Field Work: Designing Experience for an International Audience

Global Village - One Month Out

Global Village Dubai – One Month Out

A short while ago, my Esteemed Colleague, Disney Imagineer, Professor, Thought Shaper of the Future and Iconic Experience Design Chick, MK Haley, posed some questions to a few of us about designing for an international audience. Her purpose is the building of a new module for her Experience Design class, and if you are lucky enough to be one of her students you are in for a boffo semester.

(“Boffo” is a sophisticated design term.)

In case you are not one of her lucky few, I’m sharing my own responses for consideration and discussion amongst yourselves (or amongst yourself, if you live and work alone: in which case, keep it down. If others hear you discussing with yourself, it could make for awkwardness and possibly end badly).

Herewith, then; the Professor’s Questions and IMHO…

  1. … on the value of working with different countries, cultures, and for an extended period of time.

I’d say the value of this as part of one’s immediate postgraduate curriculum is integral to success in the field; especially in art and experience design.

First and foremost; until one has actually done design work in the field, seen one’s work built or installed and participated in the practical process, one’s work is likely to be myopically academic.

No matter where the work is done; once you’ve seen the design in physical dimension, seen how people interact with or pass through (or past) it, seen the effect of rain, wind, snow, dust, children…the physics of physicality. Only then does one have a true sense of how the thing will manifest in reality.

So, field work is essential to one’s professional development.

International field work takes things quite a bit further.

  • It offers the opportunity to fully appreciate one’s effect on other people.
  • If offers the opportunity to be aware of how one is communicating; to be more clear about choice of words, tone of voice, manner of collaboration, leadership across cultures, teamwork in that same context.
  • It can truly hone listening skills.
  • It will contribute to one’s objectivity. Other cultures don’t always react or respond to color, light, sound, physical storytelling, music or any sort of input or stimulus in the same way as do Westerners, for instance.

So, Looking and Listening are the first things to do a lot of when parachuting into another culture.

Remember: what you have from being educated at <insert name of amazing design school or university> or have been trained at <insert name of coveted design company or theme park brand> still, are simply Tools and Philosophies.

You don’t have experience. To gain experience, one must work in the field. So, go.

And when you get there, pay attention. Even experienced professionals make the mistake of thinking their position or previous experience in other companies or contexts qualifies them to make judgements and give immediate direction. It does not. Get to know the culture and the people who live that culture before depending entirely on previous experience. Context is everything.

2) Is it fun?

  • Yes.
  • If you embrace hard work, walking on a highwire, making mistakes, copping to those mistakes and learning from them.
  • Being open to learning from other cultures begets being embraced by the people of said cultures, and that offers fantastic opportunities for one’s own breadth of experience, perspective and worldview.

3) Is it hard?

  • Yes.
  • One must be on one’s toes.
  • It can get quite lonely.
  • A lot of places can be deceptively welcoming; seem western but are not. This can lead to trouble.
  • Assume nothing.
  • Personal Note: Obviously, Dubai and the UAE “look” and feel western-ish while we all know they are not. It is a muslim-based society; a benevolent monarchy. One knows to respect the culture or suffer severe repercussions: Get drunk and go to jail. On the other hand, Australia looks and feels “just like the states.” It isn’t. I spent a year there and had a great time; but was caught up short more than once in assuming things to which I would never have given a second thought in the US; causing great-though-inadvertent-offense. Lessons learned the hard way.
  • Nuance is Key.
  • Assume nothing.
  • Ask everything.

4) How are you different or better from having had the opportunity to work across cultures?

  • Far more patient.
  • Far more observant of the people around me.
  • Far more aware of the inordinate Privilege that White Westerners enjoy and share just from the color of our skin and the passport we carry.
  • This Privilege is immense. Do not forget that.
  • …And be careful of taking advantage of it.
  • I listen more intently and with acuity. When working with people whose native language is not English, it is critical to listen for what is actually being said beyond the words that are being used. Even the most adept English-speaker can misuse a word and change the entire message s/he is attempting to deliver. This is especially crucial in email.
  • To that, the appreciation of working with people of myriad other cultures who use English as the common denominator, professionally. We all should appreciate that: when others apologize for their “poor English,” that’s the opportunity to thank them for speaking English at all. I doubt many of us would fare particularly well were we to be made to conduct business in Farsi or Arabic or Turkish or Chinese…
  • I slow down and pay attention. Sometimes I have to catch myself; slow my pace from Western City Dweller to wherever I now am.

So, especially, I appreciate the freedom of movement I have as a Western White Guy, and I keep that at the forefront of my mind as I move through any culture or context, whether it be professional, recreational or just shopping for groceries.

5) What unique challenges are there?

  • Racism. There are many cultures on this planet that view anyone not of their race as Less. Be careful of falling into that trap. The simple fact that a person is smaller, has browner skin, is exceedingly polite and deferential to you and speaks poor English does not mean that person is less intelligent than you. Sometimes, actually, when it may seem that way, that person may be playing a “role” in order to survive in a given society. Watch for and see through that. Often, they are smarter… The quality of work, collaboration and cooperation realized will be significantly higher than otherwise.
  • Just treat everyone as equal. Remember, but for the geographical randomness of where you were born, that bathroom attendant, tea boy, car washer could be you.
  • Also watch for being the victim or target of racism. Though your national hosts may treat you well, it isn’t always because you are liked. It could be simply that you have something that is wanted. Actual friendship takes a lot longer in most cultures than it does in Los Angeles. Just sayin’. Give it time before you trust it as Friendship.
  • Assumption. Everywhere and in Everything. Yours and Theirs. Daily, hourly, moment-to-moment. Watch out for it. It will cut you!

6) How has it been on your family?

  • What family?
  • I can’t speak to that, as I have no family. I can say that it is extremely tough on any relationship and, while I know a few couples who have managed to work together or move families from country to country (arguably good for the kids to grow up, multiculturally), most people I know spend quite a significant time away from family, 70 – 80% of the time or more.
  • If family is a priority; that should be kept in mind when seeking or accepting a gig, project or full-time employment. If you are told that there is a lot of travel involved; that will mean there is a LOT of travel involved.

So, them’s my responses and ancillary thoughts on today’s topic. Field work is imperative. Foreign field work can make one a better artist and a better person. I say seek it out. Get out there and test your design ideas along with your preconceptions about Life.

Learn, Do, Grow.



“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

5 thoughts on “Field Work: Designing Experience for an International Audience

  1. Another concise and cogent essay. It occurs to me, seeing you distill the kernel of your own experience (small “e”) in clear, accessible form, you have become a sage. Take it easy; that’s not a bad thing. I do not believe we have enough sages, so you have obviously come along at a propitious moment in time.

    No, sir. Do not poo poo me on this matter. I will not be dissuaded.

    You know, of course, as I do, your ‘humble opinions’ are more than good, sound advice to those with aspirations to Design Experience. These tools and perceptions you’ve articulated are applicable to anyone who is awake. (I recognize this one criterion factors out a significant percentage of the world population, but that falls squarely into the category of Not My Problem.) It is often thus with the expressed thoughts of sages. QED.

    Don’t let the pressure of sagedom slow your hand, Sumanitu Taka Ska. After all, it’s only MHO.

    • Thank you, Doctor Erickson; I am humbled by your acknowledgement and praise. I embrace this “sage” thing…as long as nobody lights me on fire and tries to cleanse a space with the smoke…!


  2. Kile: Your comment that countries that LOOK Western or more closely, American, are not so at their core: This is priceless intel as the world continues to develop to the American ethic. Cultures are selective in what they adopt from others. Canada is quite distinct from us in its orientation, values, and direction — looks like, but isn’t, us. Great counsel. Regards, Margaret King

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