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The true truth about design in China.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 5, 2005

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.

Reader Comments

Jan Stael von Holstein

December 5, 2005 5:47 PM

As a speaker at the conference, and practicing brand and design consultant in China for the last three years, I can only applaud the initiative by the Chinese Government and the Institute of Design to hold the Design conference in Beijing.

This combined with the CEO round table organized by China Daily newson The Next Generation of Design Innovation and Creativity in China,raised the temperature of the hot topics of design and branding even furtherin China.

It is amusing to read the comments on various fronts around Europe and the USA, whether and what we define as design or innovation, and who is the proponent of either forefronts of design and thinking

While the West debates the semantics of this, from Micahel Beirut to Larry Keeley and the British design establishment, China will simply embrace all and leapfrog into new territories
in all areas. They are not debating what to call it and how to do
it, they are simply doing it.

The missing factor at the moment is design leadership from the top, and middle management experience to develop programs in depth. Design talent is plentiful.

Wiser global players like Motoral, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Siemens and Philips have already established research and design labs using this pool of talent. Perhaps following the old adagio of ‘if you can’t beat them join them”. This is not to get it "on the cheap", but to access new and boundless thinking and creativity.

Some of this is driven by the need to develop low end products of quality for the vast local market. These will then reach the West as viable brands and alternatives to what is produced elsewhere.

So watch this space for the next generation of cars. Low cost, revolutionary new fuel replacement and energy saving propulsion, new driving technology and safety elements. Maybe you will just end up sitting in the back and telling your car where to take you.

China is already into much more than just style.

Georges de Wailly

December 5, 2005 11:53 PM

Interesting article,
I own a graduate degree in industrial product design and I have got my application period in a Polish company in Warsaw. Some French companies have asked me to pay them if I wanted to get my diploma. So, hire an industrial designer may be highly profitable. And not only in China!
It was cheaper for me to buy three plane tickets rather than staying in France!

Just a question about newly trained designers:
Do they know the "design for ..." techniques?
Ex: DFM: Design for Manufacturability
DFA: Design for Accessibility

Not so sure, and if not, their production has to be re-engineered and this introduces overcosts.
An other point are the copyrights. In Europe, a trainee or a freelancer is the design's owner and may licence what is his/her intellectual property.
How does it run in China? And what would occur if a Chinese student or freelancer registers his/her work in the USA or in Europe?

I have been obliged to register some elements of my Master degree thesis, due to such copyrights problems and by the way, I have registered an acronym in July 2003. It concerns a product's quality and "DF...":
Maintainability/ Manufacturability
Survivability/ Strength
Environmentally Safe.

Ramses is an ancient Egypt pharaoh's name.

I have checked very carefully an eventual anteriority and I have found nothing!
So, I can release it in the public domain.
Best Regards,
Georges de Wailly

Steve Gorton

December 9, 2005 3:44 PM

I think the comment from Jan "China will simply embrace all and leapfrog into new territories
in all areas. They are not debating what to call it and how to do it, they are simply doing it." sumsup much much more than the design area.

Having just returned from a holiday in China - arguably at least, if not more impressive, than the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors etc is the forward looking and go for it approach which makes things happen quickly.

Sure some things are rough round the edges - but perhaps better to be good and fast thus providing what the customer and other stakeholders want (within reason) than prevaricate and be labelled as excellent, though not delivering.

My interpretation is that the Chinese have gone very quickly through their industrial revolution (maybe since Mao?) into the knowledge economy - whereas the same path has taken the West around 200 years. Therefore less baggage from the past and a forward looking approach.

Is it sustainable - well they are now thinking about issues of pollution - rather more than say the US - question is - will the threat of effective competition mean the WTO block progress?


Vinay Rao

December 14, 2005 2:45 PM

Hi Bruce

China's approach to design is a slightly more progressive version of India's - and both betray an obsession with surface. i.e. with form, rather than addressing content in the product's form. True form is important, but fundamental changes in design are necessary too. Chinese designers are becoming masters at illustration i.e. proficient with Adobe illustrator and corel draw (both necessary tools for designing consumer electronics when more basic free hand skills are lacking). This allows them to put together a rehashed idea of a mobile phone, but not a fundamental re-think of the 'concept' of the phone that might be apt to new (their own) markets. Somehow management too thinks that design is all and only about style, and not about usefulness and usability - innovation not even figuring into the equation.

Designers and Design Academics in India, understand good design completely, but are still grappling with the means and methods of achieving it. Someone ought to tell them that tying up with CAD companies and other equipment manufacturers is not it. It guarantees jobs for design graduates, but is not enough to create an economy founded on good design. All too often I find that designers in both countries are looking for quick fix solutions and are willing to compromise good design for time. And worse, management thinks time-to-market is actually more important than design-for-the-market.

Markets unfortunately are getting less and less tolerant of bad or compromised design, becoming almost binary in nature wrt to the acceptance or rejection of a new design, in mature markets. Compromised approaches are typically wasted efforts, and ultimately wasteful of the resources expended.


December 15, 2005 5:01 PM

[i]"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.[/i]"

I'd remind you of recent reports from India on the surprisingly poor performance of many engineering graduates (including some from top tier schools). Just because there are many graduates, doesn't make them all [i]good[/i] graduates. And being "technically proficient" does not necessarily mean they're capable designers. One cannot manufacture industrial designers by teaching them only how to use tools to create a stylish form. While the Chinese push to graduate designers is a welcome sight and their concern over the quality of their designers is nice to hear, it is not worth commenting that freelance design in China is low-cost. That's misleading. It can also be very cheap in the U.S. Some graduates just don't have the skills and wind up freelancing for pennies while they flip burgers.

[i]"Their graduates will be very capable--and US design consultancies will probably start hiring them in larger numbers."[/i]

[i]Perhaps[/i] they'll be capable. Again, I'd refer you to reports from India. I rather hope they are. However, I suspect some won't be quite up to par; but plenty of design firms will snap them up anyway if they speak both Mandarin and English.

[i]"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"[/i]

A shame you don't work in the trenches, Bruce. These signs were all present back in the late 90's. As I was meeting with presidents of Chinese OEM's, they were already talking about the workforce issues they were experiencing. And some larger, all-under-one-roof OEMs (from high-tech engineering to soft-goods and packaging) were already in places like Thailand and the Philippines; sending overflow capacity out to build up their operations.

Conferences are fine. But don't forget that you're talking to higher-tier company representatives. You are NOT going to get all the information you should get to form definitive judgements in many cases. They're going as representatives and PR agents. I'd highly recommend you seek out some low-level designers and speak with them. You might learn some things you'll not learn talking to the high-ups.

(btw, I hope this time this post goes through. I frequently wind up on the Dead End page. Very irritating.)


March 29, 2006 1:27 PM

I am a student who come from china.My favorate subject is industrial design.I studied that design in china is becoming more and more important in the world. This parlance was almost
comes from some teachers teaches industrial design.I want to know some thing of the foreigners viewpoint about the design in china.Who can help me? Please send an Email to my Email Address.Thanks!


August 23, 2006 1:15 PM

I hope there will still be some Australian, British and European and American Designers with the Foreign Companies in China although we would like some of the companies back so that the women of Autralia are not left high and dry!

It is better to make clothes in the country where they are worn as the climate and living conditions are different in Australia to China!


March 22, 2007 2:26 AM

Hi Bruce,
I'm a graphic design student in Australia, and I was wondering if it would be possible to contact you somehow to ask a few question about your article "The true truth about design in China".
thanks for your time

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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