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From Taiwan to the World’s design stage

Ken-Tsai Lee shares what he learned about sharing ideas on a global scale

Illustration by Kirstin Moore

Ken-Tsai Lee has earned an international reputation as a designer, educator and curator. As well as running his lab in Taipei, he is an Associate Professor at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the Visual Director of Taiwan Designers’ Week and Regional Representative of the New York Type Art Directors Club and New York Type Directors Club.

As part of our thought leadership series on learning, led by D&AD’s first President from education Rebecca Wright, Taiwanese design professor Ken-Tsai Lee shares his story of breaking into an industry dominated by larger Western countries.

Taiwan is a small island in East Asia. I grew up in the era of Chiang Kai-shek's rule. In 1987, when Taiwan lifted martial law, I was 19 years old. At that time, all boys in Taiwan had to be soldiers at the age of 20. If they wanted to go abroad to study, they had to wait until they had completed their military service.

Once I had completed my service, I had to work to earn money. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I got more opportunities to participate in a global exchange of ideas, entering and winning in global design awards. As I began to take part in international communication, I really understood the need to become proficient in English, so I decided to go to an English-speaking country to develop my language skills and further engage with the global design community.

Having been engaged in design work for 11 years after graduating in Taiwan, I decided to quit my job as a full-time lecturer at a university and closed my studio here to go to New York at the age of 34. The United States and the United Kingdom are both countries where Taiwanese students go abroad to study, but in terms of immigration, the United States allows more Taiwanese than the United Kingdom. Because of this, there are more job opportunities in the US, and so it is more popular as a destination for Taiwanese students looking to broaden their horizons.

After seven years of experience in New York, I realised that modern design originated around the West. Even in today's globalised culture, where the Internet has flattened global information, the West still dominates on the global design stage. I realised that in order to operate in that space I needed to engage it. Through developing English, I’ve been able to engage with numerous international design competitions and participated in international design forums in Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, Germany, France, the United States, Switzerland, and Peru.

After I had been in New York for seven years, I was invited to be a visiting professor at NTUA (National Taiwan University of the Arts). Having developed my career in New York, it felt like now was the time for me to return to Taiwan and contribute to the design community there. As the local representative of the Art Directors Club and the Type Directors Club New York since 2009, which both held design competitions and curated travelling exhibitions, I was able to bring the two annual shows to Taiwan when I returned home. I wanted to contribute to the place where I grew up by sharing my accumulated experience, knowledge and contacts.

I wanted this communication to flow both ways; not only did I bring exhibitions from New York to the school, but I also planned events to elevate design from this part of the World. I organised Young Guns, a Chinese Typography design exhibition, inviting designers who do great typography work in Chinese from Chinese speaking areas, such as mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore. This exhibition toured to the National Design Centre in Singapore – the first time a Chinese typography exhibition was shown there.

Since I brought it to Taiwan in 2009, the Type Directors Club annual exhibition has been shown almost once a year, for 12 years; the Chinese typography and the young guns shows, multiple times.

"There is an old Chinese saying that you can't make a cart behind closed doors, meaning to create something you need multiple skills and ideas"

There is an old Chinese saying that you can't make a cart behind closed doors, meaning to create something you need multiple skills and ideas. It is that exchange of ideas I want to encourage other creatives from smaller nations to participate in. During my own cultural exchanges with the international design community – which included numerous design competitions, and speaking engagements internally – not only did I abort the ideas from other countries but also spread my own design ideas and practices developed in Taiwan. My own design practice is the result of these countless cultural collisions.

Designers who live in a small islands may not have as many opportunities to go abroad to exchange and participate in international activities, but I believe that if you have international language skills and the ability to operate technology, you can engaging in the global exchange of ideas by submitting your work in international design competitions, getting feedback from internally renowned designers. And maybe, as your career grows, you’ll be invited to participate as a judge. Online, as long as you can communicate, the centre of the world is not Europe or the United States.

Read our previous contributions to this series, including Brian Collins, of COLLINS, on why there is no such thing as “time to give back”  and Theseus Chan on why the most important thing he has learned is how to unlean here.

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