Sun Yunbo never dreamed he might one day design cars. In fact, the farm boy from China's Jilin Province didn't even ride in an automobile until age 19. So the notion that his creations might someday roll off an assembly line was "absolutely unimaginable," Sun says. "A car was a mysterious thing." Today, though, Sun is one of 21 Chinese designers working on the Buick Excelle, a new sedan that General Motors Corp. plans to start selling in China this fall. "Now auto design is natural for me," Sun says.
Sun is at the vanguard of a trend that's shaking the world of design. As China grew into an export powerhouse over the past decade, most of what its factories churned out was designed elsewhere. Now, like the Japanese in the 1970s and the Koreans in the 1990s, Chinese companies are keen to reap the higher margins and market share that often reward flashy, well-designed products. "Our goal is the transition from 'Made in China' to 'Designed in China,"' says He Renke, chairman of the industrial design department at Hunan University.
That's a big change from a decade ago, when industrial design was virtually unheard of in China. Today the country boasts some 200 design schools that churn out as many as 8,000 graduates a year. Hundreds more top Chinese students are flocking to the best U.S. and European graduate programs in design. "The students are blazingly smart," says Patrick Whitney, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology's design school, which has a cooperative program with Tsinghua University's Academy of Arts & Design in Beijing.
GM helped get the movement rolling back in 1997. Together with its manufacturing partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., the carmaker established the design center in Shanghai, where Sun works. Since then, Siemens, (SI ) Mobile, LG Electronics, and Electrolux (ELUX ) have used young local designers to create products tailored to China's domestic market. "It really blows my mind how dedicated they are," says Tim Parsey, director of consumer-experience design for Motorola (MOT ) Inc.'s Personal Communications Div., which has seven designers in Beijing working on mobile phones aimed at the Chinese market.
Even so, it may be a while before designers in Milan, London, or Detroit need to worry about finding a new line of work. So far, most Chinese designers have simply tweaked color and form for export products, while conceptual work on new cars, appliances, and electronic gadgets is done in Europe or the U.S. "They have good designers, but they don't know the U.S. market" in many products, says Jerry W. Edwards, executive vice-president for merchandising at retailer Home Depot Inc., which hires Chinese subcontractors to produce items such as faucets and ceiling fans.
Despite the growing numbers of design schools in China, some wonder whether China's education system ultimately will be able to churn out world-class designers in quantity. China's Confucian emphasis on learning by rote stifles creative thinking and makes team members reluctant to speak out, says Zhou Yi, a former teacher of industrial design at Shanghai's Tongji University who now heads S.Point, an independent firm that employs 17 designers and engineers doing work for the likes of Siemens Mobile, Electrolux, and Intel (INTC ) "At brainstorming sessions, they just sit there," says Zhou. "Even though they are thinking and have ideas, they don't say anything."
Yet for products aimed at increasingly sophisticated consumers on the mainland, it's hard to beat Chinese designers. Time was, anything foreign could be easily flogged in China, no matter how clunky the design. Today, though, shoppers demand products with more pizzazz. For evidence, look no further than the mobile-phone market. Chinese manufacturers have tripled their market share, to 30% today from 10% in 2001, largely because of splashy designs such as the gem-studded handsets offered by TCL International Holdings Ltd. "How do they sell so well? They under- stand local tastes," says Motorola's di- rector of consumer design, Kumo Chiu.
GM is hoping for similar success with the $21,000 Excelle. The Chinese prefer more chrome and detailing in their automobiles, while Westerners go for more organic styling, says Burt Wong, GM's top vehicle designer in Shanghai. So the Excelle's grille is larger than on U.S. Buicks and versions of the Excelle that are being sold elsewhere, and its wraparound headlights are meant to evoke the eyes of the mythical phoenix. "A car needs to show status and power, but shouldn't be aggressive," Wong says.
It's not just multinationals that are discovering Chinese designers. Local companies are also looking to give their brands a lift through better design. Lenovo, formerly known as Legend Holdings Ltd., has hired Ziba Design Inc. of Portland, Ore., to beef up its design program. China's largest TV manufacturer, Changhong Electric, and construction-equipment maker Sany Heavy Industry Group have hired S.Point to give their brands more flair. And white-goods maker Haier Group established a design unit back in 1994. Today the clean, cool lines of its refrigerators and washing machines help boost its sales around the world.
Chinese designs are even finding their way onto shelves of North American and European stores. Some Philips DVD players and Ryobi power tools were designed in China. And the pleasing contours of Black & Decker (BDK ) new irons came from drafting boards in Guangdong. The Chinese "are surprisingly in touch with design trends," says Steven Hecker, director of new-product development at Applica Consumer Products, which makes Black & Decker Corp. small appliances under license.
That means sooner or later China will be a design force to be reckoned with. For a glimpse of the future, check out 28-year-old Fang Zhen, who works with Sun at GM. He sports orange hair, favors black T-shirts and cargo pants, and looks to Italy for inspiration. "First, I want to be the Giorgio Giugiaro of China," says Fang, referring to the legendary Italian who designed Alfa Romeos, Lamborghinis, and the 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. "Then I want to be a top auto designer globally." With that kind of ambition coming out of Shanghai, designers in the West may want to keep one eye on the rearview mirror.
By Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong and Dexter Roberts in Beijing