AOD: Bringing world-class design programs to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is famous for Ceylon Tea, gems and perhaps, of late, apparel. Stemming as an offshoot of the latter but with wide benefits to other sectors is the design industry. A top UK qualified professional in the field of design and currently heading a top academy in Colombo, Karen Macleod strongly believes that given the inherent skills of the people, Sri Lanka in the future will have a new economic stream – a creative industry that is unique in the region. However, she emphasises that due recognition from the industry as well as parents is critical.

 

AOD Bringing world class designGiven this potential as well as global need for designers and creative people for different industries, the Academy of Design (AOD), of which Karen is the Principal, has a range of professional courses for the benefit of those aspiring for a career in design. According to Karen, design is a respected and well paid career for those with passion, creativity and motivation.  In an interview with the Daily FT, Karen shares some key insights into why she relocated in Sri Lanka from the UK and the present and future of the design industry. Following are excerpts:
By Shabiya Ali Ahlam


Q: Can you share your experience in design?
A: I graduated from the Northumbria University in Fashion. I went directly to Paris to work as a designer and was fortunate to be able to design for international companies. I specialised in women’s wear but I also worked for companies that designed men’s, children’s and accessories as well. This allowed me to have a broad span of knowledge and development. The companies I worked with include, Max Mara, Daniel Hechter and Hemisphere. I also worked with design retailers such as Barney’s, Joseph, Biffi, Belinda and Theresa.


Earlier in the ’80s we had licensees around the world, so we had the opportunity to design for countries such as Germany, Spain, Brazil, Japan and South Africa. Within the image and the handwriting of the company that I was working for, being able to develop products for other countries allowed me to understand fashion in a global scale. I could say that I learnt a lot within the 15 years while based in Europe. Eventually I went on to set up my own company where I designed for high quality manufacturers such as, Zara, H&M and Louis Vuitton.


Q: After establishing your own design company you decided to come to Sri Lanka?
A: Having a degree with Northumbria University and working closely with the industry gave me an idea of where I wanted to go. Starting on my own was a risk, but you have to believe in what you are doing. I arrived in Sri Lanka three years ago, and was that another risk? Maybe. Just as I believed that it was the right time to start my business, I believed three years ago it was the right time to come to Sri Lanka. Design is something that industries in this country need. I thought that via a degree program, I could bring this to Sri Lanka. I must say that there are fantastic opportunities here within the country in this arena.


The fact that AOD offers degree programs which are recognised worldwide is great. In Sri Lanka we have a 100% international faculty who are highly experienced in their respected field. I really believe in the university’s delivery in design and I am here to extend same.


Q: What is your opinion on the design industry in Sri Lanka?
A: The design industry in Sri Lanka is at the moment moving at an extremely rapid phase. Three years ago we were reliant on designers from abroad. Today we are producing designers having degrees equal to what is offered by Northumbria University in UK. The graduating designers are employed obviously at a much junior level, but are paid higher than what was offered previously. However, more can be done by the industries to support them. Sri Lanka can look at how design can be used to differentiate itself from other countries. In the apparel industry for example, companies should bring in design innovation. Sri Lanka does this to some extent from a sustainable point of view. Unique here is the quality, level of production and the inputs from design.


Q: How does AOD contribute to the design sphere in the country?
A: What our graduates go through is a three-year degree course with inputs from the industry. This allows us to make a finish product that is exceptional. The designers we produce aren’t just technically strong but they can also specialise in specific areas which the country’s industry needs. It is not just the manufacturing side of it, but the retail side as well. In AOD, we will not start a course until we feel there is a need for it in the country. We do have graduates who take their degree and go on to work abroad, but from a local and regional point of view, there is an absolute need for the programs that we offer here.


For example, looking at graphics design, it is a very fast growing area and it is not about sitting behind a computer. Opting for this require creative thinking, and idea generation.  You absolutely need to understand markets and work towards a certain phase. Today, all the major industries need very good graphic designers, be it for packaging in the tea industry, or working in the apparel industry doing branding. It is not a computer generated program that does the thinking.


If you look at the spectrum, we are thinking ahead. We are starting motion graphics, and it is very important that parents realise that these are highly paid industries. Students following the traditional job career path certainly have to fight to be employed. Students following design at AOD are in demand since their quality of work and productivity is assured.


We are not a design school here thinking just about design. We are looking at how education in design can move the industry and the country forward.


Q: What are the programs offered by AOD?
A: Most of our courses are three-year programs. We have the BA (Hons) Fashion and Textiles Degree, which helps students to develop their own distinctive design handwriting so that once they graduate they can make their mark in the fashion world.


There is the BA (Hons) Interior Design degree. Through this we encourage creativity and independent thinking. We provide the know-how and inspiration to help students develop their design and associated skills.


We also have the BA (Hons) Graphic Design program which provides a fully rounded experience in graphic design while allowing specialisation in the areas of branding, publishing, or image making.


New to our portfolio is the BA (Hons) Fashion Marketing degree. Students following this will engage in all aspects of fashion studies, from fashion forecasting, to research into fashion markets, fashion graphic, illustration, photographic styling and promotional techniques.


Another new addition is the BA (Hons) Motion Graphics and Animation. This program focuses on motion graphics and design from a design perspective and their application in film, television, computer games, advertising and new media


Q: How would you rate the talent of those following design in Sri Lanka?  Where do you think they stand when compared with others in the South Asia region?
A: AOD is particular on what courses are made available in the country. We have a very unique stance about what we want to produce as a graduate here. It is about working with the industry and thinking not only at a regional level, but at a global level as well. In addition to our local students, we have students transferring from Japan, Maldives, and the UK. So the students themselves are one thing, but it is the course that helps them to extend their boundaries.


If you ask me about creativity in Sri Lanka, I think it is a very creative country. Here the students are naturally been given the chance to opt for art based subjects in school. So they come out academically sound, which is great, and they are creative thinkers. Even if you are not going to get into design, being a creative thinker is really important. Whether you are Sri Lankan, Maldivian or Nepalese it is the course that has been adapted to what we feel a need is there in the market to take it forward. We are not just thinking about today. The degree programs we offer are unique within the region for sure.


Q: What are the career prospects in design?
A: The concern many parents have is that will their children be able to find jobs once they are done with the degree. AOD will not start a course unless they feel that there is a demand for that profession. Those following graphics design are employed even before they leave the design school. For interior designers, the need is justified, since if you look around you, the need for such is obvious. So I would say that the design industry is 100% employable without a doubt. There is less competition in design in this country than there is in any other career. If design is what you want to do, it is a respected career and well paid.  It is a career that if you have the motivation, you will grow well. I must also add that it is an extremely rewarding industry to work in.


Q: What do you have to say to the young aspiring designers?
A: There is a huge potential in this area and it is certainly a rewarding career. It is a non-traditional career, but it is highly creative.


Q: How about the parents?
A: I feel that the parents need to be reassured that there is scope in this area for their children. I am a parent myself and I understand the importance of design. I think parents should know this is a respectable career path for their children to follow. My message for them is that, if you look around your home, every single thing is designed, and without that, what can you do?


Q: Is there room for improvement in design and how do you think the industry should get about it?
A: The industry at this point really is just peaking to realise the importance of added value in design. I think more manufacturers in Sri Lanka can add design or the vision of design to their product area. I am talking from tea to apparel to advertising to interior design. It is really important that you have that element. If you compare yourself with an international company, they all have that.  Having been here for the past three years, I believe there is an increasing respect for design and it is only beginning to happen. Companies need to add value to the graduates the employ as well as it is important for them to grow and become leaders.


Investing in these graduates is important. In terms of salaries, it is already being done, but it shouldn’t stop there. Companies should allow these graduates to have foreign exposure so they can experience global changes and trends in design. They need to prepare these young designers with a vision.  In five years time, there will be no need to import designers, which is still being done probably because our graduates are relatively new to the market.


Q: Do you think Sri Lanka has enough success stories in the field to encourage those who are interested to confidently step in?
A: There are many success stories in this field. I would like to talk about interior design.


In the field of design, interior design can be very misleading as it is understood as just decorating rooms. It is most certainly not just that. It’s about interior and architecture.  There is huge demand for those who specialise in this area. We notice that most following this program are setting up their own design studio.


Within AOD itself we have many success stories. In the apparel industry, our students are doing very well. For the first time our students are most probably the first designers to be ever recruited by big names such as Brandix, MAS, Hidramani, and so on. Big international names such as NEXT have employed for the first time Sri Lankan designers, rather than from abroad. Those are the kind of success stories that are there.


Q: What is the future for design in Sri Lanka? Say 10 years from now.
A: 10 years from now we will have our own creative industry which will be unique to Sri Lanka and region as well. We will be able to grow industries specific to the country with design. Those without the design aspects will certainly not grow in the same way. Sri Lanka being a smaller country than India or Pakistan, geographically we are able to move around quickly. The link within the industries will be able to grow faster.