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A Chinese Designer Speaks Out on Chinese Design

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on August 7, 2009

I received this wonderful comment on my post on Chinese designers. Her analysis parallels my own—the quick-quick manufacturing culture of China shapes Chinese designers. The market for their talent is for designing inexpensive products, often knock-offs, and they do that very well. My major point is that US and European consultancies working in China say that young Chinese designers are not able to do brand strategy and other more sophisticated design work, including very fine product design. There is a growing market for this kind of design by Chinese companies trying to build up their brands inside China and in the wider global market place.

Here is Lucy’s comment:

“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.”

Reader Comments

Murli Nagasundaram

August 8, 2009 1:09 PM

There is a larger issue here that many have not explicitly addressed. Design has two key aspects to it: Aesthetics and Pragmatics (or, form and function; style and substance, etc.). The knowledge and thinking that undergirds both of these flow from the larger cultural context.

The best design springs forth from cultures that have a well-established tradition of generating new knowledge. China and India were in this position until about 1000 years ago. Today, both these nations suffer from fractured cultures that are dislocated in time and disconnected from their current realities. When the British Empire was at its peak, Britain was also a major net generator of new knowledge. Today, that position is occupied by the US.

While China is rapidly catching up, it is unlikely to occupy the position of Pre-eminent World Knowledge Generator for a while. Which is not to say that it cannot, eventually, the way the US superseded the UK. India is even further behind. Indian-born economist Prof. Kaushik Basu of Cornell has written recently about the need to establish a network of world class academic institutions in India. China is already engaged in such an effort. Dr. Basu has, not, however, explicitly addressed the need for India to become a Knowledge Generating Nation. Cultures mature only when they attain the confidence to push the envelope and become Knowledge Generators. And such knowledge needs to span both the hard sciences and engineering, as well as the arts and humanities. Both these pillars of knowledge, hard and soft, are strong and have deep foundations in the US. It takes at least a couple of generations of concerted effort to attain that status.

As long as the United States leads the world in generating knowledge, with a supportive government and intelligent policies, and as long as nothing is done to mess with the can-do culture of the nation, outside of a Black Swan-type catastrophe, I don't see the country being knocked off its perch anytime soon.

In sum: As long as the Communist Party runs China, that nation's culture isn't going to become like anything resembling that of the US. All that the US needs to ensure is that it doesn't do anything terribly and irretrievably wrong.

Jeff Lindsay

August 11, 2009 11:56 PM

I'm much more optimistic about the future of Chinese design. The aesthetic and engineering talent is there, and the entrepreneurial spirit is accelerating. The "innovation fatigue" factors that may stand in the way to rapid ascent include some external fatigue factors such as those due to challenges in intellectual asset protection. Inexperienced firms dealing with US and international IP can leave many Chinese inventions with inadequate protection, ironically putting them at risk to Western copying or theft. There is a need for increased training and resources to support IP awareness and low-cost IA strategies to further advance the long-range success of the Chinese design community.


August 14, 2009 11:00 AM

I am Chinese born designer and have only been working in China. I can't agree with Lucy's statement that China design is behind us. You can't simply compare them, just as you can't tell the millionaire in US must make an happier living than the farmer in China rural area. China has its own way to move forward, so as the design there. No matter what is happening in that land, we have to face it and try our best to find a way to make it better. For design, what we are doing is nothing but to grow in the local economy-social-eco system. We don't know where it might go or what it would look like, but we do know it is China design, not US design nor EU design. We are not behind anyone else, just on our way forward.


August 19, 2009 7:34 AM

Murli: ha! Lets hope their culture doesn't become anything like the US. You should learn not to use the states as a yardstick.

Ki Charm John Kim

September 9, 2009 6:34 PM

The culture that Murli speaks of is more akin to the variety than the quality. The Cultural Revolution fractured China from it's past and the government attempted to homogenize, and thus equalize the disparities between the have's and have-not's. But, the unintended by-product has been a collective psychic loss. China as a nation, has no center. I met with a mainland Chinese psychologist while in Hong Kong and spoke of this "crisis" as he put it. Design is a relection of society. Example - steam engine inspired toasters by Dreyfuss. A toaster doesn't need streamlining, it doesn't move. But, the fact that people were inspired by the technology enough to find that design appropriate for the time reflects how objects embody ideals. So, yes, under the current regime and environment, and despite all the effort China is making towards establishing schools and promoting "design," it's suspect how much they will accomplish in that environment.

Rients Bakker

September 14, 2009 6:27 AM

Very interesting subject, I’m born in Holland and moved to China in ’95, work since then in the Chinese Research, Design and Development for the Manufacturing industry.

Reading Lucy’s opinion, then I read Liu Fang comments, from my experience that’s exactly the problem China is facing.

For that reason the gap is big, design has not much to do with farmers and millionaires but in the end a good and functional design should be liked by both of them.

The key thing here is quite simple, the passion for design and imagination how something could look like, I’m sorry to say but is hard to find over here, that’s one of the only reasons why our company is very successful in our business.

By the way, Lucy, your spot on and Liu Fang has still a long way to go.


May 6, 2010 11:26 PM

Chinese design studio:

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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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