From Russia with love

There are all sorts of opportunities in a country that is eager to find out about Western design practices

Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the world of the Russian citizen has changed radically. Whether it is for better or worse is a matter of debate. It is certainly a different Russia to the one I worked in during the time of Boris Yeltsin.

It is definitely another universe away from my first visit as a Royal College of Art student during the time of Leonid Brezhnev.

I’ve always had a fascination with Russia. It probably started when I joined the communist party at Birmingham Art College (it was actually called the Aston Maoist Party). I love their culture, I admire their courage and I am in awe of their spirit, even if I hate their politicians. But now Communism is an almost forgotten ideal and in 2004 Russia is trying to embrace the commercial world like never before.

With commercialism comes consumerism, and that means that their enterprises and their entrepreneurs are looking to increase market share while appealing to wider audiences. And guess what they’re using to help their cause? Yes, Russia is embracing Western design know-how and the UK is regarded very highly for its skills in this sector.

My consultancy was recently commissioned by one of Russia’s fashion retailers to radically redesign its brand from logo through to shop interiors. And we gleaned a few things that consultancies need to consider.

So what should you be aware of if you are approached to participate in a design project in the Motherland? Well, first of all, bear in mind that it is a ‘second world’ country. Despite Russia’s rightful (and sometimes tragic) place on the world stage, it still has a long way to go to catch up with European and American markets. You need to accept that in many respects it is ten years behind the West. If you are commissioned to design something for the Russian market you have to be prepared to adapt to that reality.

That does not mean that you have to ‘dumb down’ your design aspirations. The market over there is facing competition from all the major worldwide brands and Russian businesses need to confront the challenges head on.

Russians are extremely passionate about design, and very sophisticated, but they do have a different perspective of what is good and bad. I would encourage you to try to understand the Russian psyche before you try to work with them. For instance, Russians don’t laugh spontaneously. Russians only laugh when they really have a good reason to. They are not grumpy; it’s their nature.

You should not be surprised to hear that Russians like a deal. Contrary to speculation, they like a contract and I would encourage design businesses to get a percentage of each stage of the project upfront; this is how they prefer to work anyway.

Nominate your preferred currency of payment (US dollars and Euros are best if you can’t agree on sterling); insist on a driver to be provided for you while you are out there – trust me it’s safer – and ask the client to book the hotels, it is a nightmare otherwise. Take dollars in cash to spend out there. It’s far more convenient and although the Russian government does not like it, US dollars are still the currency of choice. If your budget runs to it, have a translator at your meetings, as it really helps to resolve unnecessary misunderstandings.

As we all know, the design sector needs to go where the business is and Russia currently appears to be a major player in that department. There are cultural differences, as you would expect working in any foreign country, but we think we know Russians better than we actually do from watching all those old Cold War movies.

As long as you go there with your eyes wide open and understand that it will be years before they catch up with us, in many ways it will be an exciting and enriching experience for you and your consultancy. Understand their inherent design heritage and you will get along fine.

Oh and one final piece of advice. Whatever you do, don’t eat the reindeer!

Doing Russia

Be prepared for different expectations about design

Insist on a percentage of each stage of a contract upfront

Ask the client to organise a driver for you

Book hotels through them too

Take US dollars to spend

Arrange to be paid in Euros or US dollars if not sterling

Use a translator if you can

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