Identity is a social currency that keeps evolving. Old distinctions, categories and mindsets are no longer relevant today. We project our humanity on everything around us – people, environment, object, relationships – by reflecting on how we identify ourselves to be meaningful humans and creatives.
As part of Samsung’s "What Would Designers Do?" lecture series, Y Studios was invited to talk about Identity & Identification, a timely topic for these complex times. We spoke about our personal and professional journeys on discovering our unique cultural identities which influenced the way we perceive the world, and how we design iconic products for clients like Sonos, Chime, VAVA and Little Fish.
This is a synopsis of our presentation at Samsung Design Innovation Center in San Francisco on October 3, 2019.
Y Studios is a design and research company that thrives on diversity. We take a unique Culture-Driven Design approach in creating future-driven products and brands that are Useful, Beautiful, and Meaningful.
Working and living in different countries have greatly influenced how we think as a company, as well as how we create design experiences that have global appeal and contextual cultural relevance.
Wai, founder of Y Studios, grew up in Penang, an island-state off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia. He has lived and worked in Asia and North America for over 20 years, collecting unique life experiences along the way before he established Y Studios in San Francisco in 2001.
As chief sense-maker at Y Studios, Lisa has a deep curiosity for understanding people and cultures. Growing up in multi-cultural Singapore and working in Europe and in the US have all vastly shaped her perspectives. They have fueled her great passion for diverse viewpoints and discovering the why’s of human emotions – what drives behaviors and desires.
Both of us started out in the East, and kept moving West for academic and work opportunities. Lately, we have found ourselves moving towards the East again, working with a diverse clientele in various parts of Asia.
We have truly come full circle in our lives and careers. All this movement around the world have also helped us develop a keener understanding of how to design respectfully for different markets and cultures.
Our cultural identity is fluid – we consider ourselves as cultural chameleons. We love to travel, we adapt to new environments easily, and we embrace new cultural experiences with enthusiasm.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow- mindedness.” ~ Mark Twain
Culture Driven Design
When we speak of Culture-Driven Design at Y Studios, we consider all aspects of people’s attitudes, values and belief systems across ethnic influences, geographical locations, business practices and professional disciplines.
That also means it is absolutely essential for us to view cultural expression within its contextual environment.
Designing the most optimal product requires an informed comprehension of who we are designing it for, what purpose does it serve, where it will be used and how will it have a positive impact on lifestyle needs.
As designers, we are the interface between the client and the brand. We become the cultural translator in creating the appropriate identity for our client to address the needs of a brand that consumers can identify with.
What is Identity?
Identity is the distinguishing character or personality of an individual. It is how we define our self over time, what makes us distinctive from another.
Some of our pre-existing notions of Identity are as old as time, such as Race, Gender, and Age. Even so, these perceptions are rapidly changing and morphing into something completely new. In addition, there are new identity expressions in Body, Persona, and even how we identify what being Human means.
These are very confusing times, but also very exciting to observe how this evolves over time. Especially to a new generation of future consumers – Gen X and Gen Alphas – what does identity really mean for them?
Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that old distinctions, categories and mindsets are no longer relevant today.
What is Identification?
Identification is an individual’s sense of belonging within a culture, an extension of self by association with others to lend credibility, affirmation and recognition, so we can feel that we belong to an affiliation of like-minded peers.
Signals | Burning Man, car modification and street racing, dedicated sports fans, Transpecies-cyborg, #MeToo Movement
Culture + Identity = Identification
Everyone has a cultural identity. It comes from the way they take certain aspects of each of the cultures they belong to and use them to shape and define who they are.
Knowing who you are and where you come from can give you a sense of belonging and a sense of self.
In the United States, new census data have shown that less than half of the US population under age 15 are white, according to a 2019 Brookings Institution report. This under age 15 population is part of the Gen Z population, ages 21 and below, which makes this generation (50.9% white) more racially diverse than Millennials (55.1% white), Gen Xers (59.7% white) and Baby Boomers (70% white). The country’s diverse population also includes more than 40 million Americans with disability, and 4.5% of American adults identify as LGBTQ.
To stay relevant, brands have taken notice of the significance of inclusivity in marketing campaigns. Diverse or inclusive marketing has become a no-brainer for brands to connect on a deeper and more meaningful way with consumers from different backgrounds with unique stories.
An inclusive marketing campaign requires empathy, time and careful consideration to be truly successful. By embracing diversity and differences authentically, brands can then break through cultural norms and social stereotypes. It needs to reflect better on the actual world we live in now.
However, that is not to say that all brands do it well.
Nike’s Pro Hijab seems like a superficial attempt at providing a quick fix active wear for Muslim women. Other companies like Dignitii Activewear of Canada and Tudung People in Malaysia, have been exclusively designing and catering to the needs of Muslim fashion market with better solutions for a sporty hijab.
In comparison, the Hana Tajima for Uniqlo collaboration is a perfect example of multiculturalism done right. Hana is a British-Japanese designer, raised in England, and now based in New York. The idea started with Muslim fashion, but it has transcended into an ultimate goal of creating clothing that celebrates and ”embraces the beauty of all women”. It’s about being comfortable and finding a way to interpret fashion that fits with your own beliefs and your own way of dressing.
"The idea of transition is something I’ve always been drawn to. I love that space in between. We spend our lives in transition, it’s where we are able to change. There’s life and color where two things bleed into each other. I started to imagine these silhouettes in the half light. Trying to make tangible something fleeting." ~ Hana Tajima, fashion designer
Throughout human history, people have migrated from place to place for various reasons. They bring their own unique cultures and way of life to far flung places they decide to settle in, and inevitably change the cultural landscape of identity.
One culture influencing over another may be viewed as misappropriated or controversial. Our perception on culture really depends on how we were brought up – our fundamental values and beliefs, reference points and life experiences. Our cultural imprint has conditioned our thought process and shaped the way we react to things.
Oppression or Empowerment
For example, what do we think of the western influence in the Bolivian Cholita dress, or the Namibian women’s Herero dress? Both have historical backgrounds steeped in negativity, discrimination and oppression. And yet, both have emerged as a potent symbol of triumph over trauma for the women choosing to wear these dresses.
Bolivia’s cholitas, with their iconic bowler hats, embroidered shawls and layered skirts, were once targets of discrimination. It is now a statement of strength, confidence, femininity, elegance, and dignity. These women are now influential in business, political, fashion and media worlds.
Similarly, the Herero dress, known locally as Ohorokova, are seen as a rite of passage into womanhood. By adding vibrant color and a cow-horn-like headpiece to the dress, modern Herero women have turned this traditional garb into a symbol of resilience.
Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation
In another part the world, a similar juxtaposition of cultural mash-up is transforming social norms and cultural expectations of women. In a spectacular amalgamation of East meets West and ethnic differences that span three continents, the resulting female ideology has forged an unexpected bond between Japanese and Latinx women.
Since the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Chicano has been reclaimed by Mexican-Americans to denote an identity that is in opposition to Anglo-American culture. It has become a symbol of ethnic pride in expressing self-determination and solidarity, especially among the young Latino population in Southern California. Chicano culture embodies the "in-between" nature of cultural hybridity that embraces street cred and toughness as a sense of style for both men and women.
In contrast, Japanese women are often seen as cute, soft and submissive. Japanese society also place a high value on traditional perceptions of femininity and uniformity. Thus, it is really refreshing to see how some modern Japanese women are finding liberation and confidence in embracing someone else’s culture for their own.
The Chicano culture from East Los Angeles has become a huge source of inspiration that there is more than one way to be a Japanese woman. The appreciation of this foreign Latinx heritage by the Japanese has elevated it to a whole new level with an eager adoption of Chola fashion, music and low-riders. Homegrown Chola artists like Japanese Chicana rap artist MoNA aka Sad Girl, raps in a mixture of Spanish, English and Japanese in her music.
“Maybe this is what the future looks like – where culture isn’t only where you come from, but also where you fit in.” ~ Connie Wang, writer and host of Style Out There is Refinery29’s award-winning video series that explores the connections between clothing, community, and culture across the world.
Religious or Spiritual
Thaipusam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil communities in honor of Lord Subramaniam who represents virtue, youth and power, and is the destroyer of evil. As part of the festival's rituals, many participants engage in various acts of devotion and control over their senses while in a trance, including piercing of the skin, tongue or cheeks. Some walk over burning coals. Devotees believe their sins can be cleansed through such acts, while also reaffirming their Hindu faith.
Contrast that with the body modifications in the grinder movement. Founded by Neil Harbisson, the Transpecies Society has been instrumental in making sense augmentations a reality to a global community of biohackers. For example, artist Joe Dekni has an intricate sonar implant that rests on the back of his neck and extensions that go into his cheekbones, allowing him to perceive objects behind him.
Multiculturalism or Racism
Where is the fine line when something cool becomes controversial with certain audiences?
The packaging design for RICEMAN by Backbone Branding has received accolades as well as backlash with accusations of it being racist. This has resulted in one of the three Dieline Awards it had won being rescinded recently.
According to the designer, the goal of the packaging design was to evoke the inspiring process of rice growing by paying tribute to the anonymous humans working in the rice fields. By depicting the different emotions experienced by rice farmers with facial expressions – confidence, pride, satisfaction, empathy and tiredness – the packaging conveyed a strong emotional, human message but was functional at the same time.
Aside from the controversy, the project was a multicultural effort that involved a design agency based in Yereven, Armenia working for a Japanese-American client in California.
The work of Korean graffiti artist Chris “Royyal Dog” Shim is the ideal portrait of multiculturalism as a way to conceptually bridge gaps between cultures. He creates mural painting that often places women from Western culture in traditional Korean hanbok.
Drawing on his own definition of multiculturalism, Shim traveled across the United States and painted murals that celebrated peace and equality. The result is a representation of harmony by the fusion of customs and traditions from cultures seemingly distant from each other, but somehow blend cohesively together.
Identity & Identification
Identity, in and of itself, is such a loaded term and very complex to navigate.
Its definition differs from person to person. We all have our biases and preferences, mostly based on our own life experiences and contextual environments that form these differing opinions.
Ultimately, the way we choose to identify ourselves as human beings and creatives is really about reflecting on everything around us – people, environment, object, relationships. It is about a sense of belonging towards a culture that influences our thoughts, values, beliefs, hopes and fears.
Identity is not superficial, literal, one-dimensional
Culture is fluid, multifaceted, versatile
Design with curiosity, empathy and purpose