Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Munson have written an extremely insightful article on Core77 titled
I must say that it was difficult choice to say which I like better, the article itself or the title. Some interesting observations and things to think about, though I urge you to read the article in full.
- 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 find design employment. Numbers like that
(there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of design schools since
the 1980s) make 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.
- 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?
- 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. [NB’s NB: Reminds me of India in the late eighties and early nineties]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Much to think about, I’ve not even touched upon their paragraphs on the sociocultural and economic challenges inherent in Chinese culture and history and their impact on innovation and creativity. Cautiously hopeful, in light of the recent articles predicting doom and disaster for the US creative economy. But a strong and clear message that the local design industry cannot stand still and must innovate internally to keep the rapidly narrowing lead. Necessity is well known to be the mother of invention, however, will prosperity be the father of innovation?