Sketching out a better future

The impact of Design on a nation’s efforts at building itself cannot be understated.
by Zachary Ong and Ahmad Azrai

A recent article on AseanToday raised a rather important issue for Malaysia: With less than three years before its deadline hits, Vision 2020 – the set of nine challenges that the country has to meet to become a fully developed country by 2020 – looks in danger of not being achieved, as some parties are claiming. A question asked was whether that sentiment was true or otherwise.

Arguments saying that 2020 was achievable (citing the Prime Minister), as well as those which denied it (citing various analysts and commentators) were highlighted – but overall, it was postulated that regardless of whether the nation was on target or not, it was very important that Malaysia stay the course in its commitment towards developed nation status, even if delays are inevitable.

In its conclusion, it was also stated that the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2015 was still valid: “Continued investment in infrastructure and in research and development can help spur home-grown innovation and increase incomes. Together with improvements in the quality of education, these efforts can help raise labour productivity, support higher sustainable growth, and foster a more inclusive society.”

In view of this, and taking into consideration the measures that Malaysia needs to undertake in order to achieve Vision 2020, or the subsequent Transformasi Nasional 2050 Programme (TN50), it can be argued that Design can play a very important role in helping to meet those goals.

The impact of Design

It has been readily observed that Design – which covers the industry players, as well as the associated philosophies and practises – has a significant effect on a nation’s economy. A paper released in 2015 by Design Council, UK made several important findings about the UK Design Economy, the value created by those employed in design roles in a range of industries, generating £71.7 billion (RM405.99 billion) in the UK’s Gross Value Added (GVA), as well as identifying a positive impact on productivity and on efforts to rebalance the economy.

There are many other factors to strongly support the view that Design is impactful. Not only does Design help in the creation of value and worth, it is a major factor in providing solutions to problems and limitations. Good Design helps to simplify that which is complicated, as well as forming the connection between creativity and innovation. It is an intrinsic part of the human experience, encompassing applications for a wide range of uses from the creation of ideas to the development of community and everything in between.

Considering the speed with which economic repercussions occur in this era of connectivity, it is vital for Malaysia to have a full national design agenda – through the means of a framework or policy – that would help empower and spur the local Design Economy. This in particular refers to a national design policy that will enable the country to drive progress in a responsible and sustainable manner, encourage experimentation and innovation for improvement, enrich society’s cultural capital, as well as enhance Malaysia’s competitiveness on the global scale.

The right step forward

Many other nations have already embarked a similar plan. Iceland – in its Design as a Driver for Future: Icelandic Design Policy 2014–2018 paper – defined design as “creative energy used to achieve a specific purpose”, using it as a collective term for various fields that unite creation and practical solutions, and emphasising that the union of these elements allows design to link creativity and innovation. Finland sees its Design Finland national design programme as a tool for responding to the challenge of renewal, to improve the country’s competitiveness through design competence and its effective utilisation. The result is a move towards a more integrated and dynamic Design Ecosystem compared to the current setup already in existence.

Closer to home, Singapore has invested much time, capital, and commitment towards strengthening its Design Economy, calling for strong government support for the creative industries; world-class R&D infrastructure; and the creation of a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan, and well-educated population. And despite the various countries using diverse methods, solutions, and views towards meeting these challenges, they all agree on important touchpoints:

  • an emphasis on the provision of a comprehensive, forward-thinking, and inclusive education policy, through the creation of good schools, enabling sound practical training, and developing a strong research community;
  • the creation of a strong and supportive national ecosystem for Design, including initiatives to help Design workers to upskill themselves accordingly, building and strengthening proper support networks, and developing conducive environments to encourage creativity; and
  • to spread awareness on the importance on the potential and significance of Design, thorough informative and far-reaching campaigns, aimed at all aspects of society: the government, industry players, the public sector, and the community at large.

Design is not just about aesthetics and looks; no, the scope of its effects and importance is much larger in scale. And as we approach 2020 – which will be followed soon enough by 2050 – discussions and proposals with regards to the Design Economy are to be welcomed as steps that lead us to Developed Nation Status and beyond.

Zachary Haris Ong (M.wREGA) is the principal of Zachary Haris Ong & Associates (ZHOA), and the President Elect of International Council of Design (ico-D) – the first Malaysian and first ASEAN member to be so appointed. A former President of the Graphic Design Association of Malaysia (wREGA), he advises and collaborates with government agencies to chart and spearhead the national design directive.

Ahmad Azrai is the founder of JernJern Enterprise, and does writing and translation on a freelance basis. He formerly worked in the advertising, public relations, and newspaper industries in Malaysia.