Peter J. Lamont is a business and commercial litigation attorney nationally recognized in a wide variety of highly specialized areas within the kitchen, bath, lighting, construction, and design industries. He routinely represents various national and international companies within the design sector, and has achieved the highest rating in both legal ability and ethical standards as awarded by AVVO (avvo.com).
Over the past several years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of lighting designers contracting to provide services in foreign countries. This expansion from work in the United States to projects outside the U.S. is primarily the result of globalization.
A number of other factors have also contributed to the increase in international design work. One such factor is a combination of the continued recovery of the U.S. economy, and the rapid growth and development of countries such as China, India, and Mexico. Additionally, many non-Western countries are looking to move away from their local architectural styles in a desire to embrace a more Western look. Of course, rapid developments in technology have also contributed to the growth of lighting design on an international scale. Easier communication protocols, including video-conferencing, flat-rate international telephone calling packages, and online collaborative tools have increased lighting designers' abilities to operate outside the bounds of their home countries.
However, global practice is not for everyone and can be extremely risky. There are a number of cultural, financial, and legal pitfalls that can bankrupt lighting designers, or otherwise severely restrict the profitability of international work. Still, the prospect of engaging in international projects has a large appeal among design firms of every size, and for good reason; it is an opportunity to experience new concepts and ideas at the broadest global scale.
Business Dealings and Cultural Differences
A great deal of preparation and research is necessary prior to committing yourself or your firm to an international project. There are vast differences in the legal systems between the U.S. and Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Foreign governments have a great deal more influence over construction projects in their countries than we see in North America, especially when the foreign architect or contractor is retaining the services of a lighting designer from the U.S. Any designer or design firm endeavoring to conduct international business should retain the services of a qualified accountant and an attorney with international law experience. While some may consider it an unnecessary up-front expense, it will save you a tremendous amount of time, money, and aggravation in the long run.
Country-specific tax requirements and foreign currency have a drastic impact on profitability. Unless you have a sufficient understanding of both, a job that was expected to produce a generous amount of revenue could result in not only a loss of profit, but tax liabilities and potential foreign fines. For example, in China, a Chinese company is not permitted to issue any payment to a foreign contractor or designer until all relevant taxes are paid. Only then can the Chinese company exchange its own currency—renminbi—for U.S. dollars and transfer the funds out of the country.
Another area of concern is licensing. Many countries, including many in the Middle East, impose serious monetary and criminal penalties and fines for unauthorized work conducted by foreigners. It is critical that designers fully comply with all foreign licensing and registration requirements. This can be accomplished by retaining an international law attorney, by collaborating with U.S. firms that are already doing business in that particular country, or by collaborating with foreign design firms.
Another critical factor of success with design projects in other countries is mitigating the difference in cultural expectations between the U.S. and the country with whom the designer seeks to become involved, as well as a difference in communication styles between the foreign company or contractor and the designer. English will not necessarily be the common business language. This language barrier can be remedied by making certain that both you and your foreign business associate fully understand what each other expects and the terms and conditions of any contracts or other documents.
Make certain that the contract specifies the exact scope of the lighting designer's work. This helps eliminate scope creep—when a designer believes that his or her role in the project is limited to a particular series of designs or project elements, and that belief is not shared by the individual or company who hired the designer.
One of the most important ingredients in making foreign design work profitable is the use of proper and effective contracts. The AIA has various international contracts, but many of these documents will need to be modified and translated for your foreign counterparts. Separately, international AIA contracts may be of no use on certain foreign jobs. In fact, many countries, including China, require foreign lighting designers to sign Chinese contracts.
Even if a country does require the use of its own contract, you do still have the opportunity to negotiate some of the terms of the contract. Additionally, although professional organizations such as the International Association of Lighting Designers cannot provide international contracts, per se, they can provide useful networking support.
The expectations of the designer is another item to address in the contract. Make certain that the contract specifies the exact scope of the lighting designer's work. This helps eliminate scope creep—when a designer believes that his or her role in the project is limited to a particular series of designs or project elements, and that belief is not shared by the individual or company who hired the designer. Often, the hiring company will demand that the designer complete additional elements and withhold payments until such additional work is completed. Using plain language and explicit expectations in a contract can help you avoid problems.