Interview with alumna Zara Arshad of Design China

If you’re interested in knowing more about Chinese design, you will surely benefit from a conversation with alumna Zara Arshad, who has been working in China and writing about its designers and their output for a while now. We interviewed Zara on her international experience and other things:

Q: What was it like to study Design at Goldsmiths? What were you expecting when you first started out and how did reality compare to your expectations?

A: Studying on the BA (Hons) Design programme at Goldsmiths College, University of London was definitely the best fit for me, since I had just completed my IB Diploma at the British International School in Jakarta, Indonesia and, therefore, arrived at the course from a very academic background. I really didn’t know what to expect though. The programme was exceptionally strong from a conceptual point of view and very flexible: we were encouraged to move across various (design) disciplines for studio projects, and use these opportunities to experiment, rather than to develop a specific style too early on. Overall, I am very grateful to Goldsmiths Design for the “way of thinking” it taught me.

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‘How to…’, exhibition curated by Zara for Beijing Design Week 2012, photo by Chelin Miller

Q: If you were to give one piece of advice, tip or information gained from your career to students starting out in design now, what would you say to them?

A: Be curious! Go travelling and soak up everything and anything around you. And talk to or even collaborate with as many people as possible, regardless of their background or specialism.

Q: What is design to you, in a nutshell?

A: I don’t really view design as a discipline, but more as a way of learning about the world around me. Moving beyond the canonical definitions that we are all familiar with, design to me is about the everyday.

Q: How has your international experience influenced your perspective on what design is and what it can do?

A: I am not sure these experiences have influenced how I understand ‘design’ per se, but they have certainly shaped what I do with it. While I was at Goldsmiths, for instance, my family lived in Syria, so I was travelling around the region fairly frequently. These experiences shaped my academic research, helping me to discover, for example, the amazing work of Israeli architect, Eyal Weizman (who now happens to be based at Goldsmiths). Similarly, when I moved to China, I used design to understand the unfamiliar environment around me – it became a tool for observation and a way of creating systems, as well as about making material.

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Beijing Creatives, photo by Stefen Chow

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the design industry in China, coming to it as an outsider?

A: I had very little awareness about the “state” of the design industry in China, so everything became an educational process. I tried to listen to the people (designers, academics, students etc.) around me as much as possible, and avoided projecting my own preconceived notions of design into these situations. As a result, there were very few surprises, just lots of learning instances.

Q: Tell us about a particular project of yours that you think represents your work best or that you are proud of.

A: It’s been a while since I’ve created anything as a design practitioner; for the past few years, I have been writing about contemporary Chinese (and Korean) design. This initially started off as several one-off commissions for various media, both print and digital, until I was persuaded to establish a dedicated website of my own called Design China in 2011. This platform has attracted an array of other projects; for example, in 2012, I paired up with Beijing-based Singaporean photographer Stefen Chow to curate a series of events under the name “Beijing Creatives”. This entailed inviting many of the designers that I had interviewed or profiled on Design China to speak about their work to a live audience. The response was overwhelming, with the first event attracting a multicultural crowd of around 100 people (we expected maybe 30-40)! Beijing Creatives continues to this day (though I am no longer involved in its organisation), which I think speaks to the need for such events in China.

Q: I understand that you are currently studying Design History. How did you decide to go in that direction?

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V&A/RCA History of Design graduation show, photo by Zara Arshad

A: I am currently finishing up my last few days on the V&A/RCA MA History of Design programme where I studied on the Asian specialism. After spending some years learning about contemporary Chinese design independently, I felt that I needed to support these practical experiences with stronger historical knowledge, which led me to apply to the course. It has been an absolutely incredible journey since.

Q: What’s next for you after you’re done with your MA?

A: I am looking to move into curatorial work in a museum setting, though competition in this field is fierce. I am also keen to broaden my specialism in 20th and 21st century Chinese design to Asian design more generally, starting off with Korea: I have always wanted to unify my lived experiences in Indonesia, Syria and China, and I hope to achieve this via the exploration of inter-Asian relationships and networks of design.