China's manufacturers and designers must learn to think more creatively to stimulate innovation and build value-added brands, but are hamstrung by design inexperience and traditional cultural values that tend to discourage such thinking.
While change - driven by a new, wired, outward-looking generation - is coming, the process is likely to take years to evolve.
That is the view of Cathy Huang, founder and general manager of Shanghai-based China Bridge International, which claims to be China's first provider of design management consulting services. A former project manager with Chinese appliance maker Haier Group and former marketing director for the GE/Fitch design shop in Shanghai, Huang notes that industrial design is still a relatively new discipline in China, having begun only in the 1980s.
She summarizes China's design evolution by decades:
* The 1980s were a period of straight copying of other people's products.
* The 1990s can be characterized by ``following,'' meaning Chinese firms tended to imitate, and perhaps slightly modify, popular designs created elsewhere.
* The 2000s are seeing a strong rise in ``localization,'' meaning the adaptation of existing products to Chinese users' specific desires and needs.
* The 2010s will yield true innovation by local designers for the needs of China and other markets.
But one of her major concerns is the lack of qualified teachers to educate China's many eager design students. Many teachers have been plucked from technical or art backgrounds and lack any depth of knowledge or practical experience in the field.
``The teachers are not qualified enough. They don't know how to teach industrial design,'' she said in a July 6 interview in Shanghai. Huang - who estimates that design of some type is taught in perhaps 300 schools across China - considers that a serious problem, with no immediate fix. Top designers and design educators mostly will go where the money is, and that is not likely to be China, at least in the medium term, she said.
The 29-year-old Huang, who graduated with an industrial design degree from NanJing University of Science and Technology, said: ``Nobody understood what industrial design was when I was studying it in the early 1990s. Now, many students know this major and the importance of brand to the Chinese manufacturer. But still, most [Chinese] companies don't understand the value of design.''
Still, China does have some advantages. Chinese design students are adept at using computers and are excellent practitioners of such computer-aided-design software as Pro/Engineer, Alias, Rhino and the like.
In that area, Chinese students ``are way better than the design students I saw in Europe and the U.S.,'' she said. And she acknowledges that ``a few Chinese industrial design firms are outstanding. They are very good at execution'' - perhaps the equal to renowned Western firms such as IDEO or GE/Fitch.
``But for really innovative products, it's another story,'' she said. ``The key difference between Western and Chinese design firms is vision and attitude toward the future.''
Thousands of years of Chinese culture have taught young people to obey their parents and teachers, and not to question or challenge authority. Though independent thinking is slowly on the rise, that age-old mind-set still dominates today. Such heritage does not lend itself to creative thinking, she noted.
``I am worried about this in China,'' Huang said. Chinese design students ``graduate with great skills but little vision, foresight or creativity.''
She also said that understanding materials is a weak point at design schools in China, and hence offers a great opportunity for Western firms that wish to fill the void. She credited General Electric Corp. with doing ``a really good job'' of educating designers at its technology center in Shanghai.
She also praised firms such as Finland's Nokia Oyj, which set up a design center in China several years ago and has done an excellent job of localizing its mobile phones and other products to the Chinese consumer with a strong, consistent brand. She said Nokia's vision and action has allowed it to overtake competitors such as Motorola Inc. and Siemens AG in the huge, highly competitive Chinese cell-phone market.
``Innovation is our challenge,'' Huang said of China's designers. ``In the long term, Chinese companies need to be concerned with more than skin-deep styling.''
Huang - nominated earlier this year as one of the Shanghai Youth Federation's most influential young business leaders in Shanghai - is trying to do her part to advance the cause.
In 2003, she chaired the jury of International Forum Design GmbH's first ``iF design award.China,'' and she co-organized the 2004 contest. The winners are honored at the CeBIT Asia information-technology and telecommunications trade show in Shanghai, and showcase design excellence in high-tech products either designed or manufactured in China. The next award winners will be announced at the CeBIT Asia show in May.
Huang initiated the 2003 Design Leadership Summit in Shanghai and earlier this year worked with the Hong Kong Design Centre to create the first ``China Business for Designers Manual'' that aims to help Hong Kong designers do business on the mainland.
One year ago she founded her company to help serve as a bridge between China and international design resources, while also advancing design management skills in Chinese companies.
She said her five-person firm can leverage its network of contacts to do research and help Western manufacturers to better understand the China market, and assist with entry into the market for Western design firms by qualifying suppliers, advising on government relations and the like.
``In China, almost every day a new industrial design firm appears. But the companies that use design management as a tool will have better success.''