Echoing the Swedish design experience
Posted on March 29, 2013
While interviewing a few Swedes during the course of penning the articles, equality was a common theme among the answers given. More than just equality in governance, Swedes also expect equality in the workplace and at home.
“There is a social norm to treat all people with equal respect and deference, and generally say what you really think while expecting others to do the same. To say no is not a bad thing but quite the opposite!” says Maria Eriksson, currently the Partnership Director for Hyper Island (a Swedish tertiary institution specializing in digital media).
The disparity in power distance within the workplace in many parts of Asia, including Singapore, is apparent. A survey conducted by cultural pyshologist Gert Hofstede on global IBM employees in Singapore indicates employees scoring high on the Power Distance Index (PDI). The sample size was taken at a time when majority of its employees were ethnic Chinese. Other Asian countries that are within the same range would be Indonesia and China, while Malaysia and Philippines have even wider power distances.
Quoting the summary report, “Power is centralized and managers rely on their bosses and on rules. Employees expect to be told what to do. Control is expected and attitude towards managers is formal. Communication is indirect and the information flow is selective.”
Oz Dean, Creative Director of Digital Arts Network, a division of TBWA Tequila\Singapore, mentioned during a joint workshop session, “I try to make our meetings as collaborative as possible but sometimes, it’s hard to get the junior creatives to speak up even when I encourage them to.”
Journey of a young Swedish designer
In the book, Swedish Design Economics: What Taiwan can learn from the success and challenges of the Swedish Design Industry, author Max Wang penned the story of his Swedish designer friend Hanna Nyman, who is known for her wallpaper designs today.
At a young age of 17, Hanna left her hometown Västerås, 100km west of Stockholm, Sweden’s capital city. A fresh graduate from high school, Nyman signed up for Au Pair, a homestay program, which sent her to London to work for a local host as a domestic assistant. Her airfare, accommodation, allowance and English language classes were all provided for. By day, she was taking care of her host’s children. By night she chose to attend fashion design classes at a local community college, which laid the initial foundation of her craft.
A year later, Hanna returned to Stockholm. She gained a fresh perspective but remained clueless about her career. Undecided, she signed up for a 4-month short course in Product design & Jewellery design, followed by a 6-month program on art theory.
Even after completing the courses, Hanna remained hazy about her future. To survive, she secured a job as an editorial assistant in one of Swedish’s leading fashion magazine. She just turned 20.
Hanna had always felt a strong desire to create and channeled her creative energy off work towards her fashion collection. Boutique shop buyers from Copenhagen, Denmark to New York City, USA took notice of her work and insisted on having her collection sold through their shops. Lady luck was smiling by her side when the curators of the Västerås Art Museum decided to include her collection on display. It was a small validation for her affinity with design. Yet, she hungered for a more worthwhile pursuit, one that doesn’t fade with seasons.
In 2004, Hanna enrolled in Växjö University to pursue a major in product design. She was later accepted in one of Sweden’s most established and largest university on Arts, Crafts and Design: Konstfack. The year was 2006 and she had set her mind on apparel and textile design.
Hanna felt right at home in Konstfack. All lecturers within the university are practising designers, where they’re either employees at a studio or have a company of their own. She was able to learn from the first-hand experience of her lecturers during the day while she executed studio projects with her classmates in the evening. Coming from various backgrounds, some specialized in carpentry, while others in glassware.
Konstfack’s curriculum has a strong emphasis on both theory classes, which sets a firm foundation on conceptual and critical thinking, as well as workshop sessions, which imparted the necessary technical skills.
The first 2 years of an undergraduate program consists of theory and conceptual refinement, with the second year practically filled with studio projects based inside the workshops. In the third year, an undergraduate student would be ready for industry collaborative projects and a 10-week internship marks the end of their education on a high note.
During Hanna’s time as an undergraduate, she produced her seminal collection: Goodnight Storytelling. Hanna vividly remembers her time as a child when she was afraid of the dark, and felt a strong desire to confront this. The object of her solution was luminous window blind with illustrations inspired by friendlier references of Swedish folklore. She sought counsel from her lecturers and peers to improve her knowledge in dyeing and printmaking. She then went on to spend countless nights in Konstfack’s workshop getting the colours and the details right. It took Hanna 6 years of ups and downs to settle on a worthwhile pursuit. But she hasn’t looked back since.
Lessons for a growing design capital like Singapore
Although Singapore creatives are not be able to enjoy free education granted by a state welfare system like Hanna, there are several lessons we could apply to help us take a step forward towards a more mature creative economy like Sweden. (Sweden ranks first in the Global Creativity Index determined through a comprehensive study done by the Martin Prosperity Institute.)
Creative projects are often collaborative in nature and would require every team member to take charge of the experience and speak up. Eriksson adds,
“We call it Offerkofta, a Swedish word that would translate to: not taking charge of your experience and making it the best it can be.”
One possible way forward towards a culture of openness and honesty is through the implementation of a safety net. In Sweden’s case, tough employment laws make it hard for the employer to fire an employee. In Singapore’s case, permission from the superior to speak freely during meetings and a company culture that strengthens trust and honesty would help. Changing a country’s culture may be a long shot but adjusting a company’s culture would seem more realistic.
Creative professionals are valued for their originality, and original ideas could draw strength from a strong sense of individuality.
Pebbles Lim, a Singaporean native who has been working and studying in Stockholm for the past 3 years, elaborates,
“Sweden is renowned for their mastery of craft. They would quit their job for design, just because they know identity is more valuable than money. Their intensity and desire to create to perfection is sovereign. They don’t rush into presenting the work to the world, they let the world wait. Their desire to create often goes beyond just chasing trends.”
Lim works as the Associate Creative Director of Morgenland, a digital advertising agency based in Stockholm.
Individuality requires one to be exposed to a myriad of culture and experience. A creative professional may find his/her individuality by immersing in longer periods of travel, or working stints overseas—a pursuit bearing a certain degree of risk. Those experiences can then be further nurtured within a safe environment; one that encourages creative experimentation.
Rethinking the way Singapore’s art and design schools provide training would help to nurture stronger designers. A designer is valued for his/her problem-solving ability and the ability to think critically, while drawing references from culture, history and the market is a necessary step in the design process. Many art and design schools may have imparted the right skills and knowledge to execute, but few have actually emphasized on critical thinking. Perhaps increasing the number of external (part-time) faculty members that are also currently practicing could offer students broader real-world perspectives?
The pursuit of excellence in one’s craft and identity takes time. For Hanna, it took her 6 years and an immersion in different creative disciplines to settle on what she loves and does best. If money were not an issue, how differently would you pursue your craft as a creator?∗