• Dispatch from AIGA China: Making an Impact

    Ed. note: AIGA China advances design education and professional practice in China. Established in 2006 in Beijing, AIGA China shares curriculum developments from U.S. design programs, standards of professional practice prevalent in the global design economy, and inspiration from examples of U.S. design successes. AIGA China publishes translated and original design resources in Chinese on its website, aigachina.org, and in print, provides insights into educational practices and current issues at educational conferences, and represents the interests of AIGA members at international conferences and events. AIGA China consists of Amy Gendler, our Mandarin-speaking director, and several staff members who assist in web content, event planning and outreach. Learn more.

    In the story Alice in Wonderland, the heroine, Alice, falls down a hole in the garden and is transported to a land of fascination and fantasy. She meets many strange characters and joins in initially unfamiliar activities such as tea parties and games. In the course of her dream, she becomes accustomed to the interesting personalities she meets and adapts to their environment by variously shrinking and growing. She eventually returns to her world a stronger person.

    One of the most famous lines in this tale is, “Curiouser and curiouser!” It is an apt exclamation—albeit grammatically incorrect—as it mimics the confusing situation in which she finds herself. As director of AIGA China, I often find myself mumbling the same exclamation.

    Occasionally in China, AIGA needs to take part in conversations and situations that might make us cringe. The alternative—shunning the conversation, the involvement, the connection or the partnership—would be to become outcasts in the very community we seek to influence. In order to make AIGA China successful, we need to become part of the system, urging change, nudging change—and also changing by example.

    In one situation over the past year, we discovered that a designer contracted by the publisher of the Chinese edition of one of our books had plagiarized the cover. We were appalled and embarrassed. We confronted the publisher—who, for the record, also seemed appalled and embarrassed—and developed several strategies for dealing with the situation. We wrote a lengthy letter of explanation and apology to the designer of the original work, anticipating a sharply critical response. Instead, the designer gave the situation a virtual shrug. (Curiouser and curiouser.)

    Here in China, we are frequently asked to advise on design competitions. For example, recently we partnered with PoloArts to support the first annual China International Design Competition (CIDC), which aims to promote communication, exchange and interaction between China and the rest of the world by encouraging designers to create innovative work based around the theme of the Chinese dragon. (The deadline for the competition is September 27; more information is available here). Our relationship with CIDC became tense over concerns about the intellectual property ownership of entered and selected works. In the competition materials, we noted limits to the rights of the entrants, with regard to publishing their work elsewhere and to future commercial potential for the submitted works.

    A review of the organizer’s process of developing legal language for the competition revealed that the English translation was inaccurate, which had caused significant confusion. AIGA China initiated a review by a legal team, and we arranged for a revised translation of the terms, which are compliant under Chinese law. After some very challenging discussions with our Chinese partners, and in consultation with the AIGA team in New York, we decided to issue a corrected English translation of the IPR terms and to continue our engagement with CIDC. Just as Alice shrinks and grows (intentionally, after a while), we too need to accommodate to the culture in which we operate. We need to be part of the system in order to change it.

    AIGA China (or AIGA anywhere) is trying to bring diverse communities of designers into the global economy. We have standards not because we are legal conservatives, but because we believe that design and designers should be valued, and we choose to set the bar high. In the five years that AIGA has been in China, our presence has become increasingly important to local designers, in both tangible and intangible ways. The world around us has changed dramatically during that time, and many aspects of Chinese society are struggling to catch up.

    We have already translated materials documenting AIGA’s position on spec work, and we’ve distributed 30,000 copies of the Chinese edition of AIGA Design Business and Ethics. Over the coming months, we will be developing a Chinese language outline to serve as the basis of rules for competitions.

    Sometimes we’re like the frustrated, powerless Alice jumping to reach the keyhole, and at other times we are the unintentionally domineering outsider trying to make the local populace play by our rules. Though the optimal position is somewhere in the middle, the extremes play to the center as part of the process of moving forward. And we too can learn from the perspective of a culture that is in many ways so different from our own. It is in AIGA China’s interest to find the common ground, and in being here we are already becoming a stronger organization in a better world.

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