Home to more than 100 ethnic groups who speak hundreds of languages and dialects, Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. It is also rich in natural resources, with its 4.5 million-square-kilometre area supporting a fifth of the world’s plant, animal and marine species. But despite this bounty of treasures for craft and design, the region has long been overshadowed by its surrounding creative capitals, including India, Japan, South Korea and China.
A change is underway, however, with the emergence of a new generation of Southeast Asian designers. Mostly born after the 1980s, they grew up in a time when the region prospered through trade and investment; this was the outcome of decades of post-war industrialisation precipitated by territories seizing their independence after more than a century of colonial rule. It remoulded a region that had for centuries been a vital hub in the spice trade into a major exporter of diverse materials for manufacturing as well as an attractive manufacturing base for international companies.
Along with Southeast Asia’s growing, globalised economies came a wave of modernisation and cultural globalisation that utterly transformed the region. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, McDonald’s expanded from its first outlet in Singapore into Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. In 1995, MTV began broadcasting an Asian edition throughout the region. Skyscrapers rose across the rapidly growing cities, with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur claiming the title of world’s tallest building in 1998. This arrival of modern ideas and cultures in a region steeped in tradition created a melting pot of cross-cultural interactions that have only been accelerated as the region has hooked up to high-speed internet and the increasingly globalised world.
Emerging from life between the local and the global is a new kind of Southeast Asian designer who desires to participate in creative culture that is unbound by conventional geographical boundaries. Not satisfied with their local design education, which until recently focused on equipping designers with the technical skills to serve manufacturing economies, some are going on to study in more design-forward places such as Europe, Australia and the United States, where they are encouraged to develop their creativity. And after graduating with top honours and going on to work for leading global designers and companies, some are returning home to Southeast Asia to ignite change in their local design scenes.
➜ Read the four essays in the EMERGE publication
Designers are obsessed with the details. Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once remarked that “God is in the detail”. One of the ten principles of good design laid out by industrial designer Dieter Rams states that “Good design is thorough down to the last detail”. Furniture designer Charles Eames took this to its logical conclusion when he declared that “The details are not the details. They make the design.”
I first noticed a “detail” in design while opening a pack of Nongshim’s Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup packaging. Jutting out from its top was a triangular indicator of where I should tear open.
That got me thinking about other details in design, the little touches that make a huge impact. Here’s one that many must be familiar with: a bottle cap that also acts an opener. The pointy edge on one side of the cap is designed for piercing open the sealed bottle.
This next example is something many have encountered, but not necessarily understood. The little dimple on the keypad of ATMs help the visually impaired orientate themselves and figure out where the centre of the numbers is.
Sometimes, a detail in design gives the product an extra edge. In the case of this potato peeler, one side juts out to function as an extractor of “potato eyes”, a bud which some may find disconcerting to cook with.
Finally, here’s a design detail that may seem unnecessary to some, but for me, shows the deep level of consideration MUJI gives to its products. This dimple protects its pen nibs so customers can be assured their pens are less likely to be damaged. It probably discourages shoppers from taking their pens on extensive test-runs too!
Have you encountered details in a design? I’m looking to compile more for a possible showcase. Drop me a line!
Knockoffs, fakes, and counterfeits are the bane of modern industrial design. They are unauthorized copies of designers’ intellectual property. They are the stolen profits of manufacturers. They are the products of piracy: a phenomenon wrecking an industry’s will to innovate and create “original” and “authentic” design. But to consumers, piracy offers affordable goods, diversity of options, and sometimes, even better design. Piracy isn’t black-and-white like a pirate flag, but a nebulous concept whose edges ebb and flow like the waves of the sea. What’s a copy to some is homage to another, what is original today is tomorrow’s evolution, what is piracy to the industry is competition to society.
How will we recognize piracy and intellectual property in industrial design with the rise of digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing? By democratizing access to the means of production, it will become easier for users to copy, remix, and self-repair objects in ways that traditionally infringe upon a designer’s intellectual property. This calls for a need to redefine what piracy means. In response to the digital revolution, some designers and manufacturers have strengthened protection over their designs via the law and technology, while others are opening up access to them, believing that design is a collaborative process that benefits from a community working on it together. Will the rise of open design see an end to piracy?
This thesis examines more closely the relationships between piracy, intellectual property, and industrial design by studying a variety of case studies and interviews with practitioners. Beyond just a legal and economic issue, piracy is a reflection of society’s assumptions about the design process, who a designer is, and what design is for. Piracy is a ghost that will always haunt the world of design.
A Thesis Submitted to the School of Visual Arts in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Design Criticism.
To find out more, visit the Design Piracy Institute.