Taking Your Design International – 12 for 12 Audio Podcast Episode 09

3D image of a globe representing design international
3D image of a globe representing design international

If you’re not prepared for an alternate cultural context when taking your design international, you may hit a few bumps on the road.

We caught up with Chris Dorn, President of Idea International, while he was on a recent trip back to the United States. For our podcast this month, he describes life and the exhibit business as it exists beyond the shores of the U.S.A.

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Episode Guide

[00:00 – 01:47] Introduction

Host: Adam Voss

[01:48 – 05:31] First Noticeable Challenges and Management Differences

Guest: Chris Dorn, Idea International
Host: Adam Voss

[05:32 – 07:50] Cultural/Venue Protocol and Materials

Guest: Chris Dorn, Idea International
Host: Adam Voss

[07:51 – 10:45] Digitalization on the Trade Show Floor

Guest: Chris Dorn, Idea International
Host: Adam Voss

[10:46 – 11:40] Closing Thoughts

Host: Adam Voss

Want to know more?

Here are some links related to the research and discussion:

Echelon Blog: Knowing your Venue

Echelon Podcast Episode 3 – Proxemics: The Art of Being Close Enough


Adam Voss

Adam Voss is a show host, marketing consultant and frontman for Chicago-based band, The Precious Moments. A product of the famed Second City Conservatory, past emceeing credits include: Air Guitar USA, Chicago Blues & Bluegrass Fest, SXSW and Pitchfork showcases, The Secret Society Variety Show and countless weddings, corporate events and private parties. Adam has worked as a marketing manager for several global brands including Accenture, CenturyLink and Equity Residential Properties. He currently resides in Palm Springs, CA with his wife and two kids.

Learn more at www.adamvoss.com.

Chris Dorn

Chris Dorn is the President of Idea International. Chris has 17 years of international exhibition project management experience with companies in the US and around the world.

The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down

Show Transcript


(Adam Voss) Truly, my all time favorite film, hands down is Sophia Coppola’s masterpiece, Lost In Translation. Now there’s a few obvious reasons for this. First, of course, is Bill Murray, the world’s all time best and funniest comic leading man. Second is the world premier of the beautiful and talented ingénue, Ms. Scarlet Johansen. If you’re listening, Scarlet, call me. And the third less obvious reason I love this film is the magical city of Tokyo, Japan, the other leading lady so pivotal throughout the film. And what makes the movie truly magical is the love story that grows out of the characters’ exploration of Tokyo’s rich cultural customs, idioms and traditions. And this exact same phenomenon is what makes international design so completely fascinating and the topic of today’s show. [Music]

Hello, and welcome to Echelon’s 12 for 12, our series of 12-minute podcasts created to inform, entertain and hopefully, by god, inspire creative individuals. As always, this podcast is produced and sponsored by Echelon Design, a world-class team, dedicated to helping organizations build tangible brands, especially in the exhibit industry. My name is Adam Voss. I am a comedian, professional emcee, and fellow marketing and design geek. And I will be your host for the next 12 minutes.

This past spring, I had the chance to sit down with a very jet-lagged yet unflappable Chris Dorn, President of Idea International, to discuss the role cultural context plays in designing experiences for foreign audiences, and how to avoid getting lost in translation. Let’s take a listen. [Music]


I mean, what were some of the first things that you noticed, especially around design, the way things were being done here versus there, or the challenges? I mean, I just think, you know, first off, language, culture, you know. Like you were mentioning that the culture there, it’s very poker-faced, you know. There’s a pride, there’s a dignity. I mean, you know, getting beyond that in order to make acquaintances with clients or for prospective.

(Chris Dorn) Well, you know, you could look at it from a lot of perspectives, from a business-making standpoint in both design and how a designer approaches something. But when somebody is starting out and, you know, the term cut their teeth, you know, there’s a saying within [00:02:42.20] that description of, you know, Japanese society where, and not just Japan but in Asian societies since it’s such a social, you know, you get kind of a group consensus.

(Adam Voss) Sure.

(Chris Dorn) That, you know, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. And, you know, when I was doing freelance work for like Densui and Hokkahodo and Ogilvy, you know, out of their Tokyo office, there was, you know, it had to be a consensus on doing things. And mind you, I mean, you know, somebody would just shoot back and forth ideas. But even if you had a really good idea, you really had to put that much more into selling it to the group.

(Adam Voss) Yeah.

(Chris Dorn) And then even if, you know, you get a group of designers in at 11:00 at night, and we got a big pitch that we got to do to Honda or something like that, you know, and it was rough. It was really interesting. It’s like we want to, you know, you want to go. You know, who is the main decision-maker? Let’s go. And that’s, in the US a lot of times, not always, but you have, you know, you go right to the source, and you kind of get the decision made. You know, it’s great. I love it. We’ll develop it, but we’re going with your idea. Whereas in, you know, Japan, it was kind of a group consensus, and then kind of getting everybody’s input first. And then everybody kind of balances it out, and then you go. And you work out the details beforehand, and then you go. And it seems like in Western cultures, in the US, it’s like we’ve got it, you know.

(Adam Voss) Drive, drive, drive.

(Chris Dorn) Drive. We’ll figure it out later.

(Adam Voss) Right.

(Chris Dorn) And so, and it gets pushed on to like, you know, a project manager. Or how are we going to spec this material? How are we going to do that? So there’s much more planning. And I think in a lot of ways, right up front, it’s more detailed in Japan. They do a lot more of juggling, I think, more hats. You know, it’s not only, you know, putting together their presentation, but it’s also, you know, spec work, and it’s also being on site and doing a lot of things. I mean, just doing a lot. I was pretty amazed. You know, when I was in the States, it was like you do the renderings, and you didn’t even get a chance to see, you know, on site. Now it’s, you know, I think it’s kind of gone, come around where, you know, a designer is involved in the entire process, you know, with branding, messaging, what the client wants to accomplish, their objectives, their ROI, ROO, ROE, etc.. And, you know, so a designer is more involved now.

(Adam Voss) Right.

(Chris Dorn) When I was, you know, late 2002s, mid-’98 to 2001 is basically, you know, you do a rendering. And it was a treat if you had a chance to go.

(Adam Voss) To see it. [Laughs] They built it.

(Chris Dorn) Oh, well, you know, I’d get a chance to go on site or I had a chance to actually go with a client and then, you know, tell, you know, our story and why we came with the ideas that we came up with so.


(Adam Voss) So I mean, like I just think of all the cultural things in the design world. I mean, being on the show floor, you have to take off your shoes, for instance, like when you walk into a booth. You’re nodding.

(Chris Dorn) No. You’re not doing that.

(Adam Voss) You don’t?

(Chris Dorn) But when you have a European customer that’s acquainted to or accustomed to doing a raised floor, if you were to do that in Japan, you’re just creating a walking hazard. Most, you know, shows where the bulk of the attendee, the attendance is mostly Japanese, for example, from Japan domestic, for example. They’re not going to have a raised floor. And so, you know, we have to, you know, forewarn the customers. It’s like, “Well, we want to do a raised floor.” It’s like, “Well, actually, you really don’t want to do that.” “Well, how are you going to hide all the cables?” Well, we actually most of the venues, a lot of venues, you can actually use the floor pits. And so you’re going underneath of that.

(Adam Voss) Smart.

(Chris Dorn) And even if you’re using really thin, felt carpet, I mean, this is a whole different conversation about expectations on materials that are used.

(Adam Voss) I was going to say, do they use like rice paper walls and the whole…?

(Chris Dorn) Well, I mean, they use wallpaper quite a bit —

(Adam Voss) Wallpaper.

(Chris Dorn) –Japan, and a little bit — and in Korea it’s quite common.

(Adam Voss) Huh.

(Chris Dorn) But it’s just more friendly for — you know, there’s no space. And there’s so many reasons behind it. But laminate it, store it, produce it, etc. is quite cost prohibitive. And, you know, wallpaper is just more common. It’s cheaper. You break down. You recycle it. It’s the way that they do it in Japan.

(Adam Voss) Are they big in recycling?

(Chris Dorn) They have been the last few years. You know, when I first there it was, it’d really go, you’d have a contractor come in with a garbage truck and, you know, just kind of throw it all into the dumpster. But now, you know, you would have — you’re responsible, as a stand contractor, whatever the booth and the builder, you have to separate out all of the stuff. And then you’re helping out the maintenance people that are cleaning up, and they’re separating it. And then now, even after they tear down, you know, if it’s a one-time-use, build-and-burn, if you will, they’re going to more lengths to recycle it now.


(Adam Voss) You know, people are spending money. How is digitalization affecting your business too? I mean, everything is now — the push for digital is here. If you’re not a digital company, you need to be in order to survive. And I think, you know, clients are now spending more money in terms of getting that message across and doing more face time shows and events because everything is so digital and non-, you know, face-to-face, customer-interacted. Are you finding that business is ramping because of digital? Is digital a big kind of new player in the industry? Are you seeing it?

(Chris Dorn) Well, it’s kind of interesting in Japan because Japan is not a large country.

(Adam Voss) Yeah.

(Chris Dorn) I mean, it’s basically the equivalent of the size of California. And, you know, within our team, there was a gentleman that was doing sales with a sporting company, sporting apparel. And he said, “Well, you know, tradeshows in itself are looked at differently. They don’t have quite the impact. You don’t have to fly as far. You don’t have to dedicate as much time.” You can actually, the face-to-face in Japan is so critical. It’s very critical. So you can just jump on the bullet train.

(Adam Voss) Right.

(Chris Dorn) And you can be in a meeting with your customer or the factory or supplier or what have you very, very easily and be home the same day. It’s just not the same. And then in other areas within, you know, like larger countries, like, you know, in China and India, it’s such an emerging, you know, and still growing economy that if you build it —

(Adam Voss) …Yeah.

(Chris Dorn) –you know, they’ll come.

(Adam Voss) Yeah.

(Chris Dorn) And it’s just like it’s just massive the amount of people that show up that are just ready to do business, ready to go or what have you. So, you know, Japan is a little bit different market from a digital aspect of it. But not — the US and then I would say, you know, in Europe and developing that is —

(Adam Voss) Bigger.

(Chris Dorn) –much, much further developed.

(Adam Voss) Okay.

(Chris Dorn) You know, people are so blown away with, you know, “I want this over-sized touch screen,” or, “I want to be able to do this and do that.” And —

(Adam Voss) Holographics or projections.

(Chris Dorn) Yeah, we do the holographics, projection mapping and everything.

(Adam Voss) Yeah.

(Chris Dorn) It’s like we can do it. And they’re just kind of surprised at, you know, how expensive it might be. Or maybe it’s so new that we can’t even do it. And people are like, “Wait, you’re in Japan,” you know.

(Adam Voss) I was going to say that’s like where it’s R&D’d, right?

(Chris Dorn) Yeah. You’re in Japan. I mean, OLED and everything else and flexible screens and everything, that’s coming from Japan. You mean they don’t have —

(Adam Voss) That’s an interesting paradigm because the market is just, it’s not yet ready for it.

(Chris Dorn) Yeah, it’s not —

(Adam Voss) It’s less mature.

(Chris Dorn) Yeah, exactly.

(Adam Voss) Huh.

(Chris Dorn) It’s less mature. I’ve had A/V, you know, specialist media people say, “Wait, wait, wait, we want to be able to do this for this particular show.” It’s like, “Well, we don’t have it.

(Adam Voss) We’ll have to go to the States. [Laughs]

(Chris Dorn) “Yeah, we got to go to the States.” “What?”

(Adam Voss) “What? We’re in Japan.”

(Chris Dorn) You know.



(Adam Voss) Now there’s a great Proust quote that is a fitting close to today’s’ show, and it goes like this. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Awareness and attention to cultural context is critical in design. And more importantly, it can help you see and experience the beauty of our world. And that’s our show for today. Thanks to Chris Dorn from Idea International for his truly insightful interview. And thank you out there for listening. For a complete recording of today’s podcast, equivalent dives and other engaging episodes, as well as extras and a complete profile of all of my favorite movies, go to www.echelondesigninc.com. Until next time, arigato. And thank you for listening.


[End of recording]

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