As a testament to the growing strength and international awareness of the design work coming from the Australian design industry and following the success of a recent venture into China, Blue Sky Creative is now looking to establish an office in Hong Kong. The rest of the world is beginning to see a key role for Australian firms and designers.

The Sydney-based industrial design studio operating since 1995, has recently opened a Melbourne office and aims to replicate the ‘essence’ of the company there and in Hong Kong.

Doug Buckle, design manager of the Melbourne studio faces the challenges of transferring the culture and process to the new Melbourne office.

Mark Armstrong, managing director of Blue Sky Creative, identifies a strong internal company culture as one of the key ingredients required for successful expansion.

Henri Spaile, associate director, believes the culture is created by open collaboration and collective experience of the team. The other key factor in developing a corporate culture is process.

The use of a multi-disciplined approach to design problem solving creates an environment where industrial designers are working with ergonomists, psychologists and other specialists specific to the project needs.

The ‘essence’ of Blue Sky Creative, as Armstrong calls it, is now being transferred to satellite offices in Melbourne and Hong Kong as the company expands.

The office planned for Hong Kong, will be part of a collaboration with UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) as well as private industry. 

“We are in the early stages of discussion with our prospective partners. So far we will have teams of people each from a different field yet with a shared vision,” Armstrong suggests.

“There is clearly a need for closer collaboration between the academic world and private industry in the field of design. Educators seek to expose students to real life industrial situations and from the other side industry needs access to research based thinking that universities can provide.

“We have to have a good communication with our Hong Kong partners so that we can create a vehicle that will satisfy the individual needs of each group and contribute to an expansion of the design scene in Hong Kong.”

Armstrong explains that the last link in this collaboration between the two universities and Blue Sky Creative comes from a corporate partner.

“We will have the support of a large corporation that has its head office in Hong Kong and wants to invest in an innovation centre. It means we will have seasoned professionals from Blue Sky working on an expatriate basis in Hong Kong. We’ll then have a flow of the brightest young students from UTS coming through to do their work experience.

“The benefits of a joint venture like this are clear to all the parties involved. Rather than relying only on local Australian industry for work experience, UTS students will be immediately exposed to global projects and international experience.”

Armstrong believes Australian design has much to gain from the project.

“The students will come back to Australia having worked in Hong Kong for large firms. The advantage for the Hong Kong Polytechnic University is the same.  They will be able to bring their students to an international centre working on global projects.

"This global approach to design, that only comes through working with and seeing the decision making process of these large companies, will prove invaluable for those students.

"It will open their eyes to the process of how a product can become an international success and the multitude of factors involved.

“The other benefit it will bring is to expand the Hong Kong design scene which is not as big as you may think. The objective is to draw international clients to Hong Kong from Europe and the US. In this way the local Hong Kong design scene will not have to compete for business with a student sponsored design centre.”

According to Armstrong, Blue Sky Creative plans to build a marketing strategy that attracts US and European clients, with the strategic benefit for these clients being the close access the design centre has with factories in China. The problems of long development lead times and associated time to market will be dramatically improved.

“For Blue Sky it means we will have greater access to research groups undertaking inspirational projects leading to improvements in design quality and design process. The results of research projects will then be published and the students can receive recognition for their thinking.”

The Blue Sky plan is to transfer two or three staff members from the Sydney office and then, as in Melbourne, employ local Hong Kong designers: “Certainly employing locally is a good thing, it’s good to have local knowledge, it helps to build a business more quickly,” Armstrong says.

“In addition to local input we will have a couple of people from the Sydney office who understand our culture and can instil that culture in our Hong Kong office.”

Transferring the culture

The challenge small businesses face when expanding to other locations is the ability to transfer the values and processes from one location to another.

“You’d think there couldn’t possibly be a culture in a design studio as small as ours but there is, and it has developed over a long period of time,” suggests Armstrong.

“I think it is a close understanding of process and quality and how we work that binds us together.”

The team size is also important. There are twelve in the Sydney office and this size enables each individual to see first hand the contribution he or she makes to the firms performance. This pod of designers business model is then reproduced to other locations where the same culture and process can be developed.

“The idea is not new, large corporations often use the strategy of sending expatriates to remote locations to be the founders of a new enterprise and the carriers of corporate culture.”

Doug Buckle, design manager for Melbourne has spent many years in the Sydney office and now takes responsibility to create a similar culture in Melbourne.

“The culture is very much a team based approach. Each of the designers in the office brings different skills and a different headspace to the project. The fact that we each come to a design in a different way makes us a strong team and means a design problem gets looked at from many sides.

“As a close-knit team we are all aware of each other’s strengths and are continually drawing on each person’s ability to help solve a problem or to take a project to the next level.

'This communication between the members creates a strong feeling that each has something to contribute, while also accelerating the learning process.”

The move to Melbourne

While Blue Sky Creative has three large clients in Melbourne most of the design work for them has been done in Sydney. A Melbourne office has now been established and senior designer Andrew Louey will soon be joined by Buckle.

“We are used to working remotely,” Armstrong says. “With our studio in China we were on ‘rotation’, which made it incredibly difficult to manage. No one could really live there for more than eight weeks because the cultural difference were too great.”

Henri Spaile explains that the studio in China was set up to service one client whereas the studio in Sydney is a hub that services many clients. The studio in China was also located within the client’s office.

“If you think about the design landscape here in Australia, you have to have representation in more than one location.”

“We have quite a few clients with design activities in several states, and therefore it’s a great asset to now have a studio in Melbourne. Clients like to know that if they appoint Blue Sky they’ll have someone on the spot,” says Armstrong.

“We already have a group of clients in Melbourne which gives us a good financial base. You need adequate turnover to reinvest in equipment and make sure the facilities are the best they can be.

“When you analyse the design market, you have to gauge what it can bear, what our competitors are thinking. It is a process of careful business management.

“I hope it will be good for the Melbourne design scene, and not seen as a negative from our competitors’ side. If the design community is prospering and expanding then this is good for all of us.” 

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