With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, meet Sciencewerk, a "micro" design studio based in Surabaya, Indonesia.
When we set out to do this series, we expected to learn about design communities that do or see things differently than we do in the West. To understand how their different cultures, processes, environments or influences compare to our own. And we have. But it's equally enlightening when we see our similarities. This was the case while talking with Sciencewerk.
Here we talk with Danis Sie, Sciencewerk founder and design director, about the misconceived value of design in their country, the relatable designer hiring gap and how to stand out in the "jungle" that is Indonesia.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Sciencewerk and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
At first, I was working overseas for some years. I felt stuck in the rat race and took a few month’s break to finally go back to my hometown in Surabaya.
I founded the studio in 2011 in hope of contributing something to our local design and art scene. It’s a compact studio mainly made up of two divisions, design and illustration. Our Surabaya studio is run by me and Evelina Kristanti. Design is lead by Natasha Ng, and illustration by Yosephine Azalia and Steven Renaldo. Our partners Devina Sugono and Erin Harsono, who are based in Jakarta, lead events, copywriting, interior, content and production.
A glimpse into the Sciencewerk office
Can you tell us more about your design and art scene? I read that design is relatively young in Indonesia. Are there many designers and independent studios like yours, and do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
There is a design organization based in Indonesia, ADGI (Asosiasi Desain Grafis Indonesia). There is also the government-based organization BEKRAF that was established in 2015 to focus on the Indonesian creative economy. Some creative spaces exist, mostly in Jakarta, that host design-related events such as Dia Lo Gue.
We are a new player in the industry. What I can see is that design business is still heavily-centered in Jakarta, but independent studios outside Jakarta are starting to grow as the demand rises in other cities such as Surabaya (here), Bandung, Malang, Jogjakarta, Bali, etc.
Part of Sciencewerk's identity for Out of The Blue!, a bistro in west Surabaya
Indonesia is a diverse blend of Arabic, Chinese, Malay and European influences. How is this reflected in the design coming out of Indonesia today? Aside from work for clients that follows a brief, do you notice a specific design aesthetic or identity?
I think we are all still struggling to define what Indonesian Design is in the context of graphic design. Most design work here is heavily influenced by other countries and cultures. We have more than 300 local cultures that make it even more complex and difficult to define. Each Indonesian designer is also influenced by their individual experience be it their culture, heritage or where they studied design. Maybe that diversity is part of our identity.
"Nowadays, most companies set expectations very high while new graduates overestimate what their skills are worth."
What are the job opportunities available for designers in Indonesia right now?
The demand is always for the Jack of all Trades designer, of course. Illustration, new media and digital designers are on the rise. The Indonesian market is very big. Creative-based businesses are appearing and there are actually many opportunities for anyone who dares go beyond their comfort zone.
What I find funny here is that there are thousands of design graduates every year, but friends from agencies and studios are having a hard time finding the right candidates. There might be many factors like design skill, taste and resumes involved but in my observation, there is one underlying problem. Nowadays, most companies set expectations very high while new graduates overestimate what their skills are worth. It’s good to be confident, but we must regularly do a reality check by thinking outward, not inward.
Aside from the mismatched expectations, what would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Design value. In Surabaya, some people are still thinking that design is free, so they just pay for the print and they get free design. This practice is rather toxic, undervaluing the design industry especially for next-generation Indonesian designers. So today, we try to educate our clients and people about how design can bring value and profit to their business. Every time we meet a potential client, we still have to explain what we do in the simplest way.
Ningyo the Fishman, a proposed concept for a local rice wine product.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you work with many clients outside of Indonesia or mostly local clients? And do businesses in Indonesia seek to work with local studios?
At the moment, the majority of our clients are local clients. The international ones are those that are expanding their business to Indonesia. Businesses here are starting to consider working with studios regionally. But with the internet, they can work with anyone in other cities too.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
It’s good but still a lot less efficient than personal recommendations and networking. What works best for us is still recommendations.
Identity work for Threelogy, a coffee shop in Surabaya
I read that graphic design in Indonesia originated with politics and propaganda. Do you believe design still has the power to influence the political or social landscape in Indonesia today? For example, I know Indonesia has experienced devastating natural disasters this year. Can design play any part in helping or recovering from issues like this?
Of course graphic design has the power to influence. It subconsciously influences people to act, to buy or to do something. It can solve problems or add problems indirectly.
In the context of political issues in Indonesia, graphic design can add more problems. For example, when creatives are paid to spread political propaganda not knowing whether it’s a fact or a hoax, promoting a candidate that may be a corrupt leader. And so much more. In the context of social issues, I think graphic design is still far away from really helping. It may help but indirectly through awareness.
"Indonesia is like a jungle. There are so many animals and you just need to be a different kind of animal in the jungle."
What does good design mean to you at Sciencewerk?
Good design makes people happy, think, remember and act.
Good design is relative. Here we can’t force certain principles of good design on all clients and projects. The design industry in Indonesia is like a jungle. Sometimes you will meet someone who appreciates good design, but many others don’t. There are so many animals and you just need to be a different kind of animal in the jungle. This will attract a flock of animals who understand your uniqueness.
"The Last Supper"
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from Indonesia that everyone who might be not familiar with the Indonesia design community should know?
Last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with Indonesia’s design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Thank you for your time and honesty, Danis. It's fascinating to see that some of the same issues we struggle with here in the States (the disconnect between companies and designers, for example) are present in other countries as well. We learned a lot talking with you and look forward to seeing how design evolves in Indonesia.
Friends, check out the inspiration Danis shared with us here, and be sure to visit Sciencewerk's site to see what they're doing in Surabaya and beyond.