When I was a design student in a time before Memphis and the Postmodern, there was a quaint belief that some artefacts had achieved their optimum form and there was no development possible or desirable. The racing bicycle and the can opener were both given as examples.
Well BMX, mountain bikes and Good Grips dispelled that notion. But there are some who would argue for the single, perfect solution. Ergonomists, information designers and engineers aspire to solutions that completely satisfy and achieve perfection. But if there’s one thing all designers share, it’s the desire to make things different. So one electronic bank or airline differs from another, because of different values and expression, but as companies reach out to a global market, the need to appeal becomes a force for similarity. When that happens, global brands threaten to submerge rich and diverse local culture with a single, universal language.
I once worked for an international company with a strong desire to retain its cultural identity. My design team was asked to develop designs that expressed their culture in some way. They saw their architectural cultural heritage and traditional artefacts as the basis for a design language that communicated their origins. This is an interesting, but dangerous place to be and it felt like cultural representation could go horribly wrong. Ages ago, when Landor Associates was commissioned to design the identity and livery for British Airways, Creative Review asked UK designers what they thought the airline should look like. My favourites were based on Tudor beams painted on the outside of the plane and called Air Hello in Kensington clipped tones. Basing designs on national styles isn’t how to do it.
However, national values do have a large impact on the world. We can all recognise the virtues of German engineering excellence in an Audi, BMW or Mercedes and that the Swedish build cars to be safe. Although the French used to design cars that looked ‘French’, the needs of living in Paris and escaping for the weekend has led to cars like the Twingo or the Scenic. These differences don’t come from the figurative way things look, they come from more abstract values held within culture.
So rather than use a literal representation of culture, it seems a lot more endearing to find the underlying values of a culture as the basis of global diversity. Food does this all the time. From the Chinese fortune cookie to Italian pasta, the world easily celebrates diversity and embraces its value. As the Swedes developed the world’s most advanced social welfare system, so they see safety as the most desirable feature in a car. The US preference for service excellence makes them the masters of ease of use in user interface.
The key is in finding the local virtue to turn into a global value – an important thing to do to avoid getting your windows broken on 1 May. Design is the tool for this, converting the abstract into the real. Designers, often without realising it, identify these values and use them to feed their creative ideas.
So though the design head of the Swedish car company is a Brit, as is the design leader at the US computer or mobile phone company, and the head of design at the US car company is French, and the Italian fashion chain American, they are able to interpret the values of those companies and the culture they come from. Rather than the culture be in the person, the person is in the culture, and that’s what creates the most interesting scenarios.
It’s why designers in the UK punch so well above their weight internationally. They’re good at picking up those vibes, helpful given the importance of overseas business to the UK design economy. UK product designers do this for Compaq and Kodak, Sony and Prada, finding the DNA not just of the brand, but subconsciously of the culture too. Many global companies play this game by having a California studio. California instantly generates the cool factor in otherwise moribund brands. What really happens is that design teams in California are a fusion of international skills and backgrounds, which re-interpret the cultural DNA with even greater effect.
So the answer is to think global to find the local, search for the values that make a difference. It’s not cultural shopping, it’s about others recognising what we do without even noticing. As we design for the rest of the world, so they might design for us. What am I saying, that we need others to design our traditional British icons? A German to design the Mini?