Does nationality affect creativity?

Last month, we looked back over the Olympics and Paralympics in a patriotic haze fuelled by British sporting triumph. Alongside discussing the creative impact of the Games, we asked leading British creatives whether there was such a thing as ‘British’ creativity and found them taking more pride in their nation of birth than you might have expected previously (except for Alex Maclean).  

This prompted us to wonder if pride in their nationality was also more common in creatives from outside the UK than we thought, so we approached some of our favourite artists, designers and creative directors and asked them if they felt positively about their nation of birth – and if growing up in that country affects their creativity, even if they no longer live there. 

Some dismissed the idea, especially those from North America – “while Canada influences my personality, it doesn’t influence my work,” Marian Bantjes told us. Others, meanwhile, found that their nationality inspired them in a way that filtered through to what they do.

NB: In terms of creativity, what meaning does ‘British’ have?

“It’s a combination of past and future. In many cases when I discover new British design, I realise the strong connection to British heritage. ” Noma Bar, illustrator. Israeli – lives in the UK

“British design was very influential on my development as a design student in the early 90s. Neville Brody’s first book had just been released. Vaughn Oliver was a huge influence as he did beautiful work for [bands] I was really into. Britain offered what appeared to be a radical perspective on what a designer could do” Seldon Hunt, artist. Australian – lives in the USA

“Diversity. A fusion of ideas and cultures that seems familiar yet has its own identity.” Dimitris Katsafouros, creative director at We Are Pitch Black. Greek.

“A sense of humour. Not being entirely rule-based. Often style over substance.” Erik Spiekermann, typographer and designer. German.

Birdland, new work by Noma Bar for Outline Editions, released as part of the recent product deisgn-focused London Design Festival

NB: And what meaning does your own nationality have?

“[Israel is a] Tabula Rasa (blank slate). It’s a post trauma, start-up nation – a creation from almost nothing. It’s a new country with complex past – and innovation and creativity in all areas are must for survival.” Noma Bar

“‘American creativity’ is an amalgam of creativity from around the world. What makes it uniquely American is the process we apply to get it done quickly at the cheapest price possible,” Ben Grossman, VFX supervisor, Pixomondo. American

“I always felt that Australia was fairly conservative for most of my formative years. I know that has changed in the last 10 years, but as I haven’t lived there, my memories are of being frustrated with the prevailing attitudes I encountered. There [was] always controversy if some design was breaking ground. It seemed like there was no future there for me. I always felt I was looking overseas for the chance to challenge myself and what was possible.” Seldon Hunt

“Greek creatives just love to experiment. Sometimes the results are brilliant and other times not so much. Watching Greek art films, for example, can be a revelation or just sheer torture!” Dimitris Katsafouros

“Americanism within design has always had an element of rehashing an idea – which I can be guilty of from time to time – [but] that rehashing inspires a unique creative flow." Joshua Smith aka Hydro 74, illustrator. American

“Being very rule-based; reliable but predictable. But ultimately more creative than people [outside Germany] think. They still want to buy German products for their mechanical properties, not for style, but German brands (BMW, Audi, Adidas, Puma, Boss, Mercedes et al) are quite stylish. Our graphic design is simply ignored because we don’t communicate in English.” Erik Spiekermann

“Chinese creativity has a longway to catch up. It takes time to shed off the ‘Made-in-China’ label. It might be due to the fact that creativity is the last thing people need, in a country where the revenue mainly comes from manufacturing. Having said that, China is abundant in creative talent, but [there’s ] a definite lack of appreciators who are willing to support them financially.” Jing Zhang, illustrator. Chinese – lives in the UK

Erik Spiekermann describes the identity of the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) that he redesigned from 2002 onwards as intrinsically German. “Its family of typefaces (which I designed with Christian Schwartz) and colour scheme (white, grey and red) are very dominant here because it’s still the national railway system. It is a simple design system, not stark, but not fussy or fashionable either”

NB: What place does national identity have in creativity?

“To creatives such as Vivian Westwood, it probably means everything. My dialogue with unseen spaces is very open and can happen anywhere.” Noma Bar

“It establishes the structure and context against which creative people, unwittingly, must struggle. The more detailed, mature, and complete the national identity, the more difficult is the task of the creative to overcome it.” Ben Grossman

“National identity and creativity should be separate to each other. As a creative you are, of course, informed by your experiences and your life in a specific country, but if all your creative inspiration comes from only one place, you’re limiting your capabilities and also the audience you cater for.” Dimitris Katsafouros

“National pride is great, because as humans we are competitive by nature. But I also feel that [politics, world events and sport] are the only place to hang your jacket of pride because after that it just becomes arrogance and rhetoric.” Joshua Smith

“National identity is the sum of history; our achievements, mistakes, language, memories, habits, food, music, literature, architecture, art, our culture. Our creativity is an outcome of all those. 

“Natural resources define what a country does, and Germany doesn’t have too many of those. We’ve always had to use our brains and hard work to overcome the lack of natural resources – so our products and our culture have become our main achievements. And we have been creative in making the best of them.” Erik Spiekermann

“I think national identity has a strong hold on creativity because where you live is expressed through your work. Here in the States, for example, you can see how styles shift per city.” Jason White, executive creative director, Leviathan. American

“There is no border in creativity. I consider myself from the universe.” Jing Zhang

The Leviathan studio in Chicago, whose executive creative director Jason White quips is the "most American project I've ever created"

NB: Who’s your favourite creative who you would describe as being innately of your nationality?

“David Tartakover: a solider of art and design, inspired by the historical and political situation [in Israel]” Noma Bar

“Steve Jobs. Rather than asking how or why, he said ‘why not?’” Ben Grossman

“Gordon Andrews [designer of the first decimal currency in Australia in 1966] did some beautiful work” Seldon Hunt

“Theodoros Angelopoulos was a great filmmaker. Even though his movies [are based around] specific events in Greece, he transcended that and spoke to a wider audience.” Dimitris Katsafouros

“Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry, who defined the American style within tattoo culture.” Joshua Smith

“I love German literature that is untranslatable like Heinrich von Kleist, Hans Magnus Enzensberger or Wilhelm Busch (see how many of these you’ve even heard of).” Erik Spiekermann

“It has to be Ai Weiwei. He’s truly inspirational.” Jing Zhang

Cover artwork by Seldon Hunt for a forthcoming album by Blind Idiot God

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