Interview / AOD Principal, British Designer Karen MacLeod

Sri Lanka is famous for Ceylon Tea, tourism, gems and perhaps, of late, apparel. Stemming to add value to the latter but with wide benefits to other sectors too, is design – a skill in high demand by all top industries today. A top UK qualified professional in the field of design with over 25 years in the design industry in Europe and currently heading AOD in Colombo, Karen Macleod strongly believes that given the inherent skills of the people, Sri Lanka in the future will have a new value addition which will contribute to the national economy – the creative industries that will be unique in the region and she shares many lessons from the UK today recognized as the world’s creative hub and who have used design to add value to their industries, generate jobs and create wealth. However, for this development, she emphasises that due recognition from the industry as well as parents is critical.

Given this potential as well as global need for designers and creative people for different industries, AOD International Design Campus of which Karen is the Principal, has a range of professional university degrees for the benefit of those aspiring for a career in design. According to Karen, design is a respected and well paid career for those with passion, creativity and motivation.  In the below review, she shares some key insights into why she relocated in Sri Lanka from the UK and the present and future of the design industry.

Karen shares her experience as a designer which started with her graduating from the Northumbria University in Fashion following which she went to Paris to work as a designer. She says that she got to work for some of the most glamorous fashion brands in the world like Max Mara, Daniel Hechter and Hemisphere and design retailers such as Barney’s, Joseph, Biffi, Belinda and Theresa


“Earlier in the ’80s we had the opportunity to design for countries such as Germany, Spain, Brazil, Japan and South Africa. Within the image and the handwriting of the company that I was working for, being able to develop products for other countries allowed me to understand fashion in a global scale. I could say that I learnt a lot within the 15 years while based in Europe. Eventually I went on to set up my own company where I designed for high quality manufacturers such as, Zara, H&M and Louis Vuitton.”



She says that like many decisions in her life, moving to Sri Lanka to lead AOD was also an instinctive one which she felt was the right time for; “Just as I believed that it was the right time to start my business, I believed three years ago it was the right time to come to Sri Lanka. Design is something that industries in this country need. I thought that via a degree program, I could bring this to Sri Lanka. I must say that there are fantastic opportunities here within the country in this arena.”
The fact that AOD offers university degree programs which are recognised worldwide is a unique opportunity for students from the region. With a 100% international faculty who are highly experienced in their respected field, AOD’s delivery in design education to meet the standards of Northumbria and other world-class universities has been exceptional; this is also the reason why international experts like Karen are keen to associate themselves with AOD.

When asked on her opinion on the design industry in SL, Karen states that it is undergoing a critical and extremely rapid phase; “10 years ago we were reliant on designers from abroad. Today we are producing designers having degrees equal to what is offered by Northumbria University in UK. The graduating designers are employed obviously at a much junior level, but are paid higher than what was offered previously. However, more can be done by the industries to support them. Sri Lanka can look at how design can be used to differentiate itself from other countries. In the apparel industry for example, companies should bring in design innovation. Sri Lanka does this to some extent from a sustainable point of view. Unique here is the quality, level of production and the inputs from design.”

AOD itself is a campus that contributes much more than a traditional university does to the country. With graduates resulting from a three-year degree course with inputs from the industry, AOD has room to create a product that is exceptional. The designers produced aren’t just technically strong but are often specialised in specific areas which the country’s industry needs; “It is not just the manufacturing side of it, but the retail side as well. In AOD, we will not start a course until we feel there is a need for it in the country. We do have graduates who take their degree and go on to work abroad, but from a local and regional point of view, there is an absolute need for the programs that we offer here.” Explaining this with an example, MacLeod states that graphic design is a very fast growing area and contrary to popular belief it is not about sitting behind a computer; opting for this require creative thinking, and idea generation.  Today, all the major industries need good graphic designers, be it for packaging in the tea industry, or working in the apparel industry doing branding- and AOD’s Northumbria curriculum produces these ‘creative thinkers’ who can make solutions for industry, and give them something beyond just a good-looking layout. “We are not a design campus here thinking just about design. We are looking at how education in design can move the industry and the country forward,” states MacLeod.

AOD currently partners with Northumbria to offer 100% internal, complete degrees in BA (Hons) Graphic Design program which provides a fully rounded experience in graphic design while allowing specialisation in the areas of branding, publishing, campaigns, editorial design, packaging, image making etc. BA (Hons) Fashion degree helps students to develop their own distinctive design handwriting so that once they graduate they can make their mark in the fashion world. Similarly, the Interior Design degree instills creativity and independent thinking for the interior architecture. The Fashion Marketing degree will engage in all aspects of fashion studies, from fashion forecasting, to research into fashion markets, fashion graphic, illustration, photographic styling and promotional techniques. The BA (Hons) Motion Graphics and Animation program focuses on motion graphics and design from a design perspective and their application in film, television, computer games, advertising and new media, Software industry. The newly launched 3D product Design Degree offers the manufacturing sector and an opportunity to not just be made in Sri Lanka but Designed and Made in Sri Lanka.

Karen says that AOD has a very unique stance what kind of designer gets produced as a graduate at AOD. Working with the industry AOD trains its graduates to think not only at a regional level, but at a global level as well. This reputation has led students transferring from Japan, Maldives, Switzerland and the UK, to study at AOD. Karen believes that Sri Lanka is a very creative country; “Here the students are naturally been given the chance to opt for art based subjects in school. So they come out academically sound, which is great, and they are creative thinkers. Even if you are not going to get into design, being a creative thinker is really important. Whether you are Sri Lankan, Maldivian or Nepalese it is the degree course that has been adapted to what we feel a need is there in the market to take it forward. We are not just thinking about today. The degree programs we offer are unique within the region for sure.”

The concern many parents have is that will their children be able to find jobs once they are done with the degree. AOD clearly states that all their degrees are created as a response for an existing demand for that profession in the country. Karen says that due to this industry-centric, practical outlook, AOD maintains a 100% employability state; “Those following graphics design are employed even before they leave the campus. For interior designers, the need is justified, since if you look around you, the need for such is obvious. Same goes for fashion, with the country’s major apparel industry. So I would say that the design industry is 100% employable without a doubt. There is less competition in design in this country than there is in any other career. If design is what you want to do, it is a respected career and well paid.  It is a career that if you have the motivation, you will grow well.”

There are many success stories to prove this. There are many designers whose work have won the appreciation of their respective industries, and also propelled them towards great success. For example, there is huge demand for those who specialise in interior design, given the current rate of development and construction going forward and there are several AOD graduates who have risen to this occasion with their own studios – Chamika Wickremasinghe leading Canvas designs studio is one such name. Karen says this success is only in interior design; “In the apparel industry, our students are doing very well. For the first time our students are most probably the first designers to be ever recruited by big names such as Brandix, MAS, Hirdaramani, and so on. Big international names such as NEXT have employed for the first time Sri Lankan designers, rather than from abroad. Even in Graphic Design the successes has been immense with our graduates bringing home the first and the second ISTD award wins for the country as well as starting on design projects funded by giant companies like Google.”

It is quite challenging to pursue design as a career when majority of the society don’t understand the value of this burgeoning sector. Karen Macleod states that there is a huge potential in this area and it is certainly a rewarding career and that it is the future of the business world; “The international design scene has arrived at the point where it is an absolute need to put the designer at the heart of what a business does; Steve Jobs’s Apple wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for his designer Jonathan Ive , who I must mention is an alumnus of our partner university Northumbria; the fashion mega brand Burberry’s business mogul Angela Ahrendts didn’t do it by herself but with her designer Chris Bailey who is now Burberry’s Chief Executive. A designer becoming a chief executive officer may have been unheard a decade ago, but it is surprisingly common today. All this means that it is very exciting prospects that await designers today.”

She also speaks out to the parents; “I feel that the parents need to be reassured that there is scope in this area for their children. I am a parent myself and I understand the importance of design. I think parents should know this is a respectable career path for their children to follow. My message for them is that, if you look around your home, every single thing is designed, and without that, what can you do?

When asked what design and related industries will be in 10 years from now, Karen states that Sri Lanka will have its own creative industry which will be unique to the island and region as well; “We will be able to grow industries specific to the country with design. Those without the design aspects will certainly not grow in the same way. Sri Lanka being a smaller country than India or Pakistan, geographically we are able to move around quickly. The link within the industries will be able to grow faster and I’m proud to see AOD playing a big part of all this.”