Graphic Design finds it financially attractive to move to Singapore

We tend to see Asia as a source for high tech electronic products at affordable prices, low cost manufacturing of clothes and shoes and, of course, curios and exotic handicrafts. And if it impinges the design industry, as the news media claims, it’s only the areas of product design and design engineering. As Chris mentions in his previous post,

Graphic designers have typically not been the type to embrace the future or deal with future problems before they confront us. Graphic designers have always preferred to burry our collective heads in the sand and ignore change until it smacks us in the behind with a 2 X 4.

That, I believe, was written in response to an article of mine that he claimed to find “scary”. Chris, I’ve just had a few conversations here in Singapore that have made me sit up and think about the graphic design industry, branding and identity design, publishing and new media, interaction design and animation – in short, visual communication and content creation.

Today I met with Helen Ho Lai Ching, Chair of the Product Design Dept at Temasek Polytechnic, the oldest and most established design school in Singapore. Helen graduated from Art Center majoring in Product Design and completed an MA in Visual Communications from Musashino Art University, Tokyo. She and I connected when I discovered her exhaustively researched thesis on Asian product design while doing research for my Design Policy class at the Institute of Design.She showed me around the school, pointing out the numerous design awards won by the students and faculty, the level of support received not only from industry leaders such as Hewlett Packard, Phillips and BMW but also the Govt of Singapore. Singapore is a major center for book publishing in Asia, employing large numbers of their graduates, others going into the advertising and graphic arts industries. But more than just this, with the financial incentives that Singapore is extending internationally to attract global creative powerhouses, names like LucasFilms and BMW Designworks have recently opened offices here, hiring even more young graduates.Singapore is not a “low cost” location like India or China, in recent years manufacturers have been relocating to even cheaper locations like Vietnam, Thailand and China. And neither does it want to position itself as one. What Singapore’s design policy intends however is to position the island nation, with it’s central location as a major transportation, shipping and trade hub in the South China sea, as the “knowledge” base for Asia. Just an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, Singapore’s citizens are educated and english speaking. This multicultural multiracial society is pumping funds to wire the entire nation, attracting global advertising and design agencies to relocate their Asian headquarters to a citystate with a stable government and low crime and poverty. In 2005 alone, they spent USD $ 6 million on design and creative arts events and plan to invest more in 2006.The graphic design industry has not yet been touched by the full impact and effects of offshoring the way industrial design has, due to it’s closer links to production and manufacturing. And certainly, geography and culture provide certain inherent protective measures in the areas of branding, identity development and communication design. But the early indicators of a possible shift are in the air. Just as the industrial design community first felt the nibbles when low end production work, CAD and 3D rendering along with basic cosmetic styling started to move with manufacturing to Asia, Asian manufacturers are looking to move up the value chain. First it’s OEM – original equipment manufacture, then came news of ODM – original design manufacture such as those from Taiwan like BenQ and finally OBM – original brand manufacture – Haier of China comes to mind.Similarly, outsourcing of book layout, publishing, production work for animation and interaction, local packaging design have already begun. As media shifts increasingly in the developed nations to mean online rather than print and paper, will it matter where it is designed or produced? The leaders in the ID community are attempting to move up the value chain, as decision makers and partners in the innovation and product development process to counterbalance the shrinking revenues from the offshoring of production work, IDEO comes to mind as an excellent example. Is it high time for the graphic and communication design industry to do the same? Don’t bank on the revenues from producing the brochure after designing it or executing the details after redesigning a brand identity for months after the new logo is finalized. These are early thoughts after my meeting here and conversations with young Singaporean designers, I hope to come back to this topic with more thoughts.

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