Moving North to South 

Written for DesignStudio—December 9, 2020
        At the end of 2019, I packed my career and worldly possessions into two checked bags and a saxophone case and moved from Bath, England to Sydney, Australia. I decided that if I was going to take on a new challenge, I should make it count. So I swapped continents, moving from a small established studio into a bigger, younger studio — DesignStudio Sydney. Bringing with it a change in clients, larger projects, different outputs and a shift in my role. All on the opposite side of the globe.

When you relocate to another hemisphere, it's a given that things are going to be different. A year into joining the team at DesignStudio Sydney, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on the differences and similarities when working in the upside-down.

We’re a world apart

Navigating a culture change heightens when your job pivots around empathy. Our role as designers is to step into the shoes of our clients (then test them out, critique the fit, maybe suggest a new pair of laces), and walk a mile in them on behalf of their users. Without the knowledge gained from living in their environment, that understanding becomes more important than ever. And it's something that DesignStudio does so well. By putting a real emphasis on immersion in a project, it gives a chance to get under the skin of the business (and often their problems) meaning we can create our solutions from the inside.

The same consideration applies to cultural signifiers that might take on a different meaning on this side of the world. Understanding key moments in history, colours or symbols that have different connotations, vocabulary that is inherently Western or doesn't transcend language barriers — then using all these learnings help to keep the work appropriate.

Because of DS SYD’s location, almost every project through the studio doors in the past year has been destined for totally different markets. I’ve worked with 5 clients in 5 different countries. Some of these projects have needed a deeper level of empathy and versatility than I’ve ever had to deploy before. Entering the world of Filipino beauty in our recent project for BeautyMnl is an example of how important that cultural affinity is. Market learnings like counterfeit goods being rife in Philippine e-commerce had a direct impact on design decisions to counteract those fears. Understanding the client’s hesitance to feedback honestly as a deep-rooted aversion to being outspoken or forthright. Working to cultivate a relationship which enables those frank conversations. Looking at how beauty has been portrayed historically (and hearing personal experiences from the team) in order to better represent Filipino women today.

Though our approach stays the same, often our quest to find the Meaningful Difference for clients means being flexible in how we find it. Making each design process bespoke, adapted to fit. The lessons I’ve learned by working in this versatile way, with clients from different cultures and new markets, has already given me a broader perspective on all my projects and relationships to date.

There are other elements of cross-continental design that I hadn't anticipated. References made to products, projects and people are often firmly rooted in British soil. I've had to adapt how best to explain ideas to my global team of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Europeans, and am constantly adjusting my process to best work with their international experience.

But having a diverse team of approaches and experience works. As we look at the wall of work from multiple viewpoints, we get to the big picture much faster. And my place in that team feels valid and unique. My combination of learnings from inside and outside of the studio is literally a world apart from those I stand shoulder to shoulder with.

I'm also working hard to make my reference pool local. While it's a joy to think and work globally, I don't want to skip over talent and opportunities just outside the studio door. As a visitor in Australia, it's part of my job to integrate and respect the industry that was here before me. Which to me, means getting involved in initiatives and education, learning about all the brilliant agencies shaping the design scene here. Not just jumping headfirst into the lifestyle that pulls so many Brits over to this side of the equator. In turn, I vow to bring cultural staples like Quavers and beans on toast to my Aussie studio mates.

But we’re on the same page

Ideas transcend all borders. It doesn't matter where you cut your teeth, what your first language is, or the address of your studio. It's the common currency in agencies across the land. The daily workings of the studio are not specific to a location, but specific to the values of DesignStudio. Sitting down at my desk in the morning feels like it always has, which was a welcome comfort on my first day.

Working in tandem with other DS teams from our New York and London studio often means a project continues to run overnight. It's the first time I've seen a 24 hour shift in a studio that's effective. It feels like you've gained extra days in the week — and who hasn't asked for that in a project before. Working across multiple time zones means days can be long as we try to take advantage of the overlap. Turning notifications off doesn't always feel like an option. I learnt the hard way to caveat conversations about TV (more specifically the Killing Eve finale) during an evening/morning handover with the London studio.

Looking at the work from all DS studios globally, each project displays cultural nuance, geographical relevance, intelligence and ingenuity. But there is a distinct DS style and standard that runs throughout, making the world appear smaller than ever. A comforting and reassuring thought in 2020 as we all work on a remote global scale from our spare bedrooms.

The baggage I’m keeping

It's a delicate balance of embracing the new without forgetting the old, being ready to expand and adapt without throwing away the framework or lessons that brought you here. Because more often than not, the idiosyncrasies that you've picked up are a large part of what makes you stand out. Helps you bring something distinct to a brilliant, diverse team. And having a different beginning gives you the agency to have a different perspective. Something that's valued by colleagues and clients alike.

So I'm taking comfort in the similarities, welcoming the differences and trying to take each day in my stride. When a little extra encouragement is needed, I remember we're technically working in the future — so I’m already ahead of the game.

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