Southeast Asian Design

Posted by on Jan 7, 2012 in Design

Anyone who has been away from home to spend time in a foreign land for a period of time understands how difficult it is to hold on to your true values while in travel mode. All the unfamiliar sights and smells put you into some sort of unintelligent daze, and your brain processes are comparable to that of a caveman/woman. Me eat now, me sleep now etc etc. It could just be the permanent hangover that causes the brain fog – but whatever the reason, in this ‘state’ time doesn’t really exist. You forget what day of the week it is or the fact that tomorrow is actually Christmas. You feel indifferent to regularly bothersome things (that aren’t ridiculously long bus rides on mountainous terrain, these will never be ok with me!), and at some point, you’ll probably note that you should remember to pick up your washed clothes from your guesthouse before leaving.

I’m currently travelling in Southeast Asia, and I came here with all intention of being dazzled by exciting design and noting the differences between regions and countries. I wanted to take lots of ‘good’ photos, despite my not even owning an SLR camera, and I wanted to show you all how wonderful design is because it is such a large part of our lives. The ways in which we respond to design help to shape and alter our cultures, customs and beliefs, and what better way to understand it than see it up close!

But for some reason, and I might have known that this was going to happen, I lost focus. I care so much about this, and yet I barely took a photo of anything design related in the first 3 weeks I was here. I feel that maybe I’ve been a little uninspired because I imagined the Graphic Design in Southeast Asia would be very different from design at home, but it’s really not all that different. Believe it or not, they are also sometimes guilty of using hideously overused fonts here such as Papyrus. No!

Despite my crappy levels of motivation, I managed to take note of a few things that I have found interesting thus far. This is not restricted to Graphic Design, but relates to design in a more general sense. In Vietnam and Laos, the two countries I have spent the most time in up to this point, I was completely impressed by some of their design systems, and completely disappointed by others. So I thought I’d share my opinion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design in these two countries, based on what I’ve seen. I will try to cover Thailand and Cambodia in a later post.

‘Good’ Design in Southeast Asia:

Sleeper Busses

Sleeper Bus

I really don’t know what other parts of the world have sleeper busses quite like this, and forgive my ignorance if it is a common thing around the world, I haven’t travelled that much so it was certainly a new experience for me. They are easily the best way to travel from point A to point B (when A and B are a few hundred kilometres apart) in both countries if you are on a tight budget. Other options are sleeper trains, which are more comfortable, but quite a lot more expensive. The best part is that you are saving on a night of accommodation, and if you pop a valium or sleeping pill, you’re good to go. I would seriously recommend this if you have trouble sleeping in a moving vehicle, and let’s be honest, these roads aren’t the best. What’s better than arriving at your destination with a full day ahead for you to explore or do whatever takes your fancy? Australia seriously needs to consider this!

Slowing Down

In Southeast Asia, it’s normal to have to wait a really long time for your meal, your change, your chosen mode of transport, and just everything! At first, it’s the most frustrating and horrible thing in the world, but eventually you realise that the issue is not the person or broken down bus that has been making you wait 2 hours, but it might just be you. In western society, we live such rushed, fast paced lives. We power walk to get to our destination, get cranky at traffic lights on the way to work, and hold intense frustration in our chests when our partner is taking too long to get ready for something. DRY YOUR HAIR ALREADY, DAMNIT! In Southeast Asia, things work much slower. If you spend time here, you have to embrace true patience, and when you do, a wonderful calm sensation blankets your body and your tight chest is freed of its shackles. Sometimes it’s not as easy as other times, especially when your bus driver stops for the tenth time to pick up and drop off suspicious boxes, have a chat, or fill the bus with chickens without a word to you about what’s going on. But when you truly embrace the slower pace you realise how silly it is that we ‘farangs’ live our lives so rushed.

Our bus driver taking the tire off our broken down bus

The incredible view I was able to take in while waiting for our bus to be fixed

Timed Traffic Lights

In Vietnam, there are literally NO road rules. The road is a free-for-all with death lurking around every corner. Everyone scrambles from all areas to the middle of the intersection and then lets each other pass with some unspoken understanding. There are many more motorbikes than there are cars or any other type of vehicle and most families own at least one motorbike. In a country with a population of 87million, that’s a lot of motorbikes. The road is absolutely crazy and there are sadly many road accidents resulting in death every year. I was unlucky enough to see the result of one of these accidents on a bus trip along the coast. The sight was not pretty. Despite this and the lack of road rules, the Vietnamese have come up with an ingenious traffic light system (not that anyone really pays much attention to it). They have timed traffic lights at some major intersections. It’s such a simple idea and yet makes so much sense. You know exactly how much time you have left before the light is going to change from red to green, or green to red. None of this orange bullshit. Ingenious.

Traffic in Hanoi

Energy Conserving Escalators

Although I couldn’t find much information about energy saving escalators online, I would imagine they are most likely being installed in a lot of developing countries as an alternative to a traditional escalator. I saw one for the first time in a fresh developed shopping centre in Vientiane, Laos. Basically, it just goes really slow until someone steps near it, and then speeds up to take you up or down. I suppose it uses a motion censor to detect the person nearby. I thought they were great!

‘Bad’ Design in Southeast Asia


An Asian style bathroom complete with shower above toilet

Within 5 weeks of being in Asia, I used a shower that was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a curtain or glass wall only once. This is because most bathrooms are basically a shower room in themselves. There is usually a drain somewhere on the complete opposite side of the room to where the shower has been placed, and somewhere in the middle of this is usually the toilet. This design just doesn’t make any sense to me, because it just means there are more tiles to clean and more mildew and mould to get out of the tile cracks. It also means the toilet is usually soaked after someone has used the shower, and you can’t put your dry clothes or towel anywhere near the floor or else they will also get wet. There must be a logical reason for this layout, but I just can’t think what it could be.

Squat toilets and the toilet process in general

A squat toilet at a rest stop

Along the same vein as the previous one, squat toilets are quite silly in my opinion. I heard once that it’s better for women to wee squatting, because of the position our bladders are in inside our body. I’d say it’s probably true, but have you ever heard of anyone having issues because they wee’d sitting down? No. So I guess I don’t see the point in squat toilets. They are uncomfortable, awkward, and because of the fact that most bathrooms are covered in water, you rarely emerge without the bottoms of your pants or skirt being wet. Most ‘bathrooms’ that have a squat toilet include a large tub of water (often with a dripping or running tap making it overflow which makes me cringe). Somewhere in this tub will be a floating scoop, which you use to take some water to pour into the squatter, and all over the seat if your shoes have muddied the place up. This flushes down your stuff ready for the next person. Hmm.

In the event that you are are able to use a sit down toilet, things still aren’t quite so easy. When you are finished your business, you have to use a little hand held sprayer to wash your parts (which sometimes soaks the seat if you’re as uncoordinated as me), because most of the plumbing in Southeast Asia has not been designed to take toilet paper. On the rare occasion that you are provided with a roll of toilet paper, you are supposed to wipe yourself and then put the paper in a waste bin. I’d hate to be the cleaner.

Stopping short of having a spoiled westerner whinge, I guess it isn’t all that bad, and you adapt easily enough. I just can’t wait until using the toilet is once again a simple task!

Packaging and Overpackaging

My freshly washed clothes, returned to me in the usual perfectly folded and plastic wrapped style

So many things seem to be covered in too much packaging in Southeast Asia. You have to pull wrapper after wrapper off sweets and not once have I ever seen any kind of sustainable packaging. In the markets, people seem to absolutely love tiny plastic bags. Everything goes in one! From a pencil that you’ve bought, to rows and rows of fried savoury snacks for purchase. Plastic plastic plastic. Admittedly, these bags have come in handy for my disposal of all the packaging I have to take off everything I buy, and I was once very grateful to have one when I came down with a sudden bout of nausea due to travellers diarrhoea and had to have a cheeky vom in my hotel room. They even use little plastic bags to put leftover street food in when it’s time to go home, and I have even seen them being used for soups and other liquids! I would say this one is a pretty serious design problem.

Overpackaged Mentos

That’s about all so far. Bare in mind that the above is just my own opinion of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. Some people may strongly disagree. I’d be interested to hear your own opinions and experiences of Southeast Asian design.

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