Innovate. Differentiate. Sophisticate.
Those measures can help North American designers withstand or soften an onslaught of competition from Asia, according to some in the industry.
The efforts of Asian governments and firms to boost design education should serve as ``a wake-up call for industry and government in the states and Europe,'' said Charles Jones, vice president of global consumer design for Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Mich. ``To a degree, we are resting on our laurels.''
Craig Vogel, a professor who co-directs a product development program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the situation in China is ``very similar to the position of the United States in 1900.''
``As China ramps up, it has the potential for the largest internal market in the world and the largest manufacturer,'' Vogel added.
``This country just doesn't get it,'' bemoaned Lorraine Justice, who directs the industrial design program at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. ``We have been hollering about strengthening design programs, [but the United States has] at most 53 design schools.'' Designers ``need to reckon with global changes.''
Hong Kong-based consultant Elaine Ann of Kaizor Innovation said she watches China closely.
``It is not all bad news to U.S. designers, as jobs requiring creativity, problem solving and lateral thinking will take a bit of time to develop in China. However, China will catch up eventually, just as [South] Korean design did in just 10 years,'' said Ann, whose firm helps companies understand design strategies for the Chinese market.
China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 and won the right to host the 2008 Olympic games. Both monumental steps triggered unprecedented levels of investment in infrastructure, education and social modernization.
The country's WTO status is prompting a dramatic lowering of trade barriers that had protected Chinese products. Chinese manufacturers realize they needed to increase their innovation and design capacity to compete with imported products.
Jones noted that governments and private industry in China, South Korea and Japan are spending impressive amounts of money to get up the design learning curve as fast as possible. In contrast, he said there is not enough industry-government focus on design in the United States.
``We have generations of knowledge and wisdom, but I also look with envy at some of the things the Chinese government and the [South] Korean government are beginning to do,'' Jones said in a recent telephone interview.
The realization spurred Jones to put more emphasis on a Whirlpool program to partner with universities and provide design-related internships. Annually, Whirlpool funds seven to 10 design internships in the United States, five in Europe and three to five in Mexico.
By year's end, Whirlpool expects to have a design center in India to complement regional production. The company is expanding the internship program to Asia, and the first crop of interns will support that center.
Ann thinks North American original brand manufacturers need to focus on making high-tech products. They no longer can compete based on pricing, as most low-tech, mature products are made in China, Ann said. Many multinational corporations have gone beyond manufacturing in China and set up research and development teams there.
Further, China's policies to attract foreign investment and encourage privatized companies have ``generated huge demand, giving rise to the design industry,'' Ann said. Foreign companies need research and insights about Chinese users to gain a market share in that country, she said.
Vogel added that North American firms need to create networks to sell products in China and take advantage of opportunities as the market starts to mature.
Right now, the trend in China is to give design services away for free if a customer uses Chinese manufacturing, Vogel said. The quality of the design is often not very good or comprehensive, he said, and mostly involves copying of best examples. That deficiency in quality is going to change rapidly, Vogel said.
``Once they get it all together, they will still be in a strong position for lower costs,'' he said.
The 3,300-member Industrial Designers Society of America in Dulles, Va., always is trying to win support for design, but IDSA is ``hamstrung by a lack of political clout ... vs. the tidal wave coming from Asia,'' said Vogel, a former IDSA president. ``Our only advantage is that the world loves American design.''
The U.S. design community needs to differentiate its offerings and exploit unique regional styles from places such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston and, recently, Atlanta, Vogel said. U.S. designers also have a head start in targeting specialty markets, such as ergonomic products for an aging population.
``For the next decade, China will look to the U.S. as a partner in global design,'' Vogel said. ``The bigger issue is that the U.S. must share the 21st century with a megapartner in the world.''