• Transform magazine
  • July 01, 2022


Five minutes with Kirsten Johnston


Kirsten Johnston, CEO of global branding agency JWDK, shares with Transform magazine her experience of moving firms to China and adapting to the difference in brand design there, the challenges she encountered in cross-cultural design management and what the future of placemaking in urban China looks like.

What prompted you to make the decision to move your design firm to China? Have you encountered similar obstacles being a female CEO there as you did in the UK?

After running my agency in London for 12 years, I was ready to shift into a different gear. London has a very mature design market (which is why we all love it), but it’s also very hard to scale your agency or grab many high-impact projects. Having worked in Hong Kong early in my career, I was very aware of China’s phenomenal growth over the last 20 years. Emerging from this boom came an ever-increasing need for high-quality branding and creative services. So by the end of 2014, I merged my UK firm, JohnstonWorks, with an agency in Shanghai called DK & Partners and JWDK was born with offices in Shanghai, London and Hong Kong. I have not experienced any obstacles being a female CEO neither in the UK or in China (or maybe I have not let any obstacles get in my way!).

What sets brand design in China apart from design youve experienced in the UK?

On the agency side, the process of design is virtually the same albeit done in different languages and with different cultural nuances. Yet on the client-side, there’s a dramatic difference. When we work with large Chinese firms or state-owned companies, their understanding of the ‘value of design’ is extremely variable. Brand design is often still seen as an executional process than a strategic game-changer, but this is evolving rapidly. Even in these past six years of working in China, our clients have become way savvier at understanding branding, and how to tell a unique brand story.

 What have been the greatest challenges of cross-cultural design management in terms of working with local and international staff? How have you dealt with these challenges? The knowledge and cultural distance between local and international staff are not so great these days although some traditions still apply in Chinese offices. As the boss, I’m only referred to as ‘laoban' (meaning boss), which took me quite some time to get used to. Midday cat-naps are also popular for clearing the head. At JWDK, operating in Mandarin and English can sometimes be challenging but not as difficult as you may expect. Our staff is bilingual to some degree and we encourage our employees to hone their second languages at all times through shared learning. Overall, there are very few challenges and way more benefits from a mixed cultural team. It’s quite an enriching environment to be working in!

 How does China’s heritage and culture influence its design process and style? Today we are seeing a resurgence in authentic Chinese cultural styles and taste. The superficial days of copying everything from the West are well and truly over as the younger generation of Chinese seek to discover and embrace their own unique heritage. Ancient habits such as tea drinking and Chinese-born brands are overtaking previous demands. What’s nice is that we are seeing a new breed of design emerge too that is filled with Chinese meaning and symbolism yet looks modern and super-cool too. This trend is called guo chao.

 What do you think the future of placemaking is in urban China? Due to the rapid urbanisation of China’s mega-cities, I see no end to property development or place regeneration in China. The government now tightly controls property development and seeks to bring a higher quality of life to its citizens which means no more endless shopping malls — yay! With this shift, we do see a lot of brand and marketing power being injected into places and destination design. All things from workplaces, retail centres to cultural destinations are keen to tell a new brand story that will attract the young cash-rich and tech-savvy consumer. Along with this, comes placemaking concepts and place activation ideas. Developers are looking for sustainable footfall and placemaking provides this.

What is the best example of design in China youve come across in recent years? In recent years, I have been super impressed with the advancement of digital design in China which impacts almost every part of your life here. Digital apps such as WeChat, Alipay and Taobao have all had a transformative effect you may never see in the West. Every aspect of your life in China including banking, dining, shopping and travel is digitised, frictionless and cheap to use. The Chinese app Trip.com is one of my favourite apps for domestic and international travel. It takes me about three minutes to search and book a flight or train ticket and has helpful features for seat allocations, meal options etc. The UX design is faultless.