Do North American designers face a threat from competition in Asia?
Elaine Ann, director of Kaizor Innovation in Hong Kong, said designers in China are gaining sophistication in form-making, styling and technical rendering for a very low cost, compared with their U.S. counterparts.
An entry-level industrial designer in a first-tier city such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou earns about $400 per month - about the same cost as a few hours' worth of freelance design in the United States.
Ann said she ``will be very worried if U.S. designers are practicing design in terms of repackaging existing products instead of new product innovation.''
``Just as certain labor-intensive programming jobs moved to India, Israel and China, `design' in terms of design production and execution of heavy jobs also will migrate over to China because of the low labor cost.''
But not everyone agrees that China poses a near-term threat.
``I do not see design jobs leaving the U.S.,'' said Lorraine Justice, director of the industrial design program at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Charles Jones, vice president of global consumer design for Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Mich., agrees.
It takes decades to develop the combination of primary and secondary education, internships and industry follow-through to train top-level design talent, Jones said. ``I am certain Asia will get there eventually,'' but not in the next five years.
``If you look at design leaders of most global corporations ... most of that design talent is coming out of the U.S. or Western Europe,'' Jones said.
Also, the United States probably doesn't have to fear losing industrial design work, Jones said. Most North American corporations employ one industrial designer to roughly 100 engineers.
``If you are running a company and looking at offshoring technical jobs vs. those few in design, that is a straightforward business decision.''
Chinese natives have a cultural handicap in designing for elsewhere, said Bob Gibson, president of Bolt Group Inc., a design firm in Charlotte, N.C. Chinese designers do not use the products; they don't go home, for instance, and fire up a barbecue grill.
Bolt's clients are geared to product sales in the U.S. market, but ``not necessarily production in the U.S.,'' Gibson said. To do their job well, industrial designers need personal experience or access to the market.
Gibson sees a future for the U.S. design community.
``All of us across the board ask the question, `Are we going to be relevant in the future?' '' he said. ``So far, absolutely.''
Ann noted a trend for U.S. industrial designers to visit south China often for manufacturing or design activities.
``According to the Trade Development Council of Hong Kong, manufacturers prefer to use Hong Kong designers, as they have an ability to integrate Chinese culture into the design and have a better understanding of the mainland market,'' Ann said.
Designers need to understand Chinese cultural values, social behaviors and political backgrounds, Ann said. ``Plus, China is not one market.''
Georgia Tech's Justice noted the importance of a country keeping design capabilities to retain its culture. ``Will all design in Scandinavia be sent to Asia? What would that do to Scandinavian culture?''
In ramping up, China wants designers to design primarily for its market. ``[That] doesn't mean Europe and the U.S. and other countries doing a lot of design should throw in the towel,'' Justice said.
``[The Chinese] know to compete globally and will probably compete with us on price and time to market. ... After a while, that only goes so far. We cannot guarantee that those products would appeal to our markets.''