George Town's DNA is its People

George Town’s balancing act between progress and preservation hinges on creating a unique identity for the city. But how do you capture the DNA of a city and turn it into a tangible, recognisable concept? This was the question communication designer Sali Sasaki asked eight young designers who attended her Design DNA workshop during the George Town Festival.

Sali Sasaki arrives where we had arranged to meet, beams at me and then frowns ever so slightly at the decor around us.

“I think I much prefer this place in its old location – it had a much cosier ambience and a lot more character,” she muses. And then she proceeds to rattle off a list of her favourite cafes, restaurants, heritage inns, nooks and crannies in George Town that would put the average Lonely Planet-toting visitor to shame.

As it turns out, Sasaki is a regular visitor to George Town and has spent endless hours trawling through the streets, lanes and alleyways in search of inspiration for her work as a communication designer, researcher and writer specialising in cities and cultural development. In the recent past, Sasaki also managed Unesco’s Creative Cities project, an international network of cities from over 15 different countries.

Sasaki has developed several cultural projects including the Design DNA Workshop for the International Design Center in Nagoya, and Cities x Design, a trans-media publication on the role of design in urban environments.

“Communication design refers to anything visual that communicates design, such as graphic design, print, broadcast and online advertising, illustrations and branding,” says Sasaki. “It is a very broad discipline which can be largely divided into two parts – print design which is still surviving and has its own relevance, and of course digital design which is taking the front seat in communicating ideas to people.

“I am interested in every type of design there is out there. I’m open to looking at everything from architecture to textiles, buildings to even souvenirs. But, as it turns out, I get inspired by everyday life more than anything else. I don’t read design magazines; I observe life, and looking at street life triggers more ideas for me.”

In 2008, Design DNA was born out of this insatiable quest for ideas, when Sasaki was working at the International Design Center in Nagoya.

“We decided to develop a workshop that dealt with local identity and local culture and how each place has a DNA that can be interpreted by designers. is interpretation can then be turned into products or ideas, based on the existing identity of the place.”

Sasaki has taken the Design DNA workshop around the world, and shares with design students how they can go about capturing the DNA of an individual city.

“To me, the best way to go about this is to have a keen eye for the day-to-day life around you. Some cities can be defined by their public spaces, other cities by their transportation system. For example, look at the differences between the Tube in London, the Paris Metro and the New York subway. They are all train systems, yes, but each is so distinct and is now synonymous with the city it is in.”

I tell Sasaki that from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, KL was terrorised by legions of minibuses, and you could identify the area the bus serviced according to the colour it was painted.Then, in the 1990s, they were all dyed the same lurid Day-Glo pink, which did nothing to tame the buses and, if anything, gave them more verve to tear up and down the streets.

Her laughter peals through the cafe as she nods her head. “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. If the minibus still existed, it would very much be a part of KL’s DNA.”

Sali Sasaki.

I ask her what she feels makes up George Town’s DNA.

Local appreciation for culture is not just about archiving it into museums and cultural shows; you have to live your culture every day.

“I think George Town’s DNA is its people. It’s not about its buildings or art forms – its people form the cultural fabric of the city, which then presents a rather interesting challenge. It is easy enough to preserve buildings within a city if you really want to; maintaining people and sustaining life is far more difficult.

“One way of maintaining that balance is if the people who live in George Town continue in their local culture, such as the choices they make for what they eat and where they live, and continue in their own traditions. Local appreciation for culture is not just about archiving it into museums and cultural shows; you have to live your culture every day.”

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