last autumn I have spoken to two delegations to London: one from Korea and one from Taiwan. I also encountered a group of Chinese in Nice on a leg of their cultural ‘grand tour’.

While the Chinese were moving off from Nice to Florence, the latest bunch of Koreans – a mix of designers and design teachers who arrived in London last week – had come via Milan. So while one was soaking up Europe’s more historic culture, the other was checking out the European business climate and cultural issues affecting the creative industries.

So what’s new, you ask. Isn’t this what UK design players do? The British Council and the Design Council, among others, have been proactive in taking the UK design message abroad, not least to the Far East, using design ‘ambassadors’ to promote our home-grown talents. Both bodies have also worked on travelling shows, including the council’s award-winning Great Expectations show, designed by Casson Mann.

But the difference with the Far Eastern groups is that they aren’t necessarily selling. They are on a fact-finding mission, with a mandate from their governments to report back. Their questions focus not just on style trends, but on the infrastructure of the industry here.

Both groups were interested in how the UK industry is regulated by, say, the Design Council and the Design Business Association. They were intrigued by the idea of British Design & Art Direction and keen to know how a weekly magazine works within its industry. Maybe we will see our community replicated.

Some delegates had a personal business agenda, as we would expect of members of a British delegation. The Korean head of a Seoul digital group was looking for a London collaborator, for example, in the way that Russian branding consultancy Mildberry went ‘shopping’ on the European conference circuit last spring before striking deals with London consultancy Big Idea and Belgian group Pineapple. But the overall impression was that they were here to learn, while we are more likely to travel to sell.

Of course, the ideal scenario is to do both – something at which the South Africans excel. Those lucky enough to visit Cape Town for the Design Indaba at the end of the month will experience not just a great international conference, but will see how you can ‘sell’ a culture through hosting an event – and learn from your visitors in the process. If the London Design Festival with its World Creative Forum and the first D&AD Congress could focus on those twin goals then we might start to do the same.

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