China's Design Crisis

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on July 22, 2009

I’ve been talking to European and US innovation and design consultancies working in Shanghai and the rest of China and most are hiring Western and Korean designers because Chinese designers are not up to global standards. They say that, wth a number of exceptions, the tens of thousands of graduates of Chinese design schools yearly are not precise and exacting enough in their design skills. Reflecting Chinese manufacturing culture, the young designers want to get things done quickly, without much regard for getting it just right. It’s a quick-quick attitude. As for innovating, reframing problems and seeing products and services with fresh eyes, Chinese designers are not nearly there. They are not there in terms of the skills and approaches in anthropology and sociology that allow designers to understand consumer cultures around the world. And Chinese designers are way behind in knowing how to do brand strategy and build new brands.

This is a huge problem. The Chinese consumer is expected to take over from the American consumer as the engine of global economic growth. Understanding how Chinese consumers live and work is vital to designing new products and services for them.

It’s a big problem for Chinese companies trying to shift from OEM manufacturing to building their own national and global brands.

To its credit, China has made design a national priority and is pouring billions of yuan into design education. What is surprising to me is how much further Chinese designers, even the graduates from the best universities, have to go to rise to global par.

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Reader Comments

sats

July 22, 2009 10:29 AM

doesnt it depend a little on what the goal is here? if the idea is to have Chinese design studios do the 'offshore' work for American/European companies, I could imagine that they may not fit the standards being followed there America/Europe). However, if the Chinese studios are to cater to themselves, internally, maybe they are fine. Considering that the focus on design is a fairly recent one, it would be expected to take a long time for it to become as mainstream as in the 'west' - considering it was never their focus in the past. Production was and costs have been the primary focus. Thats a huge mindset and economy to get past with right?

Michael Melnick

July 22, 2009 01:33 PM

I've had the opportunity to work on a re-branding initiative for a major Chinese corporation, one of the largest manufacturers of consumer electronics worldwide.

During the research and discovery phase, I have met and interviewed more than 50 executives within the company at their Qingdao headquarters. Including the chief of design.

My impression was that the design team was actually ahead of the curve compared with the other management functions. The design team had a much better sense of the difference between product and brand than any one of the marketing executives. (which are practically a sales force more than a marketing force).
The designers are aware of the gaps and what they need to bridge it - but they suffer from an inferior position in the corporate decision making ladder and their voice is not strong enough. This is a political issue.

China's transition from an OEM economy to ODM (or OBM) will require a great deal of effort. This change goes beyond the understanding of design processes it is about culture, education and innovation. Originality is a new concept for many Chinese people who grew up in a very traditionally oriented society. Things are changing but it will take at least another generation before we see Original Chinese brands and designs make their way to global markets.

Meanwhile, this is a golden opportunity for western design firms to help Chinese companies make the leap from manufacturers to marketers.

RitaSue Siegel

July 23, 2009 12:16 AM

This is a wonderful post. I am so tired of hearing that if the Chinese govt is throwing money at design education the assumption is that it is going to be good. That's not really possible. Most design professors and students in China have missed out on the last 30 or so years of design information and exchanges on the Internet because as you know, their access is restricted. Their travel has also been restricted. Many Korean and Taiwanese designers and design professors have studied abroad at one time or another or have even worked in the US or Europe or other parts of Asia. They have a broader view of how the world works and the what are the vast array of priorities and motivations of other people. They also have some excellent design schools and of course designers.

The next wave of Chinese consumer I have been told are in the 2nd and 3rd tier cities, like where the devastating earthquake took the lives of so many school children. The culture in these cities is such that even Chinese people in larger cities have no comprehension of them. I hate to use the word primitive, but they are not sophisticated and exposed to the rest of the world. Most of the people who live and work there have never left their hometowns.

As Gordon Bruce pointed out to me a few days ago, the Chinese have no design identity like the Italians and Germans do, for example, and they are in search of it. I believe deep down that when millions of people in a country are executed because their beliefs and politics do not conform with those of those in power, as they were in China, something is lost from the DNA of a population. Whether it is lost forever, only time will tell.

Being open to contact and exchange with the ideas and talents of the rest of the world on every level is really the only way Chinese designers can learn what global par is, to start, and then how to achieve it and exceed it.

Sergei Dovogdko

July 23, 2009 03:44 AM

It is true that is hard for the Chinese to compete with the US ability to conceive, design, market, and sell that many useless products.

Although the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Vietnamese, the Malaysians, and the others over there can really help producing all that stuff cheaply and to the US spec!

Do the Chinese know that they are in the "design crisis"? It seems to me we are in a different type of crisis right now. In the meantime, the Chinese are designing and building their infrastructure.

Just remember, after WWII the products made in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea were considered to be the worst quality and design.

I am not really sure people in the US are aware how much design is going on in Asia for all major US brands. We don' really do product outsourcing..

Think of the fact that is impossible to separate product design from its manufacturing technology. It is two-way street.

Oh, what company is designing IBM Thinkpads these days?

Sergei Dovgodko
3M company, St.Paul, MN

Richard Shear

July 23, 2009 01:49 PM

I would tend to agree with Bruce that, if true for much longer, this is a big problem for China.

But imagine if this were reversed and you had major Chinese design firms staffing their offices in New York, or Milan, or London with home grown Chinese talent, because the complaint was that these silly western designers just took too much darn time and were overly cautious and careful. My suspicion is that the Chinese firms would be accused of cultural chauvinism or worse.

Did you watch the olympics? What did you think of the opening and closing ceremonies, awesome right? Is that a country that understands how to do things carefully and precisely or what! And those Chinese divers . . . focused, precise, and impeccable timing.

My suspicion is that the quality of the designers in China will track the overall quality of product and industrial development throughout the country. As China begins to develop higher quality products for both the world and domestic markets that go beyond the Walmart shopping cart, we will see an increasingly competitive Chinese design community.

This evolution from the lowest cost producer to a global partner, respected for the highest quality, is what happened in Japan in the last half of the 20th century and my guess is it won't take that long for China. Just watch.

For a bit more detail check out my blog at,
http://richardshear.wordpress.com/

Marc Rettig

July 23, 2009 01:58 PM

It occurs to me that China has an opportunity to implement a model of design education that is not simply a copy of the Western model. As someone who has taught design in grad school and also hired design grads, it has always seemed to me that an apprentice or residency model would be a good thing. Go to school to get the basics, then, like a physician in residency or a chef working the way up in the kitchen, spend at least a couple of years working beside seasoned professionals who will *insist* and *see to it* that you grow to maturity as a person of craft and heart.

In the west we rely on luck for this, hoping that at some point early in their career young designers will encounter strong mentors and role models. With an established culture of design this is more likely to happen than in China, where you'd need "double luck." It's that or an unusual degree of passion and self-discipline.

How do you bootstrap a population of professional designers of all stripes? With “billions of yuan” available for design education, some of it could be used to explore new models, refine the most promising ones, and learn how to replicate them. The risk of exploring for a better model is small. The upside is huge. In the end, they might wind up with something to teach the West.

leo

July 24, 2009 08:11 AM

I would not agree that design in China is crisising. Thins are totally different with what it used to be in Europe and US. Your experience might be applicable , might be not. I had almost 12 years hands on experience in design field, covering local corporate in-house,local consultancy, international consultancy and international corporate in-house. From what I can see, Chinese designers are on the way to explore an RIGHT design system of methodology, methods and skills, which would fit China better than any other ones in US or EU. Regarding to the current situation, let me ask, what you would do if you are a local company which faces two kinds of competitions from top down and buttom up? what can you do that you can only have graduatsjust leaving school to be teachers in school?
What can you do if the car designers never drive a car because most Chinese family can not afford it at all? Chinese designers are doing it and would not never giving up. That's all we need and all we can have.

Harshdarshan Soni

July 24, 2009 08:25 AM

All companies having a problem with Chinese Design consultancy can divert to India. India has a great potential and some very well known design consultancies are already working in US and European clients.

We ourselves have got so many clients diverting from China to us due to poor design and language problem.


Thanks,

Harshdarshan Soni
www.ideaproductdesign.com

Richard Shear

July 24, 2009 03:12 PM

I would tend to agree with Bruce that, if true for much longer, this is a big problem for China.

But imagine if this were reversed and you had major Chinese design firms staffing their offices in New York, or Milan, or London with home grown Chinese talent, because the complaint was that these silly western designers just took too much darn time and were overly cautious and careful. My suspicion is that the Chinese firms would be accused of cultural chauvinism or worse.

Did you watch the olympics? What did you think of the opening and closing ceremonies, awesome right? Is that a country that understands how to do things carefully and precisely or what! And those Chinese divers . . . focused, precise, and impeccable timing.

My suspicion is that the quality of the designers in China will track the overall quality of product and industrial development throughout the country. As China begins to develop higher quality products for both the world and domestic markets that go beyond the Walmart shopping cart, we will see an increasingly competitive Chinese design community.

This evolution from the lowest cost producer to a global partner, respected for the highest quality, is what happened in Japan in the last half of the 20th century and my guess is it won't take that long for China. Just watch.

For more comment on this piece see,
http://richardshear.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/nussbaum-on-chinas-design-crisis/

Rob Curedale

July 24, 2009 03:35 PM

What the Government in China are attempting is a big task. Developing a design education infrastructure with five times as many schools training industrial designers as exist in the United States in just a few years is not an easy thing to achieve. Design is a cultural activity and the culture in China does not yet support high quality industrial design education. Particularly there are too few experienced local industrial design practitioners and educators. The Industrial design system in the United States and Europe took 100 years to develop to it's current state. That they are begining to graduate large numbers of students is the first acheivement. They are starting to attract qualified educators such as Martin Smith who was the Chair of Product Design at Art Center College in Pasadena and who is now at the HK polytechnic. Schools such as the Central Academy in Beijing are graduating some students who are competitive in their skills with some of the best international schools. They will get there because they have the national will to do so. Design education is more about quality than quantity of students.

Wizardofid

July 27, 2009 07:20 PM

I dont know what you are going on about. From the Chinese designers I know, and from the Western Interns I've had (in India), the Chinese are masters of two vital elements - trade skills (sketching, illustration and modeling) and understanding the last mile to manufacturing (the phenomenal ecosystem helps). They'll get on to the innovation bandwagon. Only a matter of time. Right now the problem is with the Chinese clients. They are not willing to wait for design to happen. They need the mould yesterday to start production this morning.

John Kutsch

July 28, 2009 01:38 AM

I'm sure what techniques and processes they can't steal will be taught to them by mercenary educators who have no loyalty to their home.
Go China!

Fei

July 30, 2009 08:00 PM

As a designer from China, I know there isn't a lack of talented people over there. There are many reasons for the people there not up to the scale here. Being the biggest manufactory country of the world, people have not yet realize the importance of their own culture and art. They are still on the stage of exporting product not culture. Especially the modern world is dominated by the western culture. How Chinese people position themselves without just absorbing the foreign culture seems very important to me. Japan is a very good example of how to preserve its own culture. Modern China is a little bit lost now. But I can see it is waking up.

Cheryl Roshak

August 1, 2009 12:34 PM

I tend to think that China, over the last several decades, ran a strict regime that significantly reduced the intellectual and creative population and though they excel in manufacturing, as Fei said, the industrialization has come first before the creative initiative. There needs to be more synergistic interaction between countries and cultures for creativity to expand in China, as they still tend to be isolationists. That they recognize the need and are pouring money into developing designers is a good start, but it will take time to catch up.

Juanli

August 5, 2009 06:39 AM

I'm working for an industrial design company. We are trying to introduce the western design theory and principles, we hope this can help to improve design ability of Chinese designers. For designers, I think they should have much wild vision, no just locally but holisticly. In this position, the designers can see things more clearly and exactly.

China has a vast creative culture. some said China doesnt have a design culture, i dont agree. As we all know, our forefathers invented papermaking skill, gunpowder and other inventions. I think the problem is not culture, but the government and national education systems, which stricts creativity of the students.

Lucy_wz

August 6, 2009 10:27 PM

I'm a China born designer, trained in China and then in the US, and have been working in the US for the last 7 years in international teams, closely with Asian manufacturers and sometimes Chinese design firms.

I see the problem of Chinese Design rooted beyond the design profession itself.In a conversation I had with a fellow Chinese designer who started his own firm in Beijing not long ago, we talked about how it is not realistic for a small firm like his to estimate a long design process in order to "get things right", while the competitors are offering a much shorter and much cheaper package to the client to quickly whip the things out.

The clients, mostly domestic brands and manufacturers, are not seeing the difference between a "right" and "not so right" design yet. The fact that some of them are hiring design firms to design anything original is a big step forward, when copying a cell phone to save the time, money, and trouble (in testing the tools and market, etc. as we all know) is not exactly illegal in China.

And these brands and manufacturers could also argue that if their consumers, like some people mentioned here, in 2nd or 3rd tier cities can not tell the difference between a "right" and a "not so right" design, (or they just don't mind...)why would they even bother hiring the right team to design it right?

It is really a reality of a country in all aspect during its development. I love my home country deeply and can not wait to see it thriving, especially in the field I work in. But I can not stand by and point fingers to say "Gee! You guys are way behind!". It's not any Chinese designers' fault. It is a painstaking process that the whole country is going through.

Like we, as individuals, all go through life with different circumstances and take our different path to learn and grow, there's no shame in having to start a bit "behind", and there's probably advantages to be able to find goals and models in front of us. After all, we are only trying to "improve" the world, not to perfect it. If the current generation of Chinese designers can help their society by their efforts, even if they are not at the same place as some of the western counterparts, who grew up with financial,educational, and professional privileges, it's still a great achievement.

NN

August 18, 2009 12:50 AM

From an article over at designsojourn: ".. The article concludes that Chinese designers need more freedom and authority, much like the early Western designers at the dawn of our own industrial revolution."

Link to original PDF:
http://www.2025design.no/China/Formgiving_in_China_V_NorheimNTNU05.pdf

Andrew Yang

August 28, 2009 07:23 AM

Bruce,

Thanks for a very insightful post. I think you are mostly right and there is one issue about the Chinese pouring money into design education: the educational system is not one that encourages you to think on your own, and that is one of the major issues with design education and anything related to the liberal arts for that matter.

As someone who lives in China and works deep within the design field here, I am always surprised at how quickly the tastes of the Chinese evolve, and not always in a way you would expect.

Led by the first-tier cities, and also supported by some of the rich second tier cities--actually RitaSue, these cities are VERY evolved!--consumer demand for design-driven experiences, items and products will evolve very quickly. Ultimately, since China is, and has been for some time, a market-driven economy, it is the consumer demand that will drive design education in the end and spur manufacturers to innovate, or seek innovation. Unfortunately, I have my reservations about pedagogy that is driven by the market, but I suppose for design it is a valid.

Andrew Yang
Shanghai

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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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