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SpirE-Journal 2006 Q2

Survey of industry shows Japan and Hong Kong’s image as Design Hub ahead of Singapore

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Survey of industry shows Japan and Hong Kong’s image as Design Hub ahead of Singapore

Singapore’s government has spelt out its aim to position the city-state as a global and regional hub for design work. A few years into this program, how does Singapore’s design community rate the national effort? While local design professionals and experts rate Singapore fairly, Japan and Hong Kong are cited as better locations for engaging design work, possibly reflecting the superior “brand image” of these countries in the creative industries.  

This is the finding from a survey conducted by Spire Research and Consulting involving over 40 Singapore-based respondents who are either suppliers or customers in, or experts studying, the fields of communications, environmental, fashion and industrial design. Among the respondents, 44 per cent are working in fields related to communications design (either as customers or suppliers), 10 per cent in environmental design, 7 per cent in industrial design, 5 per cent in fashion design and another 5 per cent in cross-disciplinary design. The remaining 29 per cent of respondents were expert observers of the design industry, comprising academics and design association executives. Respondents ranked Singapore just above China, South Korea and Thailand for design work as a whole. South Korea is said to be catching up with Japan in terms of design output quality, while Thailand and China are associated with price competitiveness. The general sentiment of respondents is that South Korea, Thailand and China have the potential to catch up with or even surpass Singapore as design hubs. Ratings for competitiveness of Singapore design workMost respondents felt that Singapore design work has met the basic requirements. Some also believe that Singapore possesses a pool of design talent with potential for greater development. However, none of the respondents was optimistic about Singapore becoming a design hub in the short-term:

More than half the respondents rated the quality of Singapore design work as reasonable and efficient
Approximately 20 per cent also pointed out that Singapore has a ready pool of IT talent, which is advantageous for the design industry
Over 90 per cent of respondents believe that Singapore designers still lack creativity and international exposure
A frequently cited observation was that the work of Singapore designers reflected a “lack of identity”
More than 50 per cent of respondents felt that the market for design in Singapore is too small and consumers generally had a preference for foreign design works
Respondents rated Singapore design work on various attributes as follows:

When asked to cite the most competitive countries in the Asia Pacific for design work outside of Singapore, Japan emerged as the clear winner, cited by 72 per cent of respondents. Following at a distance is Hong Kong (31 per cent) and China (28 per cent). South Korea (10 per cent) and Thailand (7 per cent) were a distant 4th and 5th place
While some respondents had experience of procuring or providing design work outside Singapore, most respondents may have been guided by impressions of the “design brand image” of these countries, base on published opinion and the views of industry colleagues
In terms of pure quality of work, Japan received the highest mean score

Expert views on Singapore design workThe experts interviewed for this survey included faculty at leading universities and senior executives of design associations. These experts registered the following opinions:

70 per cent believed that the volume of design work commissioned in Singapore was increasing
High costs, poor creativity and a weak sense of “identity” were the top reasons cited for commissioning design work overseas
Some experts felt that Singaporeans are generally reluctant to consider design as a profession, thus limiting Singapore’s potential as a design hub

What more can be done to position Singapore as a design hub?

Nearly 60 per cent of respondents believed that the Singapore design sector was young and more organic development was needed before Singapore could aspire to be a design hub
Half the respondents felt that the current education system neglected the arts, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. They felt that the arts should be introduced at a younger age within the education system, so as to better nurture budding local talents
The local designers surveyed wanted more support from local consumers for “designed in Singapore” products
When asked what else the Singapore government and the design industry could do, respondents were mostly non-committal. Many felt that organic development should be allowed to take place. However, some felt that:
– the government should provide financial support to designers wherever possible, for example through project-specific grants and access to funding for start-ups
– the government and industry should support scholarships and exchange programs aimed at nurturing young designers
– the government should encourage more spending on local labels by awarding major projects to local firms, thus assisting them in gaining brand name recognition

ConclusionsThe community of customers and suppliers of design work in Singapore feel that the local design industry is doing a decent job. However in terms of its ambitions to become an international design hub, Singapore needs to start by being an Asia Pacific hub, and here it is in danger of being sandwiched by Japan and Hong Kong on the one hand and countries like Korea, Thailand and China on the other.

Japan and Hong Kong are consistently associated with the best quality of design work, perhaps due to the associations these countries have with the creative industries as a result of their strong entertainment, fashion and merchandizing sectors. Japan’s top ranking suggests that high labor costs need not inhibit the flourishing of the design industry
Korea, Thailand and China are cited as up-and-coming design locations that can leverage lower labor costs as well as indigenous cultural traditions that are seen to benefit design creativity

On the whole, the survey respondents were less than sanguine about Singapore’s prospects for becoming a design hub in the short-term. Long-term prospects might be more positive if all stakeholders help build the right framework to foster organic development. The dominant message articulated by survey respondents seems to have been that creativity cannot be engineered and must be given time and space to flourish. Only in this way can a unique local “identity”, a key concern of respondents, coalesce and shine through in local design work.

Annex 1 – Singapore’s design hub ambitionsThe Singapore government seems to be aware of these obstacles and have already taken several measures to overcome them. Firstly, several awards have been initiated to reward those who show creativity. For example, the President’s Design Award is Singapore’s acknowledgement of good design in the fields of architecture and urban design, fashion design, industrial and product design, interior design and visual communications design. Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan has said that: “The President’s Design Award for Architecture and Urban Design (A&UD) will be the most prestigious award of its kind for local architects and designers. It emphasizes the value of good design, including architecture and urban design, recognizes the significant achievements and contributions of Singapore’s design talents and is a clear signal of the level of support that Singapore accords to design and design practitioners. I believe this Award will drive the members of our architectural community to aspire to A&UD excellence, (which is) so important (a factor) in developing Singapore into a vibrant global city.” A more substantial measure was the setting up of the Design Singapore Council (DSC). The DSC aims to bring design to business boardrooms and to new audiences and markets. In time, it is also hoped to bring about a pervasive and unique design culture. In March 2005, the DSC showcased hundreds of Singapore’s design talents through SINGAPOREdge in London, a multi-sensory experience of Singapore’s emergent creative culture in multiple diverse creative areas like the arts, architecture, city planning, interior design, product and industrial design, music, film, new media, cuisine and fashion. The Council also organized the recently concluded inaugural Singapore Design Festival from 9-23 Nov 2005. It aims to be at the leading edge of design creativity from Asia to the world and the world to Asia. Major events include the Red Dot Awards: Design Concept 2005; ADASIA 2005 – the largest advertising conference in Asia; as well as the feature event DesignEDGE – a unique fusion of presentations and performances across all design disciplines. The DSC has also set up an International Advisory Panel (IAP), consisting of prominent international designers from Europe, the US and Japan, to help it with its aim of setting up Singapore as a design hub. The IAP essentially wants Singapore to adopt a pre-emptive approach by acting fast and decisively into new growth areas. The members urged Design Singapore to promote the republic as an “event” to the point where design becomes a way of life and also to put more effort and energy into the design culture in order to increase its appeal among Singaporeans.
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