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Good Design Can't Do It All



`Made in Taiwan": A lot of personal computers are. But innovative design? Hardly Taiwan's forte. Yet this year, one of IDSA's awards goes to an all-in-one multimedia computer made in Taiwan.

This product was a response to the bind many of Taiwan's high-tech companies find themselves in. They've thrived by manufacturing other people's computer boards and peripherals. But labor is no longer cheap in Taiwan, and many factories are moving to lower-cost sites in China, Malaysia, or Thailand. At the same time, the lucrative parts of the business--marketing, software, service, development, and design--are controlled by companies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. If it wants to stay in the computer game, Taiwan has only one option: start designing and marketing its own computers. But how can a plethora of small companies afford such an expensive strategy?

About 18 months ago, George Chou, a director of the Taipei Computer Assn., came up with an answer: an alliance of Taiwan peripheral makers producing a single system with a coherent brand image. Chou brought together six companies: two monitor makers, a keyboard maker, a builder of PC motherboards, a disk-drive maker, and a producer of pen-based input tablets. Then he needed a designer to put the parts together.

All six companies were surviving on ever-thinner margins, squeezed by Western companies such as IBM, Compaq, and Apple Computer that keep demanding lower prices. To help them escape that trap, the Taiwanese government subsidized half the cost of hiring a U.S. design firm to come up with a series of products that they all could build profitably. They chose Ziba Design, based in Portland, Ore.

But getting the six companies to work together was rough. Each is headed by a founder and president who wanted to work directly with Ziba's founder, Sohrab Vossoughi. While the point of the project was to create a single, integrated system, each wanted its products to have distinctive features. Indeed, the IDEA award went to the computer designed specifically for Taiwan Video & Monitor Corp.

Ziba helped select a name for the system--Meridia--suggesting global reach. It then designed 10 products for the six companies, including two keyboards, two monitors, two drives, and the all-in-one computer/monitor that won a bronze IDEA award. The products share the same design "language": a simple crisp shape with soft curves, colorful buttons, front-facing speakers, and an indent slot at the top that doubles as a microphone holder.

Ziba's work highlights what can--and cannot--be accomplished with design. Although each of the six companies wanted to break into international markets with a brand of its own, the world of subcontracting is the only one they know. No sooner did they have Ziba's design in hand than some began shopping it around to their old customers. Instead of establishing their own global identity to compete with the likes of Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp.--the whole point of hiring Ziba--the Taiwanese are drifting back to what they know best: selling hardware to big PC makers, who then slap on their own labels. When it comes to global business, good design is necessary but not always sufficient.By Dori Jones Yang in Seattle

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