A Thai style of graphic design is slowly emerging from an identity crisis, powered by pioneering creatives and a new breed of CEOs who are modernising their products.
Identifying “Thai-ness” amid the colourful chaos of Bangkok is no easy task for a graphic designer. “The modern identity of Thailand needs consistency but consistency just doesn’t happen here,” says Thai typeface designer and Cadson Demak co-founder Anuthin Wongsunkakon from his firm’s studio in Thonglor.
From a typography viewpoint there’s plenty to appreciate in Anuthin’s home city. Yet between international-brand-laden billboards and the neon glow of shop signage in English, Thai, Chinese and Japanese, a sense of place isn’t so well defined. “Thais are very passive when they welcome different cultures,” he says. “They take everything from everyone and maybe the cultural eclecticism that comes from this is ‘Thai-ness’ but from a graphic designer’s perspective we have an identity crisis.”
Forming order from chaos is a task that font designers are good at and Anuthin is the nation’s best. His 14-staff firm makes beautiful typefaces available to graphic designers worldwide, enabling them to harness the Thai script (itself an amalgamation of other scripts) to convey a variety of voices and messages. Cadson Demak has done work for Google Font and Apple as well as helping publishers channel the mood of their international titles into the local script.
“Branding systems don’t work if you can’t capture the voice through a typeface so we have to interpret them through the local perspective, play with the type classification and in the end create a font that looks the same and feels the same in the Thai script as it does in Latin,” he says. This need is why the explosion of international businesses in Southeast Asia has been a boon for Cadson Demak.
As Anuthin’s company grows, he makes time to run the region’s only international typographic conference, Bits (the Bangkok International Typographic Symposium), and has published Erik Spiekermann’s design education bible Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works in Thai. His ambition is to put the nation on the design map.
Farmgroup is another industry stalwart playing a progressive role in Thai graphic design. It regularly works with major names in Bangkok's booming hospitality industry on both design projects and cultural events. "Thailand's oldest graphic designer is still working - that is how young graphic design is here" says owner Tap Kruavanichkit.
He adds that his firm is overwhelmed with rebrands for Thai businesses wanting to play in the international arena. "People from my generation are now becoming CEOs of family companies and they understand the value of branding"
For Tap the voice of Thai graphic design comes from a national pride in simply "making do", previously out of necessity as the nation developed but a characteristic even the most affluent still adhere to today. "As Thais we are natural problem-solvers," he says, looking down at his chair and pondering. "If this chair leg snapped off we wouldn't throw it away we'd just find something nearby to fix it with. It could be anything; we improvise, we are spontaneous and unpretentious. Our designers are not like New Yorkers - we aren't wearing all black. We're laidback, fun and friendly and that comes across in our work."
But as a power surge causes commotion among staff who hadn't hit command+S recently, there's still a sense of frustration from Tap with regards to design here. "We want to move beyond 'boutique'," he says.
One Thai industry enabling this is the packaging sector. Food and agriculture is significant to the Thai economy. Forty per cent of the nation relies on the industry for its wellbeing and Thailand leads the world in rice export. The government has poured money into tagging the country "the Kitchen of the World" as it boosts exports, and design firms in the Thai capital are giving the nation's producers a fresh new look.
"In the past five years the packaging industry has improved so dramatically it is pretty astounding,” says Tnop Design founder Tnop Wangsillapakun, who moved his practice from Chicago to Bangkok and has rapidly ascended within the local scene. “Thai people see food as a souvenir, it’s something we celebrate. But with our food producers becoming so sophisticated, we have the opportunity to do some very special packaging.”
Tnop’s client work includes forging identities for Bangkok’s food entrepreneurs but also helping older firms update packaging. For Mirin, a family company bottling mineral-rich water in Thailand’s south, Tnop was brought in to help it push into Middle Eastern and Malaysian markets, using a logotype that plays with a simplistic Arabic form and Thai script.
“Thai culture is about celebrating fun in life, humour, and here we are luckier than our neighbouring countries because we have so many elements to play with in our design,” says Tnop.
Another leading name is Yindee Design, owned by Nopneera Rugsasook (nickname: Fon). The former Ogilvy & Mather art director today employs a staff of 18 in Bangkok. Her adventure into packaging design hasn’t just helped producers to change their look but also expand their business. Edamame producer Laco in northern Thailand has been able to move beyond commodity export and onto supermarket shelves across the region. “They were producing some of the world’s tastiest edamame beans but no traders were interested in selling them directly,” she says. “They came to us and we had a conversation about good graphic design and the power of packaging. They went with our concept.”
The simple identity, which sketched eyes above a bean to form a smiling symbol for Laco’s sub-brand Minnamame, was a smash with traders. The success demonstrates that good design is about solving problems and while the Thai graphic-design industry is still searching for its identity, with packaging it has a market that will allow it to grow.
“Thai people love to be entrepreneurs,” says Nopneera. “Graphic design hasn’t always been around but with each success it is becoming easier.”
Thai publishing is prospering, particularly in Bangkok where an appetite for the printed page is fuelling successful book chains such as Asia Books and the sprawling new Think Space B2S (see issue 97). Low production costs, decent distribution and a population growing in wealth and aspiration make this a fertile market.
Yet, it is two mainstay magazines in the creative sphere that continue to elevate print. A Day and Art4d both highlight the burgeoning creative industries of Bangkok and the region beyond it.
A Day sells an impressive 100,000 copies a month, growing its readership as it approaches issue number 200. Its astute editor Zcongklod Bangyikhan has steered the majority of these editions across themes as varied as fabrics, small stays, trainers and, our favourite, “The grandma’s guide to better living”, which focused on ageing elegantly.
“The cover design plays such a crucial role and we keep our themes tight and try to tell as much of the story on that one page as possible,” says Bangyikhan.
A Day is published by Daypoets, which has some 200 art and design books to its name, not to mention Café Daypoets, a buzzing Bangkok coffee shop where the cultish followers of the brands gather.
Hungry for more intelligent dialogue over Southeast Asia’s creative community a group of Thai designers banded together to produce Bangkok-based design title Art4d in 1995.
It remains the region’s most comprehensive printed coverage of architecture, urbanism, design and the arts; its poster-size pages reproduced on a rich stock are particularly striking. The fine photography that the title commissions comes to life on giant gatefold spreads, with words appearing in both Thai and English.
The Papersmith is the natural progression from Sirote Jiraprayoon’s chain of Thai bookshops The Booksmith, the first of which opened in 2012. Jiraprayoon’s aim has always been to champion art and design titles through The Booksmith but a need came for an independent shop to showcase the varied magazines that started flying off its shelves. In a cosy corner of Gaysorn Plaza, this shop brings together everything from Spanish food title Tapas to Japan’s iconic Popeye.