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Western Vs. Asian Designers. Controversy Breaks Out at ICSID in Singapore

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on November 24, 2009

One of Singapore’s top designers, Feng Zhu, asked a pointed question to a panel of mostly Western designers at the end of the second day of ICSID that got the mostly Asian crowd really buzzing. “How much does making money drive design and how much does saving things?” he asked. Feng Zhu was reacting to two days of presentations by mostly European and American designers that focussed on saving the planet by cutting back on consumption and the making of things.

Of course, design has traditionally been associated with the making of stuff, often beautiful stuff. This ICSID conference, however, has embraced the design thinking perspective of designing large scale social systems, especially the planet’s systems (such as rising oceans due to global warming, exploding population straining food and water systems, and carbon energy raising the earth’s temperature).

I totally agree with these arguments—but wonder if the audience is really open to the message. After all, it’s one thing for the rich, consumerist West to begun to shift to a post-consumerist, sustainable society and quite another for Asia, which is just beginning to get the wealth to buy nice things to be told to give them up in the name of the planet.

Feng Zhu’s question got to the heart of that issue. The design of more and better is the way Asian designers make a living by serving the rising Asian middle and wealthy classes. These classes are in acquisition mode big-time as incomes rise in China, India and Singapore and they will have to be persuaded to shift to a post-consumerist value system before Asian designers can themselves begin to think of “saving” as a way of making a living.

Feng Zhu is a successful Asian concept designer. He has worked closely with George Lucas on Star Wars, Episode 111 and with James Cameron. He studied architecture at US Berkeley and industrial design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And he’s built a successful series of companies, including About in Santa Monica, California. It was embarrassing when someone on the stage asked if he was a “student” after Feng Zhu asked his question. All the Singaporeans in the audience recognized him.

Of all the Asian countries that just might be persuaded to make the shift from consumer to post-consumer society, Singapore may actually be the best placed. It is already clearly wealthy, with a high standard of living. Shopping and buying of global brands has been a deep part of the culture for many years. People already have a lot of stuff in their homes. At the same time, awareness of global warming and its impact on Singapore, a small island city-state, is very high. Concern about the vulnerability that comes with importing water, energy and food is also high. A reconfigured economy that is more sustainable and less dependent on the buying of expensive things, mainly foreign stuff, could be appealing to those who manage Singapore’s affairs.

Feng Zhu gets his chance to talk on the third day of the ICSID conference. Let’s see what he has to say.

But it will take a lot of persuasion to ask the growing Indian and Chinese middle and wealthy classes to give up their buying of things. And no one at this ICSID conference has even dared to suggest just how to sell a post-consumerist, sustainable society to an Asia that wants to live like the West, if not better.

Reader Comments

Murli Nagasundaram, PhD

November 24, 2009 6:59 PM

Interesting point made by Feng Zhu. I would place Indian and China in the same category, though. While to Westerners, both India and China arer "way out East", and share many similarities the modern editions of their cultures are very different. The newly wealthy among Indians mostly are children of middle class parents and typically are very well educated (relatively) and deep inside, still harbor middle class virtues such as thrift as well as are in touch with social trends in the West. Financially successful Indians of middle class origin have already started giving back to society and are participating in movements that socially-conscious in their essence. Growth in consumerism in India is paralleled by a growth in spiritual consciousness among young urban professionals. I don't know about China, but India will very quickly join the environmentally conscious trend if only because environmental consciousness is deeply ingrained in her cultural traditions.

Indian designers - especially those associated with the elite National Institute of Design -- may be among the most socially conscious in the world.

robert e. wendrich

November 25, 2009 12:18 PM

In the third day of ICSID congress talks Feng Zhu brought about some interesting remarks,infused notions on VR design and added speedy content to a panel of merely 'old-school' thinkers.
It was really refreshing to feel his energy and lively interactions with the panel! Mr. Heatherwick was able to get across some interesting thoughts on humanizing design and allowing more reflection. (stroking a donkey) In my view we need to get away from formalizing design (especially in architectural design) too much with matrix-marketing, structural-grid templating and starting to allow more interaction from the real-users (humans) and empower and nudge them to become choice-architects! The question of the money-driven design branding economy has not been addressed enough, we didn't embark during discussions enough on the much needed dismantling of the polyarchic structures that actually don't share knowledge but use it as a source of power in a highly competitive industry which design (architecture) is.
Sharing is about empowering people, meaning to maintain, change and sustain
the 'good stuff' and chunking the 'bad' in upward mobility societies and parallel to support the struggling nations and peoples living below the poverty line with knowledge, technology and education to allow them to grow and prosper more than what they are experiencing currently. So, question is:
"What About NOW?!"

Mark T.

November 26, 2009 2:08 AM

Sad to see industrial designers desperately attempt to redefine themselves as "systems designers" and other such nonsense when all they were trained to do is design more mass-produced disposable stuff and answer to marketing people. Slowly but surely industrial design is becoming an elite profession for very few media "superstars" while the vast majority of ID students today will never work as such in their lifetimes. The world has changed and this profession simply cannot be redefined, it is slowly expiring and becoming redundant because it has next to zero intellectual base, history and standards, and thus no respect or recognition. Not to mention that most people conceiving mass-marketed stuff today have nowhere near a design education to begin with. This does not stop them from dumping tons of plastic junk on shelves stores every year.

So who REALLY needs trained designers in 2010?

ID is an obsolete profession that made sense decades ago but should be avoided by potential students today. India and China should take a hint from the West and educate their populations away from the same stupid overconsumption and ensuing pollution. Why repeat the West's mistakes and not show a different vision and world leadership before it's too late?


November 26, 2009 3:17 PM

The biggest blunder any Government, people or any developing economy can make is ape the West. Whether it be economic systems, healthcare systems, super desirable American lifestyle all of which is a BIG TIME failure. One thing that we can learn, is the Use of MEDIA, which the west uses supremely to highlight their plight the world over as if the entire humanity was turning against them.

Their so called management Gurus! they listen to are shallow posers who talk as if they know Who we are, What we want and now they're preaching How we should live? After all the messing around that they have done to this planet. They call us people living at the BOP. (Bottom of the Pyramid) We are not god damn statistics and our lives are more complete like a Mandala than a Pyramid. Hello western intellects, capitalists, economists, creatives Wake Up! This pyramid theory, analogy, metaphor, whatever has been done till death by your Maslows’ to Stuart L. Hart (am consciously not naming C.K Prahalad because I feel he is a complete sellout and you guys in the west call him the No1 management Guru? GOD SAVE THIS PLANET!) Terms like “People at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, ‘BOP’, ‘Emerging Markets’, are DEREGATORY. If China or India is an Emerging market, then is it OK for us to call the west ‘Etiolating markets’?

Lets take a peek at history, the following article was written by William Dalrymple and published by Time. Read the full article here:,28804,1649060_1649046_1649026,00.html

Why India’s rise is business as usual.
“Following Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, European colonial traders — first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British — slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and caravels a Western imperial system of command economics. It was only at the very end of the 18th century, after the East India Company began to cash in on the Mughal Empire's riches, that Europe had for the first time in history a favorable balance of trade with Asia. The era of Indian economic decline had begun, and it was precipitous. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world's GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1%, while India had been reduced for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.
In hindsight, what is happening today with the rise of India and China is not some miraculous novelty — as it is usually depicted in the Western press — so much as a return to the traditional pattern of global trade in the medieval and ancient world, where gold drained from West to East in payment for silks and spices and all manner of luxuries undreamed of in the relatively primitive capitals of Europe.”

We need to understand each other not as designers, market segments, Chief Executives but as real people. This begins with the understanding that people have the same values, emotions, needs and aspirations the world over. Their lives are not confined to a pyramid; they are not statistics to impress unimaginative corporate honchos languishing in their pristine air conditioned offices. These are just underprivileged people striving on a daily basis for an opportunity to make their future secure and better.
If the West has genuine interest in our growth then they will have to leave behind all their pre-conceived notions at bay and experience our world in the real sense. Neither experience our world like a tourist nor try to extract your idea of our world from some management book somebody else has written for your consumption.

The realization that design is more than just making pretty plastic chairs was made evident by Phillipe Starck in his TED presentation where he famously declared - “I feel like shit”. In the long run Value trumps Style and as far as design is concerned it is more than Karim Rashid making technicolor plastic products and publishing a self homage book entitled – “I want to change the world’. He I believe is the quintessential, archetypal douche bag of the highest order.

In 1958 the Indian Government asked Charles and Ray Eames for recommendations on a program of training in design that would serve as an aid to the small industries; and that would resist the present rapid deterioration in design and quality of consumer goods. The couple visited India for a three month visit and submitted the India Report. They also quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:

‘You have the right to work but for the work's sake only;
You have no right to the fruits of work.
Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.
Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord.
Renounce attachment to the fruits.
Be even-tempered in success and failures, for it is this evenness of
temper which is meant by Yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done
without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender.
Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahman.
They who work selfishly for results are miserable.
Bhagavad Gita

Its time for us, here in the east, particularly designers in the midst of a growing economy to look not just towards the West for inspiration but also inwards. Our responsibilities far outweigh our individual agendas and dogmas. Bring meaning to our work and peoples’ lives and hopefully restore sanity for the future of humanity.

Josh Gluckman, thinkGROWTH

November 27, 2009 2:44 AM

Is it about 'post-consumerism', or just about the difference between designing grandiose systems as opposed to products?

As far as the latter is concerned, even within current systems, sustainable design needn't always be inconsistent with consumerism.

In an over-simplified sense, it depends what you're making stuff out of, the conditions of production, supply chain, end-of-life options etc.

In fact, with the right leadership from luxury producers (and supporting regulatory frameworks), there's no reason consumerism can't continue to be a positive engine of social change. Even in developing nations.

And I mean that less as an idealogical statement, but more as a design challenge. As in, for example, 'how do we design environmentally restorative products'?

The answer MIGHT be in trying to tackle the grandiose systemic stuff, but more so, it might actually be about tackling business model innovation - which while tricky, is actually more addressable. In my opinion, it's the Icebreakers and Patagonias, not just the social architects, that hold the key to designing the future.

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