How to foster a design community

I am socially awkward.

I dread the idea of being placed in a social setting where I am forced to answer questions like: How’s work?; How’s life; or, How’s the weather?

I would—at any point—be happier at my desk scribbling down notes to make the next big idea happen. Or preparing another keynote file to sell a clever strategy. Or be engrossed in the self-indulgent exercise called ‘kerning’ and optically aligning type. (Of course, I then have to explain to the world that this is otherwise called designing).

Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t as bad as I make it sound. I do enjoy going to clients’ meetings and I do like working with designers. Just not socialising, or what the business-savvy folks call ‘networking’.

So here’s the biggest irony in my life. I’ve spent the last 15 years building platforms for design communities—in Malaysia, in South East Asia, and in India. I have masterminded large-scale conferences, workshops, exhibitions, award shows, digital platforms, design publications, and the occasional informal meet-and-chat-in-cafés. The single purpose? To help designers (like myself) break out of their perfectly designed, eccentric but cosy cocoons. Especially when we’re talking about the stereotypical timid, submissive, and shy Asian designers, for the sake of cultural context.

Today, Asia has changed. “Bold”, “confident” and “breaking new ground” are frequently used to describe the creative output from a new generation of Asian designers. It doesn’t surprise me that the world is waking up to the plethora of designs that fuse traditional themes with contemporary interpretations, which are further propagated furiously through social media channels.

But some roots stand firm. Designers, especially Asians, are still very “Asian”. Take a few keywords from what Asians uphold as values, words such as harmony, self-dependency, order and respect. These reflect a non-confrontational, non-collaborative, non-intrusive way of working.

Design events and platforms are more than just to celebrate, promote and to some extent, glorify design. Their purpose is really to start meaningful conversations and relationships within the design community; to break some of these conservative values which hold people back.

I could narrate a few good stories from these design platforms, especially from India.

For example, on the business front: A graphic design studio connected with an architectural consultancy years ago. Now they’re partners in many notable rebranding projects; A group of designers met at a design event, became friends, and eventually formed a collaborative working arrangement between three countries, and are now taking on some of the largest design assignments. These are unique stories of scaling up, adding more services and capabilities to smaller teams, and enhancing the quality of the outcome, without expanding the physical base or infrastructure.

What inspires me more are the personal narratives. It usually starts with: “That one conversation… with XYZ changed me”; “That one conversation… with Daan Roosegaarde [Studio Roosegaarde] made me realise there’s so much more to do than just designing more products”; “That one conversation… with Sarang [Kulkarni] made me realise there’s so much more to Indian typography than what the western world could offer”; “That one conversation with… Natasha Jen made me realise there are so many reasons not to be an outstanding ‘Asian’ designer.”

These conversations always inspire me to do more design events—and to attend them too.

To be able to tell the experience of spending an afternoon with the Vignellis at Victoria Terminus station, and tea at the Taj Hotel, are the bragging rights I earned—the best perks of the job. That is the subject matter of a deeper conversation if we do meet at some design event, and I manage to overcome my social awkwardness.

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