Silicon Valley suffers from tech tunnel vision. Despite product design communities popping up all over the world, our industry leans towards myopic. It’s easy to focus solely on the sitcom-worthy techie paradise where brightly hued bicycles are strewn across grassy knolls and Kombucha is chugged vigorously.
In actuality, UI/UX design communities across the globe are stronger than ever. This is partly due to the rising tide of design conferences, meet-ups and remote work, but also thanks to educational programs cropping up and actively feeding the next generation of baby designers.
So, we set out to uncover a few of these up-and-coming design epicenters. We poked into a UX conference in a Baltic capital known for its old world charm, discovered a South American innovation studio partnering with IDEO and dove deep into a flourishing design internship in West Africa. Our methodology was like adventure itself, full of surprising twists and revelations with hours spent scouring Meetup.com and combing through UNESCO approved Creative Cities.
Maybe you’re a recent college grad thirsting for a change in scenery, a seasoned digital nomad seeking a global design community or perhaps you’re a remote freelancer with more freedom than you know what to do with. Whatever the motivation, these faraway locales promise the opportunity to meet designers who are just as passionate about the granularities of UI/UX as you. Who knows, maybe good design is the universal language we can all tap into.
São Paulo is a sprawling metropolis with a highly educated middle class and, surprisingly, the largest population of Japanese found outside of Japan. Its diversity doesn’t stop at ethnicity; the city also boasts the largest openly LGBTQ community in all of Latin America. This sort of forward-thinking sensibility is a perfect breeding ground for tech and design nerds. Fast Company waxed poetic about the city’s potential back in 2010, citing its perfect weather, isolation and craft-based culture as catalysts: “I’m confident we’ll have a new design superpower in our midst very soon.”
Seven years later and their prediction ring true. Meetup group Design Thinking para Startups attracts a staggering 5,263 members who meet every few months to discuss and debate topics like design sprints and Value Proposition Design.
Another São Paulo stationed Meetup group with thousands of members is Front UX. Much like Figma, they’re passionate about merging the worlds of designer and developer into a smoother workflow.
And if you’re on the hunt for a local gig, check out Key Ideas. They’re one of the more impressive UX/UI consulting firms in the area, with clients like Nestle, Samsung and Colgate under their belt.
In 1980 Shenzhen was a small fishing village, populated by a mere 30,000 residents. This quickly changed when China dubbed it a Special Economic Zone in the 80’s, investing resources as an experiment of centralized capitalism. The city grew to 11 million in the span of only 37 years and has since morphed into China’s supreme design hub.
“When you think of design, think of digital design and then think of the impact of digitisation in our daily lives, that is Shenzhen,” Luisa Mengoni, head of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, told Post Magazine.
In 2017 it easily overshadows nearby Hong Kong in creativity, with 6,000 design firms employing 100,000 people. It’s a creative hotspot for designers working in all mediums (and it’s recognized by UNESCO as an official Cultural Center). According to the experts, the technology industry in Shenzhen will play an even more vibrant role in the next two decades: “Shenzhen is going to emerge as the undisputed leader of innovation and technology, rather like Silicon Valley is now,” Neo Bie, founder of design brand Stylepie, told Wallpaper.
Riga, the largest of the Baltic cities, is going through an exciting transition period. The residents are surrounded by the old town’s Gothic architecture, steeping them in centuries worth of history, tradition and sneering gargoyles. But the city’s underbelly, where a creative professional scene brews, is a completely different story.
Take their annual UX Riga design conference held every May. The international three-day event pulls in 14 speakers, eight workshops and 450 attendees. Last year Vitaly Friedman, co-founder of Smashing Magazine, even led a full day workshop, while a social engineer from MIT Media Lab taught another called “Socially Influencing UX.”
No less than 667 designers joined the UX/UI Riga Meetup, a community that discusses pertinent topics like “how e-commerce overlaps with UX” and “practical prototyping.”
The tiny city made global waves only a few weeks ago when DigiPulse, the world’s first digital cryptocurrency vault, launched its Alpha version. DigiPulse’s team is primarily located in Riga.
Coastal Lima, the third largest metropolitan area in the Americas, trails behind only Mexico City and São Paulo in population. Spanish Baroque and Colonial architecture deliver a unique European aesthetic while the city houses the largest concentration of higher-learning institutions on the continent.
If the Meetups are any indication, there’s no shortage of product designers in Lima either. Lean UX — Peru’s community hosted a whopping 160 people at a meetup solely about design sprints. Another gathering of like-minded ilk, Design Thinking Peru, holds strong at 2,303 members with a previous function featuring IDEO’s Managing Director of London, Luis Cilimingras.
Speaking of Climingras, he’s also the co-founder of Lima-based La Victoria Lab, an innovation studio actively partnering with IDEO. Their multi-disciplinary team includes architects, anthropologists and, of course, designers, with a goal of “improv[ing] the lives of Peruvian families through human-centered innovation.” Harvard Business Review describes the agency as “[l]ocated in an up-and-coming area of Lima, it serves as the core of a growing urban innovation hub.”
Nicknamed the “megacity of the future,” at 21 million inhabitants Lagos is officially the largest city on the African continent, surpassing even Cairo. Despite the city’s weak infrastructure and poor economic reputation, it teems with potential.
Community-driven organizations are largely to thank. For instance, The Design Institute in Lagos organizes workshops, hackathons and industry events for designers while welcoming all creative mediums, even filmmakers and chefs. Their next big event scheduled is LDX, a design hackathon with the theme “The Millennial Consumer.” It’s a week-long affair led by heavyweight thought leaders in the design space such as Perry Klebahn of d.school Stanford and John Maeda of Automattic. During the first three days, they’ll teach the basics of product design, rapid prototyping and user empathy. Attendees spend the second half creating and presenting to senior executives of sponsoring companies.
Another, Access for Youths to Information Technology Initiative, is a grassroots effort to train students without financial means the ways of software development and design. AYITI pulls 80% of participants from public schools and maintains a 1:1 male to female gender diversity.
Finally, when we crowdsourced Figma users for their favorite UI/UX internships a few months ago, we were so surprised by the outpouring of results from a certain paid Nigerian internship, Hotels.ng. You can read more about the 10 internships featured here.
Ok, you wanderlust designers. We’ve done our part giving you the 411 on the hot new cities for design. Now bring back tales of your travels!