Manufacturers have spent more than 10 years learning how to do business in China.
They've made contacts with mold makers, with molders, with engineers. They've assembled parts and shipped them for sale globally.
Now, intrigued by the number of designers available in China and the low cost to hire those designers, they may be intrigued by the potential to send design work offshore as well.
But designs may not translate as easily as they want, designers working in Asia warned during the Industrial Designers Society of America conference, held Sept. 17-20 in Austin.
China's design schools focus on product design and emphasize bringing specific parts to the market quickly, not in the full line of product creation and marketing taken on by North American firms.
``[China's schools] focus on getting a product to market, not the entire package,'' said Elaine Ann, president and chief operating officer of Kaizor Innovation, a Hong Kong-based design company with offices in Beijing and Shanghai.
Ann was born in Hong Kong, but trained in the United States. She did her early work in the West, moving back to Asia only recently, and has seen the different approaches to the design process in both regions.
Designers trained in China have learned to focus on getting projects done quickly, sometimes within a week, said Lawrence Weng, director of Asia operations for Ignition Inc., based in Plano, Texas. But they haven't had the time to tap into the more creative aspects of the design process that would help companies redefine a market niche.
It is not that designers lack the capabilities of their Western counterparts, said Tim Fletcher, a visiting lecturer with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design. Instead, the Chinese culture does not have the same back-and-forth style of problem solving that is common in North America or Europe.
``What we're talking about here is Socrates vs. Confucius,'' he said. ``It goes a long way back. There are some completely different things going on in the mindset.''
In general, the Chinese designers want harmony in business decisions, and are not likely to raise questions or concerns. That can be a problem for a manufacturer relying on strong feedback in product development.
But at the same time, Chinese designers have a greater understanding of what consumers want in their products, Ann said, and if molders want to begin making items for sale within China, they should work with regional designers there - just as they would rely on North American designers for items sold in the United States.
Manufacturers should approach design in China with the same careful steps they took before opening initial operations there, she said, and not be swayed merely by the promise of low-cost alternatives.
``People need to be committed to the point that they might have to move there,'' she said.