9 May 2012

The modernization of Southeast Asian design

By Ang Soo Boon

Since ancient times, man has been known to use art as a form of expression, communication and association. Those of the Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayans and Chinese are perhaps the more well known among them. Each has unique characteristics that differentiate one from the other. Even today, one could for example tell apart Western and Chinese art or design.

Art and design from Asia tend to be heavily influenced by culture and tradition. Southeast Asian designers in particular are predisposed to traditional schemes with an inclination towards realism and ornamentation.

Westerners and Asians interpret visual material differently because of the diversity in cultural and aesthetic preferences. Westerners may be unfamiliar with Asian traditions so if a visual style of the former is to be integrated into that of the latter, a comprehensive understanding of the cultural parameters is needed.

The presentation of Western visual design styles to the assemblage of Asian cultures could also be considered educational. By acting as incentives for stylistic inspiration, Western influences could be viewed as positive and beneficial as long as they do not intrude on the cultures affected.


‘Cover design derived from the 1920s Arrow Collar illustration. Combinedwith a woodblock portrait of Danjuro by Sharaju; the necktie design is the actor’s mon’

Designers must therefore be sensitive to these cultures since they vary in each country. Although it is an interesting idea to combine Asian cultural influences with Western-style design, designers must not lose touch with the essence of the culture being explored. In general social factors such as politics, moral values, linguistics, tradition and even geography are some of the many elements that govern “ethnic borders”.

Learning about the culture being explored must be undertaken to avoid disrupting the identity and belief systems.

1986, ‘Chopstix’

The modernisation of many Asian visual design styles derived from Western influences have resulted in cultural cross-overs. “Westernisation” has not only impacted on the political, social, economic and an emotional aspect of Asian society but it has also changed the way in which design has been generated from these regions.

At worse, “Westernisation” has turned out to be disorienting and damaging to the cultural integrity of some Asian countries. Although “modernisation” may have been advantageous to the economic and industrial growth of some developing nations in Asia, the rise of contemporary culture in these countries need not necessarily involve the addition of politics and ideologies of Western belief systems.

Asian countries, with their rich traditions, must be shielded from the domination of external influences. Western contemporary culture greatly differs with that of their Asian counterpart. In terms of visual communication, contemporary Asian designers may add more value to their own artistic inclinations by exploring and reflecting on their respective cultural characteristics and heritage, and not dependent entirely on looking to the West for sources of inspiration. It is also just as important for Western visual communicators to be sensitive to the cultural concerns surrounding Asian design. 


Tadanori Yokoo 1966, ‘‘Koshimaki-Osen’

Although they would do well to acquire the technicalities and design know-how of from the West, Asian designers must be aware of the potential dangers of misinterpreting or plagiarising Western styles. However, it is also interesting to note that some Western cultures, specifically that of the US, have consciously integrated aspects of popular Asian culture (for example Japanese “manga” animation or Western-style corporate logo identities; incorporating generic but non-specific “Asian graphic elements”; etc) into the web of their own presentations. This area of inquiry could be further investigated as an adjunct to such studies relating to cross-cultural design.

To help in the preservation of traditional Asian values in design, educational models play an important role in the tutelage of these cultural needs. Since Asian contemporary culture has already been exposed to the hegemonic influences of “Westernisation”, perhaps it is time to change the direction of its evolutionary progress in the design world.

Modern-day Asian designers may improve the value and quality of their own works by engaging the richness of their own cultures and traditions, and be adequately trained in the technologies and principles of the design process so that they will be equipped to seek creative freedom in their “culturally relevant” designs.

Ang Soo Boon is a lecturer with the School of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at sang@swinburne.edu.my