Insightful article on Design and China

Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Munson have written an extremely insightful article on Core77 titled

We Got Sick of Hearing About Design & China, So we Got on a Plane and Went There

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?

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2 Responses to Insightful article on Design and China

  1. As a student member of IDSA, I recently filled out a survey from IDSA asking if members thought they should be a global organization. I was unsure because of the “China” threat. You have put an interesting wrench in my thinking. Perhaps China’s culture will not allow Chinese designers to do what American designers do. What can we learn from a Chinese design perspective? I’m still nervous about the competition, but maybe there are some cooperative things to look towards.
    Anita
    Industrial Design: Innovation, Problem Solving & Much More

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    Even if China’s designers were to level with America’s designers, they say that there’s about a 20 year lead time. At least from what I’ve seen , but certainly cooperative things, in the long run, are more beneficial than competitive things. There are opportunities for designers, that they can find suitable to their skills and interests, carving a niche for themselves (not necessarily rock star designer style). For example, you could start learning Mandarin, and planning a “bridge” career where you can bridge between the design work being done for US firms, locally or numerous other ways.
    But do I “fear” the takeover of the industry, no, because there comes a time in the cycle when changes overtake industries, it’s natural, it’s how you see the changes and what adjustments you make and how you respond that, I believe, ensures success or failure.

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