The Common Thread Behind Why Indonesian Creative Workers Opt to Work Abroad

Many creatives in Indonesia consider working abroad. In this article, we try to look into the reasons why and if we can find a common thread between their motives by speaking with 5 Indonesian creative workers and ask them why they’ve decided to pursue a career beyond the borders of their home country. 

Disclaimer: The interviews included were conducted in March 2022.

A good deal of Indonesian creatives seek employment abroad after completing their education there. One such example is Kiara Hambali, a junior creative at London-based advertising agency, Proud Robinson & Partners. Kiara was pursuing a diploma at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore which extended to a bachelor’s exchange program at Leeds Arts University (LAU), majoring in Creative Advertising for 2 years. She also completed a two month long internship in Singapore as well as here in Indonesia at BBDO and VMLY&R Jakarta. The development of England’s creative industry played a massive role in her decision to work there, but she had also been geared toward gaining work experience abroad by her mother from fairly early on. “Try to go [there for] a couple of years, it’s up to you when you decide to come back,” her mother said. Though her mother had great influence over her decision to stay in London, Kiara herself has also considerably adapted to the industry and culture in the United Kingdom and struggles to picture herself returning to work in the Indonesian creative industry.

Similarly, Gerson also found it jarring when he returned to Indonesia. Gerson Gilrandy is a graphic designer and graffiti enthusiast from Jakarta. Though he already gained a diploma in Jakarta, he continued his education at NAFA, Singapore. After graduating, he stayed and worked there as a full-time graphic designer for 7 years before returning to Indonesia when his work visa could not be extended any further. For Gerson, who is not only a graphic designer but also an artist who enjoys painting, illustration, and doing murals, he found that, crucially, working in Singapore allowed him to pursue his passions whilst still earning a living. To him, Singapore seemed to be an environment that was conducive to pursuing art and design.

When he returned to Indonesia, Gerson was dumbfounded by the relatively low wage rates of graphic designers in Indonesia at the time, around 2013, in comparison to those in Singapore, and he had to take on a lot of freelance jobs to keep himself afloat. It got to the point where he had to set himself an ultimatum; to either seek employment abroad again right away or start his own studio here and save up to be able to pursue further study and work abroad. Initially, he immediately applied to several master’s programs in the UK, including at the University of the Arts London (UAL). However, when applying for the scholarship program by the Educational Fund Management Institution, or LPDP, his application was denied. In truth, Gerson is a little relieved his application was denied because he hadn’t realized that students who studied abroad with assistance from the LPDP scholarship are required to return to Indonesia after graduating while Gerson’s reason for studying abroad was to gain employment abroad in the first place. Thereupon, he began saving up and became a co-founder of Jakarta-based design studio, Roots & Co. After working for a few years, eventually in 2019, he was able to attend a master’s program at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Australia. He has been working at Tuckshop Agency, a Melbourne-based branding agency since his graduation.

Ardo Sitompul also pursued graphic design education abroad. Ardo is a graphic designer currently working for Attraction Studio, a creative agency based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Back in Indonesia, he had actually attended an undergraduate program majoring in psychology as his parents did not approve of him pursuing a degree in visual communication design. Years later, he signed on to an advanced diploma program in graphic design in New Zealand. There wasn’t much thought of pursuing a career back home. Based on hearsay from his friends in Surabaya, who were also fellow graphic designers, Ardo felt that the Indonesian market for graphic designers may be over-saturated and rather underappreciated at the time. He also found that he really clicked with the working environment in New Zealand and like that his mind was made up.

Similarly to Ardo, Senny Sanjung’s university degree has very little to do with visual art–Senny majored in accountancy. Senny is a freelance illustrator currently based in Berlin, Germany. Following her graduation, she opened a solo cake business. Initially, Senny migrated to Finland when her husband gained employment there as a UI/UX designer. For both of them, the most important thing was the ability to pursue a better life abroad. Senny actually started her career as an illustrator as part of Finland’s integration program which helps families of immigrants gain employment in the country. During the program, she decided to intern at a production house and then a publishing house. When her husband got another job offer in Berlin, Senny followed suit and her freelance illustration work moved with her.

Conversely, for Celcea Tifani, working abroad was a matter of fulfilling a craving that had less to do with being abroad and more with what she felt Surabaya couldn’t give her. Celcea is a graphic designer currently based in Surabaya. She has had 5 years of experience working at the Shanghai office of the Australian advertising agency, Paper Stone Scissors. Celcea attended Petra Christian University majoring in visual communication design. Even in her early days there, she had already felt a thirst that Surabaya’s creative scene seemed unable to quench. So, in the midst of the second year of her undergraduate studies, she began preparing a portfolio to pursue a master’s program–she was accepted at the Chelsea College of Art, one of the colleges of UAL, and set off to the UK only days after her graduation ceremony. Although she tried to gain employment in England after completing the program, it was an uphill battle considering the UK graduate visa that would have given her the two years she needed to seek employment was not made available at the time. Eventually, Chelsea was able to take part in an internship program in Amsterdam for four months.

After completing her internship in the Netherlands, she returned to Indonesia with the hope and idealism to take everything she learned back home and open her own studio. Like Gerson, Celcea also took on a lot of freelance work to maintain a living. She also started a personal project, Pertigaan Map. Working together with Anitha Silvia, the Pertigaan Map project focuses on the creation of a pedestrian map of Surabaya’s Old City that reflects the remaining traces of Dutch colonialism. This project was inspired by Celcea's internship experience in the Netherlands. “People in the Netherlands love maps and… so do I–I like knowing where I am,” Celcea explained. Although she was very enthusiastic about the project, from a financial aspect, this project was not very profitable.

In the end, she was forced to look for work abroad again as it had been difficult to support herself and save simultaneously on a designer's salary in Indonesia. She started looking for job vacancies as a designer abroad without a specific country in mind. From Australia to South Africa, she sent his portfolio to various vacancies she came across. “Let's see how far this portfolio goes,” she said. Paper Stone Scissors' Shanghai branch saw her portfolio and immediately asked if she was available for an interview. A few days later, she got confirmation that she got the job.

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Although everyone has unique reasons as to why they chose to pursue a career abroad, there was an undeniable common thread that played a significant part in that decision–pay. All the creatives interviewed agreed that creative labor is very underappreciated in our country and the wages are reflective of that. As Gerson and Celcea mentioned, it seemed impossible to be a creative worker and be able to save in Indonesia at the time when they decided to pursue a career abroad–it was unsustainable. Not limited to wages, project budgets also suffer a similar fate.

Senny also explained that, as a part-time illustrator, there seem to be more opportunities in Europe in comparison to Indonesia from what she’s seen on the illustrator forums and communities of Indonesian illustrators. Even from a pricing perspective, it seems that Indonesian illustrators still struggle to charge higher rates and this may largely be due to the habit of Indonesian clients to negotiate prices. “Can’t you give me a ‘friend-rate’?” or “Give me a family discount, okay,” is often heard by Indonesian freelance creative workers. Ardo has heard similar experiences from his designer friends back in Surabaya. He also noted that clients abroad dare to grant larger budgets because they trust that the designer will execute the brief to the best of their ability.

This trust extends to how much freedom is given to the designer by the client. "In Indonesia, designers are considered more so as executors rather than designers," Celcea explained. Of course the client's role is considerably significant in every project, but clients overseas have more confidence in the designer's capabilities. Gerson also feels that the habit of regular intervention by clients can hamper the development of Indonesia's creative industry. "The majority of clients in [Indonesia] are very difficult to educate," he explained, "Indonesia is very rich in culture, but unfortunately what is being implemented now is that these cultures are close minded with laws of the few who are afraid of the taboo or [think] 'Ah this isn’t allowed, ah it won’t sell if it's like this,’ and this can really interrupt the artist's creativity." Gerson feels that clients abroad are very open to any ideas proposed by the designer. On the other hand, Kiara actually feels that the types of clients in Indonesia and in England hardly differ. "The client wants more money but the agency wants to make award winning work."

When asked what she thought could help persuade creative workers to stay and pursue a career in Indonesia, Celcea revealed that she feels the creative industry in Indonesia, especially in the field of graphic design, has an element of exclusivity. "Are you cool or not?" said Celcea. To her, this greatly hinders increasing diversity in the field of graphic design because it limits the scope of what it means to be a graphic designer. “Everyone has the right to become a graphic designer,” she added. She also feels that although there have been steps taken by both the government and clients to improve Indonesia's creative industry, clients and the government are still unable to move forward hand in hand. In reality, funding is still lacking and graphic designers must be convinced that Indonesia's creative industry still has great potential. Kiara also feels the same way. The issue of salary is still relevant, but there must also be courage on the part of the client to embrace the ideas of creative workers and trust in their execution. From there, designers can build their confidence in the potential of Indonesia's creative industry.

Gerson expressed similar sentiments regarding the issue of the importance of connections and networking where work can only be obtained by creative workers who are well-connected rather than creative workers who are more competent in the discipline. However, he also feels that there has actually been a lot of progress from organizations such as the Indonesian Graphic Designers Association (ADGI) and the now assimilated Agency of the Creative Economy (BEKRAF). Gerson feels a sense of pride in his seniors in Indonesia who are willing to communicate with the government.

Although he agrees with Gerson, Ardo feels that there is still a gap in education regarding the Indonesian creative industry from these organizations. However, he also cautions us to take his opinions at face value as he hasn't been actively working in the local design scene for some time. There are small steps being made in the right direction but there is still a lack of concerted effort. There are many skilled creative workers in Indonesia who are out of work and unappreciated, so they eventually look for remote freelance work from clients abroad. Just like Celcea, Kiara and Senny, both Gerson and Ardo also consider the importance of a sufficient salary.

When Gerson was asked whether he recommended creative workers pursue a career abroad, he immediately and enthusiastically answered, "You absolutely must, you absolutely, absolutely must!" He explained that he had gained a lot from his experience working abroad, including a work culture and influences that he may not have gained had he stayed in Indonesia. He advises creative workers to have a fool-proof strategy for how they want to pursue a career abroad. Research is crucial. Research the creative industry in your chosen city and monitor its development. Visa conditions are also something that must be studied well. For example, when he was considering continuing his studies in Melbourne, he had looked at the prospects there after graduation such as the availability of graduate visas after graduation to give him time to look for work.

Kiara emphasizes the importance of self-confidence. “Everyone's faking it until they're making it,” she explained. She feels that Indonesian creative workers tend to underestimate their own potential as creative workers just because they are from Indonesia. Ardo and Celcea also feel the same way. Celcea said that she and her friends had a joke where Indonesians would often sit and tell long stories praising creative workers abroad to the point of losing focus on their own work. “Don't just say it, do it,” she remarked. Ardo also wants to emphasize that as a creative worker from Indonesia who works abroad, you bring new values and perspectives that they might not get if they employ local designers there.

Working abroad is not a trivial matter and there are many factors to consider. Celcea wants all creative workers who are considering starting their careers abroad to remember that every place, city, and country has its pros and cons. “Choosing to work abroad must be done as a conscious decision,” she stressed. Gerson also warned of the same thing. He suggested that if you still have doubts about pursuing a career abroad, it may not be the right time to follow through. He also wants to convey to Indonesian creative workers who are or have worked abroad that returning to Indonesia and improving the industry in this country if you are able is something that is very worthy of praise. Celcea and Ardo argue that now with the rise of remote work in the pandemic era, foreign clients are much easier to get. So if you are thinking about pursuing a career as a creative worker abroad, make sure it is the right choice for you.

Reflecting on the experiences of these 5 Indonesian creative workers working abroad, we can see that there are still many holes that need to be patched up in the Indonesian graphic design job market. However, of course, this article is not aimed to castigate the existing conditions. On the other hand, all parties involved, including graphic designers, clients, and the government, can adapt and learn from existing case studies to make conditions for graphic design in the professional realm healthier and more sustainable.

About the Author

Kireina Masri

Kireina Masri has had her nose stuck in a book since she could remember. Majoring in Illustration, she now writes, in both English and Indonesian, of all things visual—pouring her love of the arts into the written word. She aspires to be her neighborhood's quirky cat lady in her later years.