After only five days in Beijing at Patrick Whitney’s Design for the new China Markets design/innovation conference, I’m not going to pretend that I am any sort of expert on design in China. I am going to present some of the information and impressions and hope that folks will join into the conversation. Design is sizzling hot in China today—but what does that mean exactly?
First, Chinese companies are “into” design but most are into form and style, not much else. Elaine Ann founder of kaizor innovation in Shanghai told me that top Chinese brand companies are making plenty of profits but are mostly interested in style and form-making, not strategic advice or design thinking. And even then, local Chinese designers are willing to provide styling at a fraction of the price of US and other Western design consultancies. So few big design consultancies are doing much big business in China.
Chinese design schools are graduating thousands of young and technically proficient designers every year (or is it every day?). This is driving down the price of design work in China. Freelance design work is very cheap. A handful of Chinese design schools, such as the one in Tsinghua University, are getting much more sophisticated themselves in design thinking. Their graduates will be very capable—and US design consultancies will probably start hiring them in larger numbers.
Top Chinese companies are watching Samsung turn itself into a global brand through design and are beginning to open their views on the value of design strategy. Lenovo, for example, is already deeply into design thinking and strategy, doing consumer observations and focussing on the consumer experience. Others will follow. But for the moment, most Chinese companies remain very short-term (even shorter-term than most US companies) and very pragmatic.
One surprise to me was that manufacturing is beginning to shift out of China to Vietnam and elsewhere. Salaries are rising very fast, especially on the coast, and China’s competitive advantage in cost is eroding. That is one reason for the rush to design—to add value. China desperately needs design—more than it knows.
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