China's New Focus On Design

Beijing wants to produce a new wave of designers who can help China move beyond a manufacturing economy

China has caught up to the U.S. and Western Europe in great swaths of the economy. Yet China's schools lag Western counterparts in teaching "design thinking," or taking the problem-solving process designers use to create products and applying it to the greater tasks of running a business. Many schools still teach design within the framework of fine arts, without a significant nod toward business or other disciplines.

Now the central government is developing a design policy to help China move beyond a manufacturing economy and forward in implementing cross-disciplinary education and bridging left- and right-brained thinking. As in other sectors, schools are beginning to train a new wave of design managers "with Chinese characteristics" who can apply design thinking in a context that fits China's commercial and political landscape.

"With almost a million students studying design in universities, design education is a national issue," says Wang Min, dean of the school of design at China's Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. "Most people don't really know what design can do for them." Min, who was formerly the design director for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, adds. "In many places, we still need to promote design and design thinking."


CAFA is overseen by the Ministry of Education, the central government body that regulates state school curriculum. Since 2004, it has offered a Master's in Design Management and Wang says CAFA is considering forming a partnership with a business school to develop an MBA with a design curriculum. Tsinghua University in Beijing has been working with schools and design organizations around the world to explore innovation, design and management—themes of this year's Tsinghua International Design Management Symposium.

In south-central China, Hunan University is focusing on research-based design with a focus on human-centered design and design strategy. Also since 2004, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) has offered a master's in design (Design Strategies) that integrates design, business and technology.

Shanghai's Tongji University, one of China's top technical schools, tapped experts from schools around the world, including HKPU and IIT, to advise on the launch of the new College of Design & Innovation, which opened in May. The college, which replaces the Art & Design Dept. under the College of Architecture & Urban Planning, hopes to foster innovation in China through design research, design management and education, and will focus on international, interdisciplinary cooperation.

Looking for Respect

Lorraine Justice, head of HKPU's design school and member of the advisory group to Tongji's new college, says the school will offer a research-based program. The university also founded the Tongji-KIC Design Innovation Center in Shanghai to encourage collaboration between industry and academic institutions. "Design education in Tongji is transferring from Bauhaus to D school" and will be more international, inter-disciplinary, and innovative, pledges Lou Yongqi, a professor and deputy head of the new college.

Based on experiences in the developed world, however, the transition might not be quick or easy. Even today in the U.S., "the fact that most design programs are in art schools is problematic," says John Rousseau, design director at brand design firm Hornall Anderson. Because many schools have focused on the craft of design, with little interaction with business, communications, and computer science, he says, design graduates often are ill-prepared to collaborate with other professionals.

As China's economy continues to shift from its manufacturing roots, experts hope that design can become a respected industry in its own right. In Beijing, the creative industry, which includes disciplines such as art and architecture, tourism, and sports, grew by 18%, to $106 billion in 2007, according to local media reports. Wang says better statistics about the value of the design sector in China are difficult to come by, but he says, "We also need this number to promote the design industry."

Field Still in Its Infancy

Business is doing its part, too. In 2002, Carnegie Mellon graduate Elaine Ann founded Kaizor Innovation, an innovation consultancy in Hong Kong. Kaizor has worked with the Hong Kong and Huizhou governments and quasi-government entities such as the Hong Kong Design Center, Hong Kong Productivity Council, and Hong Kong Science & Technology Park to teach design thinking and "human-centered design"—a methodology that bases design around the needs and habits of the end user—to business executives and government officials.

Ann has also seen a small number of first-tier, up-and-coming Chinese companies, including Lenovo, Baidu (BIDU), Alibaba, Huawei, Changhong, and BuBuGao, starting to establish user experience design teams, which focus on how people interact with a product or service, and are doing user research overseas. But because designers have varied levels of training and experience and many come from other disciplines, she says, the field is still in its infancy, like the U.S. was 10 to 20 years ago. "Many are stuck at how to convince management to incorporate such methodologies into the entire operation," she says.

In recent years, Ying Zhang, frog Design's general manager for Asia, has seen design and education begin to open up to new approaches. Recently, frog Shanghai has received more requests from both large and small Chinese companies for help with product innovation.

Mandate for Change

Still, Zhang says, most Chinese firms continue to function as design outsourcers, supplementing clients' teams rather than providing innovative strategy. For now, frog does not face much competition from local companies, but they "are growing fast, so we are always very cautious about things to [maintain] our status," says Zhang. As exports decrease and labor costs rise, "most companies in China have realized, especially over the past year, that they must begin changing the original manufacture-oriented model to survive."

Chinese design schools and shops still may be behind, but China has shown, particularly when the central government gets involved, that it can learn quickly.

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