Born Good, Growing Up Great

Design affects and is affected by the evolution of a nation

Author: Arez Ezman

Just as how babies develop from tiny creatures into adults who will need to make something out of themselves, people and societies evolve and change over time. Some use the time to refine themselves into more genteel versions of their own ideals, whereas others may decide that a step towards another direction is just what the winds of change are heralding for.

As with all aspects of life, design can be found in the ways that a society or culture expresses itself, not only keeping pace with its host but actively playing an important role in shaping it anew. For example, music – that amazingly joyous art that can be found is practically all forms of human civilisation – started out with simple folk songs that were sung or enhanced with clapping and dancing. 

The later development of musical instruments – the designs of which run the range from simple percussion instruments to full-blown orchestras all the way to electronic programming – have ensured that there will be something for everyone, whether you are into throat singing, Tchaikovsky, or techno (or even all three).

Evolution of identity

One classic example of how societal change is reflected by design can be seen in the post-World War era of the 20th Century. The devastating conflict, coupled with a disastrous economic crisis, had a massive impact on how the peoples of the world viewed each other, where two huge ideologies dominated the global perspective: Communism and Capitalism. The advent of the Cold War saw the need not only for physical weapons, but psychological ones as well, thus leading to the rise of the infamous Russian avant-garde modern art movement, which included expressive forms such as Constructivism, Suprematism, and Socialist Realism, and which made bold use of deliberate limitations of tones, techniques, and themes.

In counterpoint to this, Capitalist – or at least, non-Socialist/non-Communist – societies expressed themselves in opposite terms, embracing the full spectrum of colour and styles to present their alternative points of view with equal (if not greater) fervour. It can safely be said that whichever side of the Iron Curtain you identified with, this clash of cultural expressions – which can safely be described as propaganda – made use of design and the various tools available.

Here in Malaysia, in fact, that very dichotomy was responsible for the creation of a fundamental part of locals’ lives: the humble Identity Card (I/C), whose birth was a direct response to the Communist Insurgency in Malaya during the National Emergency after World War II. For its Nation Building project designed in the run-up to the recent Malaysia Day celebration and as part of its contribution towards social responsibility, ZHOA created two videos – a motion graphics video explaining the history and evolution of the I/C, and an micro-documentary video where Malaysians were interviewed on what being a Malaysian meant to them.

The former video traced the origins of the I/C, which has morphed from a simple cardboard document with written details and a photograph, into a secure smart card that provides a host of utilitarian functions, and further going on to hypothesise what future incarnations of the I/C could look like and what it will be able to do. Meanwhile, the interviews dissected the little and not-so-little things that make up the life of a Malaysian, coupled with the interviewees’ reactions towards the future prototype I/C design. The results clearly show that good design has always been – and always will be – an integral part of the Malaysian make-up.

Future growth

It will not escape anyone’s notice that despite the fact that change is an inevitable and necessary part of life, there will be those who are resistant to it. However, it turns out this is not only natural, it is a necessary component of design evolution and growth. Criticism and denials – particularly when constructive – will lead to discussion, dissection, and incorporation of different points of view, which can only strengthen the final results. 

A look China’s design industry proves this: what started out as an inherently monolithic block of views and methodologies has given birth to some amazing results, especially with the injection of Hong Kong’s hybrid counter-culture, which developed separately but became integrated during the 1997 handover of the island back to the mainland.

Closer to home, the Fusion Wayang Kulit project – which saw the retelling of Star Wars in the local wayang kulit shadow puppet form – raised more than a few eyebrows, gaining strong popularity with the general public, and reinvigorating interest in the ancient art. What’s amazing is that according to Pak Dain, the tok dalang/master artist involved with the project, the art itself has always provided scope for its own evolution – a clear case of design excellence leading to protection from obsolescence.

Whatever the future holds for design, the evolution journey will likely be as fascinating as the destination. Now that is something worth waiting for.

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