How China has given me a fresh perspective on being a creative

lisaWhen designer Lisa Hastings took a role in China with Cowan, it not only opened her eyes to a fascinating culture but gave her a new perspective on her job. In a posting that first appeared on LinkedIn, Lisa urges others to grab opportunities when they arise 

It is said that travel makes you grow as an individual. But I didn’t come to Shanghai to travel, I came to work. To immerse myself in Chinese culture and its lifestyle as design director for Cowan, for a few months – or potentially longer – to see how China rolls.

It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

Five years ago I moved from London to Sydney, and recently decided to join Cowan Shanghai. I must admit that I initially bit off more than I could chew, or more than I was prepared for culture-wise. But the Cowan team are fantastic, as are the work challenges and the belief of the agency in the power of branding. The vision is clear and one I share.

I had been working with China account teams as creative director at Vibe for a while, based in Sydney, but nothing can prepare you for coming here, and experiencing Chinese culture first hand.

My approach in general is one of ‘you never know until you try’, which is the real purpose of this piece. I want to highlight the value of change for any creative professional and the need to satisfy our ever-curious nature, even if it’s not in such a dramatic way as my own.

So what have been the benefits of moving to Shanghai?

By throwing myself in at the deep end I’ve grown both personally and professionally. I’ve seen a side of China I never saw when designing for the Asian market in Australia. It’s an experience you simply can’t get from your hotel room or on a business trip.

By immersing yourself in the day to day, you can see, hear and feel what is consuming people’s lives.

Getting to know a place intimately – by living it – creates a whole new take on questions I have to answer as a designer such as ‘how do I sell a frozen packaged meal?’ This also goes for the culture at work – building relationships at work in particular. Lunch is a big deal. Desks are empty bang on midday and you can hear a pin drop in the studio as people vacate their desks en masse. People work later, but an essential part of the day is at least an hour for lunch, often more.

Colleagues spend time looking at their iPhones, or checking media, but it’s done in ‘packs’. Understanding this type of behaviour means you re-address the question, ‘how does the brand I’m working on reach out to people?’

My work as a designer in a new market such as China has provided a valuable contrast, and a given a fresh perspective, on my work. It sharpens your awareness. I’m a creative, I’m curious and always in sponge mode, watching and absorbing the surroundings. It has rebooted who I am.

I have assured myself from this that I like directing and developing people to take them to the next level. Working more with strategy, hands-on creative, and working with clients and building relationships is important to me going forward. Presenting great solutions that evoke a smile or a ‘wow’ is a feeling I thrive on.

I enjoy learning about the team and figuring out how to get the best out of them. It’s not just about what looks good on paper, I live for the day my designers say ‘because of you I didn’t give up’.

It has reshaped how I learn. I wasn’t sure I could do this to begin with, but, day by day, I’m learning, and often not in the ways I anticipated. Each day leads to something new. For a gut instinct decision-maker, this is new territory. It has made me rethink how I build relationships with my clients as well as colleagues.

So that’s my journey so far.

My advice to others is clear: if an opportunity comes along and it’s beyond your safety level, beyond your comfort zone, consider it. I’m not saying jump without thinking, but think seriously about ‘what do I have to lose’?

It’s important to seek new experiences, and that doesn’t necessarily mean uprooting to a new country. New experiences can appear unremarkable – but it’s what is new to you that counts.

If it’s simply going to a new cafe instead of your standard Starbucks, or visiting a new neighbourhood, just do it because that, to coin a phrase, is when magic can happen.

It’s important to keep your eyes open. Sometimes we get so caught up in everyday life that we forget to see what’s new and in front of us. I had grown tired of Sydney but I’m sure my experience in China will mean that I’ll return to Sydney at some point and rediscover the city. You sometimes need to step away in order to rediscover.

Never feel stuck. Use stepping stones, be proactive. One call, one connection, attend a workshop and learn about something you’ve never done before. Try, or you’ll never know. You don’t work in banking for the very reason that it would bore you, so don’t let design become that way.

Never close off an opportunity.  If, for whatever reason, something isn’t right now then it’s ok. But don’t sever ties and never burn bridges. Be up front and honest and who knows, options will emerge further down the line.

Don’t settle for the soft, easy and comfortable option. Test your mettle, have no regrets!

Finally, don’t listen too much to the views of other people. Test by experiencing, not through the opinions and judgements of others. We are all different. I’ve taken roles my peers suggested not to. What’s right for one person is not the answer for another. Ultimately, do what is right for you.

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