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Designing for the World

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

The relationship between globalization and design is a tricky one, and designers should take more than just aesthetics into consideration.

“A powerful force drives the world toward a converging commonality, and that force is technology… Almost everyone everywhere wants all the things they have heard about, seen, or experienced via the new technologies.” –Theodore Levitt

Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt saw it coming. The academic first coined the term “globalization” in 1983 as he explored the dynamics of technology and its concomitant effects. Little did he know that his neatly crafted theoretical model would resonate well in the design world, raising relevant questions among designers, businesses and schools.

As global brands and multinational companies expand into international and emerging markets, consumers are increasingly attracted to modernity’s allurements. Everyone wants an iPhone, a Kindle or a BlackBerry. Are we seeing a convergence in design resulting in the homogenization of products and a loss in culture-specific elements?


“I believe there was more local variety prior to the invention of the internet, cheap cargo and cheap flights,” Christian Etter, founder of Etter Studio, tells TAXI. “Cultures were more isolated and therefore could mature independently.”

And how true that is. An Apple iPad, a Starbucks Frappé, IKEA meatballs, and McDonald’s fries have similar looks and tastes whether you are in the United States, Australia, Sweden, China or Singapore. Not only are the products standardized, the designs of these stores also follow their parent company closely.

“To a certain extent, you get homogenized products, where everything looks the same,” Scott Thompson-Whiteside, Associate Dean International of Swinburne University says. “Most of Apple’s design is central, and the same design is distributed all over the world.”

However, homogenized products represent only what is on the surface, and that is the physical manifestation of design. Beneath this physical manifestation is something more profound: ideas.

Globalization has arguably created a common pool of heroes and ideas from which designers across the world gain inspiration. And this is influencing design, and at times, undermining the distinctiveness of culture.

“All designers there [at the international design center]—doesn’t matter if from India, Russia or the US—would go on about the same names, like Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister, and Herman Miller,” Etter explains. “Every museum shop around the world stocks the very same books about the very same people now. People like Sagmeister put their faces into hundreds of design publications, it gets very boring.”


Does this foreshadow a world of monolithic design, where local culture, assailed by globalization, makes way for a cosmopolitan—or rather “Western”—notion of culture and design? Not quite.

To Thompson-Whiteside, the state of the nature of design is shifting; it is no longer about the eventual product, but about the software.

“When you design something, you’re not only designing just the product. You have to design a whole package to really reap rewards; there is deep understanding and appreciation of the delivery of services—the software—surrounding that product,” Thompson-Whiteside explains. “That’s what drives companies forward.”

Culture is a crucial facet of software. It is significant because companies need to understand consumer behavior and the psychology of a particular society to ensure that a product meets most, if not all, of consumers’ demands.

“For a time, it appeared that everyone in the world wanted the same things, that values were converging,” Christopher Liechty, founding President of AIGA Center for Cross-Cultural Design and now Vice President of Communications at Bank of American Fork, says.

“But that was just a temporary change on the surface only. The underlying values that really drive our different cultures are still very strong and are not so easily influenced.”

Thompson-Whiteside concurs with this view, adding: “Essentially, you are selling services to different types of people, and a designer has to be well versed in different cultures.”

“At Swinburne, we believe in the depth of education, especially in the software of design. So we encourage students to go student exchange programs that place them in a different cultural setting. Students also combine their study of design with something else, such as psychology or Public Relations or even engineering.”


Cross-cultural or intercultural communication in design, Thompson-Whiteside explains, occurs when the same product is interpreted differently by another culture or when symbols and values of a specific culture are revealed in a product.

Evident in this is the need for a designer—who is also a salesperson—to be well acquainted with cultural differences in order to meet a client’s objectives, demands and needs, the professor elaborates.

Design is a business, and subtle cultural nuances cause obvious changes in business and marketing strategies and action steps.

Liechty explains: “What I see when I work with a global company is the natural tendency to design marketing research and campaigns for the company’s domestic market first and then to deal with the international or ‘foreign’ markets next. There is a wall around the other culture and I can’t see in.”

“The better approach is to consider the global marketplace first and foremost, and then use a zoom lens approach and adapt to the various markets as needed.”


Liechty has a frank analogy for the relationship between globalization and design. “The influence of design is like a drop of red food coloring in a glass of water,” Liechty says. “It represents only a small amount of the whole, but it colors everything.”

So, what does this spread of knowledge mean for the future of design?

To Thompson-Whiteside, it signifies opportunities. With globalization only accelerating, there is not only a greater awareness but also a stronger and deliberate desire from designers, businesses and academics to discover cultural interpretations of various products made available through technological advances.

“I just received a letter from a Chinese professor who is interested in researching on the cross-cultural interpretation of websites and animation,” Thompson-Whiteside quips. “She was curious about what digital media means for Chinese consumers.”

In a way, it all boils down to technology. The same force that silences local culture can surely be used amplify it. “We need to learn how to use [technology],” Etter explains. “On the one hand, we need to share knowledge globally, and on the other, preserve and celebrate local diversity.”

Cover and top image by Dennis Jarvis.

This series is proudly presented by Swinburne University of Technology, Faculty of Design.

Swinburne Design has a history of cutting-edge teaching and revolutionary programs. They teach Design Anthropology, Product Design Engineering, and double-degrees in Design/Business, as well as Communication Design, Film and Television, Industrial Design, and Interior Design.

Swinburne Design launched an Industry Placement program in the 1970s, and in 2011 opened the Swinburne Design Factory in collaboration with Aalto University.

Their design research unit is one of the best in Australia, and their PhD program is internationally recognized. Swinburne Design is immensely proud of each of their thousands of graduates and their many achievements around the world.

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The relationship between globalization and design is a tricky one, and designers should take more than just aesthetics into consideration.

“A powerful force drives the world toward a converging commonality, and that force is technology… Almost ev…