Global Design Differences

Having studied and worked both in Asia and the United States, I’m able to discuss some of the similarities and differences between the two continents in design, goals, and methods, as well as study and work environments.

I moved to Fort Wayne in October 2017, and I’m enjoying getting to know a new city, exploring its downtown where I live and work, and learning more about DC’s work culture. I graduated from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, with a Bachelor of Architecture, then moved to the US and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, with a Master of Architecture. I went back overseas and interned with firms in Beijing, China, and Tokyo, Japan.
Having studied and worked both in Asia and the United States, I’m able to discuss some of the similarities and differences between the two continents in design, goals, and methods, as well as study and work environments.
During my undergraduate years in Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, we were usually given specific and clear requirements about each design assignment, including the problems that needed to be solved, the requirements of drawing views, drawing sheets, and exhibition techniques. Even in the final thesis design, it was typical for each step to be regulated and mandated by the advisor. There was little space for us to make changes in the status quo. Each student had the opportunity to systematically study the basis of the theories, design techniques, regulations, etc. By educating students in this way, they’re able to express themselves freely using design. With the mundane details determined ahead of time, students are free to focus on the important aspects of creative design.
After completing my undergraduate program in China, I spent three years of graduate study at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. The first thing that impressed me was that in my first design class, we weren’t even given the final requirements for the goal of the class. Everything seemed to start from experiments, even playing with materials, balance, gravity, etc. This uncertainty generally evolved into vague concepts, then clear design ideas. While we still had a quarterly, midterm, and final review, we were allowed to develop our own progress and design goals. Instead of solving problems, we were asked to pose questions, which evoked discussion in the final review. The best example of this would be the thesis design, which lasted two semesters. During the first semester, nobody had any idea about what the final study theme would be. We kept exploring things or phenomenon we were interested in, and recorded them in texts, drawings, collages, photos, or videos. Extracting from the materials we’d gathered and produced, we described the theme we would like to develop in the next semester. Once we were able to put what we had in our mind into a tangible medium, we were able to grab the design ideas. This process allowed me to explore design challenges from new and unexpected angles, drawing on the detailed technical foundation I’d received in China.
I have had internships in Zeybekoglu and Associates (ZNA) in China, and Kengo Kuma and Associates (KKAA) in Japan, and I’m now working at DC in the US. I’m only a few months into my work at DC, but the differences in various aspects of all these places are quite obvious. In both China and Japan, it’s typical to only focus on preliminary design, which includes conceptual design, schematic design, and design development. The latter stages—including construction documentation and construction administration—are usually contracted with a third party. In China and Japan, I learned that as an employee of a design firm, it’s difficult to get involved in the latter stages of architectural work. Because the design scope in Asia is mainly within the early stages of a project, they aren’t many restrictions when it comes to budget. This feels similar to the design courses I took in college; exploring different ideas through sketches and physical models, and exaggerative concepts or ideas are encouraged.
When it comes to working environments, we tend to work overtime in Asia; maybe it’s just part of our cultures. This is especially true in Japan, where everyone comes to work around 10am and doesn’t leave until 11pm, and that’s even early! I remember my supervisor usually worked well past midnight, or the whole night. Though I spent lot of time at work, my time wasn’t always spent efficiently. I didn’t always have enough work to keep me busy, but we still weren’t allowed to leave the office until very late in the evening.
In the US, I’ve had the chance to learn more about the latter design stages of construction documentation and administration. I’ve learned more about the roles the architectural field plays in that design stage, like construction documents. I wasn’t taught either in school or during my former internships. When practicing design ideas, I have to keep in mind that no client has an unlimited budget. This means that as designers, we sometimes have to give up some of our design thoughts and think more realistically while providing our clients with the design they’re hoping to achieve.
I definitely enjoy the work environment and atmosphere in the US. At DC, I have the chance to attend meetings with clients, to learn more about what they want from our design, and to learn from my colleagues about how to respond to their questions and deal with their requirements.
While designing in any one country isn’t necessarily better than another, architecture can reveal itself in many aspects in different areas of the world. In China and Japan, we build tons of modern skyscrapers, but at the same time, we have traditional housing in need of repair and reconstruction. In the US, instead of designing skyscrapers, I have the chance to work on renovations of schools and churches, and create spaces for multi-family housing. Overall, I think the differences are what makes learning more about the architectural field so enjoyable for me.

Zhurong Qian
Associate, Graduate Architect