IIDA Notes: Global Design & Cultural Content

May 1, 2006
By Eric Engstrom, FIIDA
Several factors need to be considered when designing abroad.
By Eric Engstrom, FIIDAInternational expansion, whether by architects and designers or operators and manufacturers, is rapidly increasing in the early 21st century. No longer do national borders preclude business activities between a provider in one country and an end-user in another nation. American, Canadian and Mexican designers are working in each other's countries as well as in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. However, as new borders continue to open, there is a need to combine a worldview and design innovation with a recognition and appreciation of local culture and business practices.

In February 2006, the Business and Institutional Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) held its annual executive conference with a globalization theme. A diverse group of speakers talked about the new global economy and its effect on the manufacturing and, by reference, the design community. Speakers noted that there is acceleration in development around the world—particularly in nations with a stable workforce and well-educated population. The digital revolution has negated the effects of distance with instant communication. The multi-national company is now global, with business development and marketing in one country, and technology, manufacturing and customer service in another—all connected by an increased level of digital and wireless communication.

In terms of real growth, it is predicted that China will emerge as the major economy in the world by 2025 if not sooner, and India's population will be larger than China's in the next 10 years. The thought that IBM would sell its computer technology to Lenovo, a Chinese company, would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, as would the idea (since withdrawn) of American ports being run by a company based in Dubai. The world is rapidly changing, and elements of concern expressed by many BIFMA speakers involved the lack of an American strategy for globalization, the increasing trade imbalance between China and the rest of the world, and growth of capital emerging from both China and Japan as well as the untenable personal, corporate and government debt load in the United States.

This has not deterred the increasing number of North American designers now working in Asia and to a lesser extent in Europe and the Middle East. At present there are many American designers and architects working on projects in China and many doors are opening to Western firms. Western design is very popular, especially in residential architecture and retail and hotel interiors. Designers from the United States and Canada are learning different ways to work—often going much deeper into the design phase than what is normally considered on domestic projects. In addition, there is often a lack of control over the finished product. The contractor is typically responsible for preparing contract documents and the owner generally provides contract administration. These practices effectively exclude the architect and designer from the construction and implementation/installation process—resulting in quality control and design intent problems in the finished project.

As clients retain architects and designers from outside their own country, it is important for those providing professional services to develop an understanding of the history, economics and culture of the users they are designing for. This requires extensive research, and in many cases, active partnering with a "local" resource. In some cases, the partnership is required by law and the local partner must have a majority interest in the venture. This is also necessary because of differences in building, life safety and health codes specific to a nation or jurisdiction. In addition, contacting local design professionals can be helpful in finding those people who may be required to work at a project's location.

Another area of concern with designers working in emerging nations is the lack of support for environmental controls and sustainable practices. China in particular is beset by horrendous air and water pollution as well as unsafe construction practices. On the other hand, American designers working in Europe, with much stricter environmental controls than our own country, have had to learn sustainability in order to practice any type of design.

Working overseas or offshore requires a new understanding of "the way things work." While some business practices in other countries may be perceived as unethical under North American law and practice, they are often commonplace and bear no stigma to other nations' daily business life. It's an exciting new world out there for innovative firms looking to expand their knowledge and design practice. However, they must be aware that they are in a high-risk and high-reward situation—perceptions of the finished product may look and feel very different than their sophisticated and beautifully detailed design presentation.

Eric Engstrom, FIIDA, is president of IIDA, and founder and president of Engstrom Design Group (edg), San Rafael, CA. IIDA is headquartered in suite 13-500 at the Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL, and can be reached at (888) 799-IIDA; www.iida.org.

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