British designers are fast becoming the world leaders in exporting their talent to other countries. Reviewing a new book on cross-cultural design, Jeremy Myerson asks if they are the global gurus or simply imperial impostors
THE British design industry has been more successful than most at getting on a plane and selling its services overseas. It is renowned for exporting its wit, ideas and craft skills to every corner of the globe. It is estimated that since the early 1980s, more than 70 per cent of all UK design groups have completed at least one commission outside the UK, and that invisible exports in design services are now worth at least 150m a year to the British economy.
But is this creative export drive, especially in the graphic design areas of identity and packaging, a form of cultural imperialism, in which the nuances of different and alien cultures are at best superficially parodied? Or do we respect and absorb other cultures in a way which allows a process of transformation to take place in British design work done for overseas clients?
Is, for example, Wolff Olins’ identity work for the Spanish petrol giant Repsol, or Pentagram’s design programme for the Commercial Bank of Kuwait, a true reflection of different cultural values or just
a hollow echo of the real thing, skillfully manipulated by the diplomats of the global design circuit?
Is Fitch’s design of the Magna Plaza shopping centre in Amsterdam’s main post office building, or Design Bridge’s revamp of the French Moët et Chandon champagne label, about understanding the cultures in which these products and services originate and operate, or are they just about what the British do best?
After all, British designers got very upset when the Landor Associates redesign of British Airways was seen as a parody of the pin-striped English gent. It was hailed as an act of cultural piracy which appropriated the visual clues without necessarily assimilating them.
I raise these questions in the light of a new book on the subject of designers from one
culture who must communicate to another. Cross-cultural Design: Communicating in the Global Marketplace (Thames and Hudson), written by Hong Kong-based graphic designer and art director Henry Steiner with photographer Ken Haas, provides an interesting, if inconclusive, introduction to the subject. It illustrates the treacherous waters designers must tread if they are to cross cultures through design, and argues that although technology may have created a global village, people still undoubtedly remain resolutely different.
Steiner is perhaps better qualified than most to comment on cross-cultural design, as he has crossed cultures throughout his life. His career also bears witness to the belief that you can’t have cross-cultural design without also having cross-cultural cities.
Steiner was born in Vienna in 1934 and his family fled from the Nazis to America five years later. Here Steiner studied art and design at the New York School of abstract expressionism – a transplant from European Modernism of the 1930s. It was in the 1960s that he discovered Hong Kong and based his career in the Far East.
The Vienna of the early twentieth century, New York of the post-war years, and Hong Kong in its transformation from outpost of empire to world centre are all what Steiner terms cross-cultural cities. He only wishes he could have lived in pre-1939 Shanghai, another great city whose Art Deco architecture reveals the transformative nature of foreign design influences.
Steiner’s book is at its best in the passages of historical analysis. He traces, for example, the progressive transfer to western corporations and moves back again to the Orient of simple schematic Japanese crests, or mon, traditionally used to identify noble families.
When Japan opened to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, mon, together with other arts and crafts, were eagerly copied by European and American artists. The Japanese
aesthetic was a vibrant alternative to the stagnant realism which dominated Europe at that time – it was also crucial to the development of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (French painter Toulouse-Lautrec signed his work with a kind of mon).
Meanwhile, the Japanese had dropped the mon and had adopted the signature trademarks of Western companies in their eagerness to be more up-to-date. When, after the end of World War II, Japan compared its own rather fussy identities unfavourably with those cleaner, sturdier Western mon-based corporate symbols, it was suffering from what Steiner terms “cultural amnesia”- hence the desire of “modern” Japanese painters to go to France in the 1920s and study the Impressionists.
This is all fascinating stuff, especially when Steiner provides a three-stage guide to the cross-cultural design process (see page 13): first he identifies quotation – often skirting dangerously close to plagiarism; second comes mimicry – often highly skilled, in which influences are at least recognised and understood; and finally he recognises transformation, in which influences are fully assimilated.
The author’s own work is indicative enough of crossing cultures, shown in an annual report for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank which compares New York and Hong Hong in a stunning photographic essay. A Big Apple meets the Pearl of the Orient on the front cover of an exquisite job. And Steiner, ever the consummate craftsman, demonstrates all the graphic tricks of the trade in cultural comparison – from symbolism to split imagery.
But the thesis begins to fall down as soon as the authors move beyond the hindsight of
history to back up their analysis. Once we enter a “cross-cultural anthology” submitted by designers from around the world, the sheer diversity of different contexts, cultures, projects and voices recounting experiences makes it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions about how to get it right. Perhaps the message is that the formula is as random as the selection.
Steiner’s tales of cross-cultural projects are vividly described and provide good anecdotal material. Take, for example, Pentagram’s fan identity symbol for the Mandarin hotel chain in the Pacific Rim,which was designed initially with 14 segments – an unlucky number in Chinese – before being reduced to 11.
There are candid admissions of failure, and much great work to admire, such as Backer Spielvogel Bates’ English language poster campaign in Hong Kong, which gradually turns an English headline into Chinese – and the reader into dumb incomprehension. A superb campaign by an Australian design group for Thai Airways takes a leaf out of Steiner’s own split-image book in a series of brilliant visual juxtapositions of centuries-old tradition with state-of-the-art technology.
However, many of the projects evoke that distinctly smart-aleck Anglo-American problem-solving approach to visual communication, which may win plaudits at the next Alliance Graphique Internationale congress, but which reek of cultural imperialism. Many solutions do not get beyond Steiner’s stage one of quotation, never mind assimilating the culture so as to look entirely natural within it.
Which brings me back to British design and its growing ambassadorial role worldwide. Perhaps one of the more successful aspects of our graphics industry is the pivotal place it occupies between East and West; it is close to Europe, enjoys a special relationship with the US, yet also maintains historical ties to the Far East. London design studios in particular are becoming increasingly diverse in nationality as the capital has evolved into a cross-cultural city.
Twentieth century British design has to some extent always comprised a hybrid of other cultures – the wave of Bauhaus refugees, the Scandinavian Modernists and the Madison Avenue advertising pioneers have all influenced the UK scene in a way unlike, say, more culturally insular French design.
Cynics may argue that if we enjoy more success as cross-culturalists than some of the examples in Henry Steiner’s book, it is because we have little choice but to seek out new markets and cultures given the poor state of the UK economy. Certainly, one cannot envisage design groups around Milan or Turin worrying about business in quite the same way.
Why not extend the cross-culture theme to books about product and furniture design, architecture and interiors? Meanwhile, we should be grateful to Henry Steiner for providing more than just airport terminal art direction. He lists the virtues of designer cross-culturalism and among them is “invigoration of one’s own tradition by taking a holiday in another”. British graphic design, however, often seems permanently on holiday. It is so skilled and chameleon- like at adopting other cultures that it sometimes forgets what its own culture is about.
Fittingly, one of the most telling images in Cross Cultural Design belongs to David Gentleman: his comment on the special relationship between the UK and America has a British lion licking buttocks created by the U and S. But that’s not really cross-culturalism. That’s just plain cross.
Jeremy Myerson is Professor of Contemporary Design at De Montfort University.
THREE STAGES IN CROSS-CULTURAL DESIGN
Here you use,without comment, foreign images for their quaintly exotic flavour, as decoration. This stage is precariously close to plagiarism, employing icons without necessarily understanding them.
For example: Picture postcards, airport souvenirs, “ethnic” snack packaging.
Working in the style or manner of an artist or school. Here you attempt to understand to some degree how and why the model was done. The thrust is more towards re-creation than reproduction. An operative adjective is influence.
For example: Van Gogh’s copying of Japanese woodblock prints.
In this stage, influence has been assimilated and the once foreign becomes personal and natural.
For example: In Picasso’s Guernica, the original influences – Iberian, Oceanic and African primitive sculpture – have been so thoroughly digested and transformed that one only sees Picasso being himself.
From Cross-Cultural Design: Communicating in the Global Marketplace (Thames and Hudson 1995)
A WOODEN SOLUTION
These posters were produced by New York designer Milton Glaser for Italian office equipment giant Olivetti. They capture perfectly the high-culture milieu of Italian commerce. Their purpose, explains Glaser, is to intrigue the viewer in an atmosphere of elegance and sophistication.
Both refer to Italian art. The mournful dog sitting at the feet of its master is taken from a detail of a painting by Piero di Cosimo. The inlaid wood poster is based on the remarkable interior of the Duke
of Montefeltro’s library. “My
assumption was that some part of an Italian audience would recognise these obscure references,” says Glaser.
But would he have chosen the same images if the manufacturer had been American? No way, he admits. “In the case of the one based on marquetry, the absurdity of showing the product made of wood would immediately produce a rejection.”
A SPORTING CHANCE
The German Post Office does not commission stamps from Dutch (or any other non-German) stamp designers. But the Dutch PTT commissioned a set of stamps from a German designer – Berlin-based Erik Spiekermann – on the theme of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. The brief specified the portrayal of five sports – rowing, gymnastics, volleyball, field hockey, and speed skating – on four stamps.
Just to make things even more difficult, Spiekermann was told after his first presentation to make all the stamps vertical, not horizontal. Luckily such words as hardrijden schaats (ice skating) were changed to just schaatsen in the new format. But his abstract concept of cool, grey stamps with white sports markings was criticised as too Minimalist and, yes, Teutonic. Could he please put some colour and pictures in?
A Dutch cultural reference came to his rescue. The day before, he had bought a book about the famous Dutch graphic artist Piet Zwart in an Amsterdam bookshop: it contained a collage of people doing various sports. Back in Berlin, Spiekermann cut out and pasted sports images on to his cool grey stamps in homage to Zwart. The revised proposal went down well with the PTT, but then he was told the collage looked “too German”. There were also copyright problems with the images. Finally, the Dutch sourced the images, a new collage was created, new artwork was produced, and the stamps were a great success. Only by tapping directly
into Dutch graphic culture was Spiekermann able to stay the course.
When Germany’s third largest bank, the Bayerische Vereinsbank, decided to raise its international profile, American consultancy Duffy Design Group was one of three international practices invited to compete in a paid pitch for the bank’s new identity.
Duffy produced five solutions designed to portray the bank, renamed the Vereinsbank Group, as astute, clear-sighted, friendly – and very different from other banks which had boring, lifeless marques.
Every solution was rejected. The centaur was condemned as too militaristic, too fascist. The bird did not signify grace, skill and freedom, as Duffy suggested – it was a menacing bird of prey. The archer did not communicate precision – it was seen as too aggressive and hunter-like. The runner was not a symbol of leading and winning – it reminded the bank of the 1939 Olympic Games with Jesse Owens, and all the Nazi overtones that carried. Even the face idea was frowned upon: it might be fine for a Spanish bank, said the client, but not for a German one.
As Joe Duffy ruefully acknowledges: “Images we saw as dynamic and strong, they saw as hostile and war-like.” The designers had completely misread the cultural context. Postreunification, big German companies targeting European markets are very worried about appearing to be militaristic.