Countries in central and Eastern Europe have become centers for manufacturing in the past 15 years, but now national governments are pushing for companies to begin embracing design as well.
New products will help countries once in the former Soviet bloc create new identities for themselves and more opportunities for their businesses.
``There are so many changes occurring, and it's going to change more in the next 20 years,'' said Judit Varhelyi, director of the Hungarian Design Council in Budapest and a member of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design's board of directors. Varhelyi spoke during an Oct. 19 interview at the ICSID and Industrial Designers Society of America conference in San Francisco. ICSID is based in Montreal, while IDSA is based in Dulles, Va.
While the region has been winning acclaim for its capabilities in making everything from cars to kitchen utensils, it still is working to overcome the 40-year gap in exposure to the West that happened during the Communist era from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.
``People living in one [country] didn't even know what was happening in other countries,'' Varhelyi said.
The emphasis since the late 1980s has been on bringing manufacturing up to speed, and adapting to a capitalist structure. Even now, most company owners focus on chasing contracts making parts for other international firms, said Luka Mjeda, director of the Croatian Chamber of Economy's newly formed Centre for Design in Zagreb. That has left them little time to work with designers and explore the potential for new products under their own brand that they can control.
It has been hard to convince them to invest in creating something new, when there is no guarantee they will see a return on those investments, he said.
And without manufacturers willing to invest in unproven products, designers had nowhere to take their ideas. Croatia has about 300 graduates of its design schools annually, but 85 percent of them are in graphic design, since there are jobs in that field.
Croatia can make products that people want, Mjeda said. It already is a top producer of kitchen chairs - but those chairs are designed and sold by the Swedish furniture giant Ikea.
``There's a circle and we need to close it,'' he said.
But manufacturers and governments alike are seeing the potential now to invest in design. Varhelyi coordinated a showing of industrial design concepts from throughout central and Eastern Europe. Croatia just launched its own center for design earlier this year.
``This is something we want to support,'' Mjeda said.
Changes are beginning to happen, Varhelyi said. Entrepreneurs are learning to adapt, and finding new confidence.
Hungary has a fledgling business in building small airplanes, she said, and composites molders have been showing their capabilities to firms that want small-volume production.
``They are finding niche markets,'' she said. ``It can happen on a small scale. It doesn't just have to be for large companies.''
Adapting design will not happen overnight. Varhelyi estimates it could be another 10 years before the region is comfortable with creating its own products, but the changes are coming.
``They have self-confidence now, which didn't exist before,'' she said. ``There's a sense of optimism now.''