Design Across Borders
I'm always eager to explore cultural differences when I travel, but the graphic designer in me is also trying to see how culture influences a country's design style. Not only is it interesting, but it's also useful for inspiration in my projects as well as getting a better idea of what my international clients are looking for in their projects. Seeing as my tagline claims that I'm a designer, writer, and traveler, I can't believe I haven't merged the three until now. Better late than never, I suppose. I don't think that spending a few days in a country really is enough time to get a feel for its style, so I'm only going to cover the five countries I've spent the most time in below. It goes without saying that this is my opinion about a very subjective topic, so if you happen to be from any of these places, try your best to not get triggered!
I'll start with the US because the scope is so wide, it's almost impossible to peg a single dominant design style that defines the country. We are a nation of immigrants, and that varied background has resulted in multiple cultures simultaneously influencing design in different ways. Of course, America is so big that this also becomes a regional thing. In the larger cities, you will see more modern, minimalist design blended with some very vivid illustration that carries the flavor of the city. America sort of sets the standard for "corporate design". What's hot now are largely typographic designs, usually with a small graphical accent. I like it. What I usually don't appreciate is the branding for local businesses in more rural areas. It seems that most local business owners here are still relying on a nephew that "kinda knows Photoshop" for their materials. Hire a professional, guys! (Does not apply to downtown Greensboro)
Ah...Sweden. It's the country that inspired me to definitely follow my dream and become a designer. Sweden is pretty far up there, often cold and gray. The people are quite reserved, but you learn they also like to have fun when you get to know them. Swedish design reflects almost all of these points. It is heaven for anyone with a penchant for the minimalist aesthetic. Design in Sweden is not just simple, it's utilitarian. Swedish designers are masters at conveying their clients' message by using as little as possible without the result looking too bare bones. This is also my target for most projects, because I do believe it is the smartest way to design and will yield the best results for my clients in this world where attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Never change, Sweden.
Iceland is a very interesting case. It predictably shares part of what most can recognize as that unmistakable Nordic aesthetic, but it's usually paired with something else that is the pride of Iceland: its unmatched natural beauty. From logos to entire buildings, the influence of Iceland's national treasure is present even in cities and towns. A famous example is Reykjavik's Hallgrímskirkja, the towering church near the city center with a clear homage to the basalt rock columns seen in many of Iceland's geological features. The same can be said of Reykjavik's opera house with it's hexagonal glass panes. And then we have the logo for KEX Hostel which combines that classic Nordic simplicity that you can also see in Sweden with a bit of downtown cool.
England has a lot of the same trademarks as American design and bears a lot of influence from several different cultures. London is one of my favorite places to just look around for logos of local businesses as a sort of barometer for what is currently "world-class design". Also you have great examples of urban design, which I consider design by necessity. I'm talking about clever advertisements that need to make an impact on a populace that's constantly on the move. Sometimes I think I might be the only one staring at advert posters on the Tube, just because I have an admiration for their punctual and usually minimalist designs. Of course, England is also a place with a lot of history, and you will see some design that draws on more traditional styles to reflect this - primarily in the countryside.
China is by far the easiest country to write about here because it is just so wildly different from what I am used to. If you have trained in design in the West - or even Japan and Korea for that matter - prepare your eyes. They like it LOUD. I have never seen so many bright yellows, oranges, and greens used without a second thought, normally accompanied by a flamboyant and often nearly illegible font. Gradients are still a popular design choice, as well as Comic Sans for some English-language text you see on marketing materials. This is not too surprising, as pretty much everything in China is loud. And it works. People are bombarded by loudspeakers outside of shops all day long, taxi drivers honk their horns if they see a potential customer, and brightly colored branding compete for attention in a place more capitalist than most realize.
And the winner is...
Sweden!!! Of course! I will always be an unabashed fanboy of all things Scandinavian. And why not? They've got good taste. Besides, I owe a lot to my time there for discovering who I wanted to be both as a designer and a person in general. However, it's not my only source of inspiration. Every country on this list has influenced me in some way, and it's hard to not let these influences bleed through in my work. It's usually a good thing. For that reason, I would recommend that anyone in a creative profession take some time to travel the world and add the flavor of your destinations to your toolkit. If you're interested in your first long term adventure abroad, don't let the magnitude of such a decision deter you. Check out my travel guide - Uprooting: A Beginner's Guide to Perpetual Travel - for tried and tested advice on preparing for your trip, absorbing the experience, and enduring the often tumultuous experience of returning home.