Land of silk and money

What happens to all those first-class designers who train here and migrate to the East? They are offered exciting jobs by the fistful, reports Gaynor Williams. And having had a taste of the good life, these emigrants would rather work anywhere but back in

Summer is the time of the great annual migration of home-grown design talent, post degree show. So how do these creative swallows fare on their big adventures? Having heard horror stories of graphic designers virtually chained to desks in fetid Roman garrets, and of financial exploitation of youngsters in Singapore, it was good to hear recently from a young designer made good.

David Waterman left the UK because of the usual story: even though he was an award-winning RCA graduate it was getting ever-harder to find contracts for his consultancy, Odyssey. When a crucial client went bust it was the final straw and Waterman went the way of many of his contemporaries – East.

Industrial design is a relatively new practice in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of innovation there. In fact, it seems positively frenetic. The attractions of such an environment for talented individuals keen to prove themselves and learn are obvious. No sooner had Waterman stepped off the plane in Hong Kong than he was offered a fistful of jobs. Now, a year later, he has already worked on 18 successful projects for his employers, and as a senior designer, overseen at least twice that number again. The products include a telephone, a CCD Video Camera, speakers and multimedia storage units – all pretty major.

According to Waterman, the astounding pace of product development has significant effects on the design process. “A large proportion of products are produced exactly as the designer intended them to be at the concept stage,” he says. “Provided it doesn’t involve complicated and expensive tooling and the unit cost is acceptable, the project will go ahead. I’ve even heard stories of part-finished concept sketches being removed from designer’s desks without their knowledge, and the tooling beginning.”

This has its up side and its down side: on the one hand a designer is given a lot of freedom to work, and the question of whether or not something will be produced is usually decided before the design work has even started. So you can work on products that are new and exciting without any of the old “design by committee” lark. “The timescales are mostly much too short for anyone to argue, and they place complete trust in the designers. On the down side, it means that if you want to do good work you need to either slip back into what you know already or work long hours to produce something you’re happy with.”

Also, there is little room for manoeuvre, for making alterations or doing any carefree tinkering. It can be very intense and tiring, says Waterman, but the

satisfaction of seeing a design go ahead without a hitch usually makes up for that.

With 1997 fast approaching, though, it’s not all beer and skittles in Hong Kong. (I remember an ex-pat designer complaining that the worst thing about Hong Kong was the price of beer.) Although Europeans and Americans are sought after, because the companies selling into those markets want to buy into the designers’ understanding of their cultures, the mood is becoming less buoyant now. So with yet more swallows still arriving, the job market for designers is getting tighter.

It is time to start asking some hard questions. To Waterman’s knowledge there are 20 British designers in Hong Kong. Almost a quarter are graduates from Teesside: five are RCA graduates, and many others graduated with a first or a distinction. So, we are losing the top talent, not the dregs. Writing for an audience of designers working in the UK, I don’t have to mention why.

“Perhaps the saddest thing,” says Waterman, “is that having experienced the difference in attitude here, most have no desire to return to the UK. They travel to the West Coast of the US, to Singapore, to Australia and New Zealand.”

Attend any education conference in this country and this issue is always raised. With the education system overloaded with students claiming that this is damaging the quality of design teaching – shouldn’t we be looking at the big picture?

So why spend taxpayers’ money educating thousands of designers every year, only to find that the best go off to boost some other nation’s gross national product figures? There has to be a solution to this problem. And someone has to take responsibility for finding it. Who would you vote for?

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