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Innovation & Design

Exploring Design in China

Off the Couch

There has certainly been a great deal of speculation

lately regarding the real or perceived rise of Chinese

industrial design. We say "perceived rise" to emphasize

that their impending world domination in this field is

not a foregone conclusion, despite the frequent flurries

of listserve chatter and design-conference panel

discussions supporting such a notion.

We would agree that China's entr?e into the global design

community demands careful attention as the stakes are

high -- remember when US factories weren't filled with

yuppies and their Sub-Zero refrigerators (made in China)?

But so much of what we have been hearing smacks of

alarmism and over-reaching conjecture. We were dogged by

the question of what is really going on with Chinese

industrial design -- education and practice -- so we decided to

go there and get a glimpse for ourselves.

Spanning May and June, 2005, we spent three weeks

traveling in China -- starting in Shanghai, then 1,000 miles

west to Chengdu (Szechuan province), and back east to

Beijing. In addition to meeting with Chinese industrial

designers and even western entrepreneurs probing the

mainland design market, we had the good fortune of being

invited to lecture at one of the most established

industrial design departments in the country -- Southern

Yangtze University, School of Design, located 80 miles

east of Shanghai. (They were extremely gracious hosts,

and we are grateful for all of their efforts.)

So we thought we would share some of our impressions.

Chinese Schoolin'

While discussing the state of Chinese industrial design

with students, faculty, and practitioners, we were struck

most by the challenges facing them.

Having heard the statistics about China's now 400+ design

schools and 10,000+ graduates each year, we were

surprised to find that only a small portion actually

finds design employment. Numbers like that (there has

been a 2,000% increase in the number of design schools

since the 1980s) makes you think that there is great

demand. However, students' outlook on job prospects

seemed worse than in the US; they had very low

expectations that they would be working designers in at

least the near future.

While we are advocates of design education being useful

in fields outside of traditional boundaries (we both have

full-time academic positions), there is a question about

what a backlog of many several tens of thousands of

educated designers would mean. (We realize that this is a

very small portion of a 1.4+ billion population, but the

staggering numbers are what make this all the more


Will an oversupply of Chinese designers drive wages down,

helping to further commoditize design skills? Could there

possibly be enough work to absorb even the present,

thousands-per-year graduation rate? (And Good God, what

would that mean for the environment if they were all

designing products?!) What would an abundance of Chinese

designers hungry for work mean to the design market in

other countries -- what types of spillover could occur?

An Indiscriminate Chinese Market

While an overage of graduates is nothing new to countries

like Australia, Britain, and the US (among so many

others), why do the near-term possibilities for the

Chinese designer seem so daunting? After all, there are

so many products being engineered and produced for

China's large and growing domestic market. Simply, the

answer has to do with how immature their market and (dare

we say) quasi-capitalistic-production system are.

We were struck by the similarity between the Chinese

market and the post-war American market of the late 1940s

and 1950s. It is so large and relatively unsophisticated,

that bad design sells quite well. Many Chinese

manufacturers don't see a need for designers, or even

good design -- there is little business rationale to spend

on design.

The only reason there is more "good design" in the West

is because we have had to invest in it as a necessary

differentiator within saturated markets. Why should

Chinese manufacturers employ designers, when the schlock

their engineers come up with can't be cranked out fast


Or similarly, why do they need designers when

manufacturers can "steal" the intellectual property of

the rest of the world? Even cars are brazenly knocked


China loves foreign goods and brands (partly because

their own are seen as low-quality), and manufacturers

serving the Chinese market are compelled to just ape

existing designs. The design skills needed to update a

product line, or knock off the hottest gadget, aren't

particularly sophisticated.

And this is something that Chinese design educators and

students openly admit. As one professor mentioned in

broken English (that is infinitely better than our

essentially non-existent Mandarin), "Our creative is not

good." Several teachers that we spoke with lamented that

Chinese design education focuses on traditional styling

and basic problem-solving skills rather than the bigger,

problem-defining issues that they could be tackling. This

is a similar issue in the US, but is a more pronounced

problem there.

Business Before (Creative) Pleasure

The real-world-business focus became awkwardly apparent

as we lectured to several hundred Chinese

students -- Stephanie on an explorative (year 2020) project

surrounding commodity trading at the Chicago Mercantile

Exchange and Bruce on the research and development work

of the think-tank, Ideation Group, at Haworth.

This type of conceptual, forward-thinking,

sometimges-pie-in-the-sky design work was largely lost on

them. While in the US these types of projects are sought

after and have a bit of cachet, the Chinese students kept

asking, "why?" Through their questions and comments we

were struck with the sense that they just did not value

design work that stretched very far from the exigencies

of daily, business-as-usual manufacturing.

And this seems to be the biggest difference between much

of the ID education in the US (which we can speak most

for) and China. As so many have previously stated, this

innovation and problem-definition work is what should

differentiate the US in the future, amidst the

commodification of industrial design from abroad. Indeed,

what other choice do we now have when Chinese designers

can provide styling for a fraction of western fees? We

agree that US ID education has to move even further

upstream to avoid future irrelevancy.

But this also raises the question of how long it will

take before China's 10,000/year graduates are doing this

too. One Chinese professor stated that it would be forty

years until they had widely developed the upfront

research, ideation, and problem definition skills that

are taught in some of the more forward-thinking US design

departments. Certainly such a forecast gives the West

some time, even if it were off by a couple of decades,

but it begs the question of what then? While this kind of

soothsaying is interesting, and helps illustrate the

present thinking of design, looking too far into any

nation's future is a precarious endeavor.

What We Don't Talk About

Some of the lesser-discussed challenges facing China that

would impact design have to do with social and political

issues. Many scholars both within China and from abroad

are quick to point out the many (enormous) hurdles that

the Chinese will face in the future. Remember that they

are a communist country playing in a capitalist sandbox

(wonderfully evident in the paradoxical gauntlet of the

hundreds of state-sanctioned, Mau-ware Tchochki hawkers

that line the exit area of the Chairman Mau Mausoleum in

Tian'an Men Square, which solemnly displays the preserved

body of this ur-communist hero).

There are enormous issues of personal and social freedom

that challenge the core of the Chinese political system.

Also, the Chinese are engaged in a massive social

experiment in uprooting hundreds of millions of rural

folk and forcing them to live in (newly-made) cities,

hoping that there will be employment, civility, and

happiness. There is also a massive over-investment in

infrastructure -- superhighways are constructed with no

destination, and massive hospital-complex projects are

abandoned half-way through, only to be inhabited later by

homeless Chinese.

There are also the issues of enormous economic

speculation (the crushing challenge of any communist

regime); a corrupt (even in light of recent US and

European events) stock market; little willingness to

abide by intellectual property issues at home,

challenging global relationships; the looming Taiwan

issue, whose gravity is little understood by the common

Westerner; and a deep-rooted culture where seniority is

nearly dictatorial, challenging innovation and squashing

bottom-up insight.

Quintessential American "Can-Do" Optimism

So while we would agree that the China issue is hugely

important in terms of threats and opportunities for US

industrial design (and all others nations), it is also

important to appreciate the many social, cultural, and

political issues and challenges at play. Unlike other

professions that have already been crippled by

outsourcing, US industrial design has an opportunity to

reconsider the competitive landscape and adjust

accordingly. Our thoughts are that now there might

actually be more opportunities than threats -- if we are

smart about it.

But this will require us to avoid the pitfalls of

xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and arrogance to which we

frequently fall victim. The China question provides the

opportunity for us to rethink what design education is

all about and what the business of design is all about.

If the US is indeed a leader in up-stream design

thinking, problem definition, and ideation, then we now

have the luxury and opportunity to apply this aptitude

toward the question of Design itself. Let's get off the

couch (for it might eventually be designed in China,

rather than just made in China).

Bruce M. Tharp was recently hired to teach at the School

of the Art Institute of Chicago in their new graduate

program in Designed Objects. He is also an independent

designer and consults for his former employer, the

Ideation Group, at Haworth, helping to bridge the gap

between research and design solutions. In addition to a

doctoral education in sociocultural anthropology, he

holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Bucknell

University and a master's degree in industrial design

from Pratt Institute.

Stephanie Munson is an Assistant Professor of Industrial

Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she

teaches industrial design and interactive product design

studios. She holds an MID from the Rhode Island School of

Design and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the

University of Michigan.

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