If a lesson can be taken from the massive toy recalls in the U.S. and Europe last year, many point to quality control. But don't forget - design is important.
In fact, 18.2 million of the Mattel toys recalled in August 2007 were declared hazardous because of a design flaw: small magnets that children could easily swallow.
Although further details were not disclosed, El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel Inc. said the company is doing some design work in Asia.
Tim Fletcher, a design industry veteran with extensive experience in the United States and Asia, helps bring together the design process, manufacturing and final product. He is the International Liaison Officer in Asia for the Industrial Designers Society of America, based in Dulles, Va. He also teaches at the School of Design of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, as an assistant professor of industrial design.
He recently answered Plastics News' questions, via e-mail, about design trends in Asia and the United States.
Q: What types of design are Western-brand owners currently outsourcing to Asia? What are they keeping at home?
Fletcher: This would depend on the brand owner. For those that see design as not important, they are looking for cheap cost of design. For the larger multinational companies they are looking for: a 24-hour design process with an office in the U.S., Asia or Europe trading projects to the time zone that is awake; or [establishing] design in China for products to be purchased on the China market.
As to what they are keeping at home, it would be products that are culturally specific and products that have high intellectual- property content.
Q: How do design firms control quality and assure manufacturability in the specific region where the products will be made?
Fletcher: Smart design firms have a presence in China to make sure quality is being met. When I was designing baby products for large corporations in the 1990s, I was in China checking the factories all of the time. Also every shipment was inspected for quality and safety before being loaded on the ship. It just made good business sense to make sure the products were good before my companies actually ``owned'' them. In my personal opinion, the fierce cost competitiveness required by the major retail companies has caused brands to stop the inspection of each shipment in order to reduce costs.
Q: How does design affect quality, in your opinion?
Fletcher: First, because not all U.S. designers are coming to China, though the smart ones are, they have no understanding of Chinese manufacturing practices and systems. If these designers don't know how Chinese factories are run, then they are designing for U.S.-style factories, which are all run by automated processes with environmentally controlled buildings and educated workers who are allowed to stop the manufacturing process if they think something is wrong.
You design a product completely differently for that type of factory vs. many factories in China, which are nonautomated, open to the environment and have less-educated workers who are often not given the ability to have any control of the process. I see a change in the workers' ability to have some control but it is far from the standard yet.
But ultimately the recent issues with Chinese product quality come from the ``Wal-Mart effect.'' The U.S. consumers believe that products can continue to stay low cost; in fact, they count on it to keep their lifestyle. Therefore, Wal-Mart and other U.S. retailers are forcing products to remain cheap. China's inflation rate means that everything is getting more expensive. So the only way to keep things cheap is to outsource manufacturing - which gave Mattel the lead paint - and skip important steps, like doing proper quality control in China. This problem will not go away until the U.S. consumer is taught that they must buy fewer things that cost more. If this lesson is not taught, then, in the short term the quality problems will continue, and in the long term, the U.S. and Chinese economies will fail.
I say this because of a phrase I made up that some people are using now. It is ``China and the U.S. are Siamese twins that don't know each other very well.''
If you don't know what Siamese twins are, they are twins that are born physically connected to each other. They often share an organ together and it is difficult to surgically separate them. I think this phrase goes well with the current relations between China and the United States.
Q: Do you think Asian designers have an advantage or disadvantage to design products for the U.S, market? What about American design firms that now work for the Asian market?
Fletcher: My personal opinion is that design is so tied to culture that I believe that Chinese designers should not be designing for the U.S. market in the same way that U.S. designers should not design for the China market.
I was asked by Chinese students what China could learn from Western designers. I said that learning the design process is good, but stop trying to copy the style of Western products. China has a wonderful history and culture, and it is time for Chinese designers to show how they abstract this history and culture into the way their products look.
The design outsourcing in the 1990s did not work because design is largely cultural. It is based on your culture's art, literature, architecture and other belief systems. In the design of baby products from China that I saw, there were many animal characters that had the look of Japanese cartoons, like Hello Kitty. In the U.S., baby products were moving away from representative shapes to more abstract shapes. In the beginning of the '90s, they were simple abstract shapes - circles, ovals, cylinders - and later they became more organic shapes - many complex curves. So the outsourced designs that came from China looked old and outdated, like something from the 1980s. Also, Asian representations of animals look completely different from American representations of animals, which are strongly influenced by the ancient drawings of animals by Native Americans.
The other thing that continues to happen with Chinese design outsourcing is that the manufacturers send designs to marketing or sales [staffs], instead of sending them to the design team. This makes U.S. designers very angry, because they are trying to create a design language for the brand and then marketing forces other designs in that don't fit. I have heard complaints about this recently in the consumer electronics business. While design has become more important, marketing still has more power in many corporations.
I also believe the same is true for U.S. designers trying to design for the Chinese market. I see it happening, but I think it is doomed to failure. In Wuxi, [China], I had a manufacturer ask me to design a tea kettle for him. I told him, ``No, I am an American and we are not a tea culture. Find a Chinese designer to create an appropriate tea kettle design.'' The manufacturer was shocked at my answer.
I do see a difference in how the U.S. and Europe are handling design in China.
I see many Europeans bringing in their star designers to create products for the Chinese market. Their mind-set is to design for Chinese companies, but from their European offices.
Most U.S. companies seem to be trying to set up Chinese offices and hire local designers and teach them the design process, but allow the designers to develop culturally appropriate forms. This is a long-term business strategy. We will see which is more effective.
Q: What is the best thing for Western companies to do, on the design front?
Fletcher: Design is becoming much more important in the West and most companies are realizing that design is more of a strategic tool for their businesses today. In my opinion, the final piece will be to use design to get out of the low-cost retail environments that they may find themselves trapped in. Also the new theories of design science for companies will need to become more widespread. In a short form, design thinking is using certain design tools in other areas of the company to make them work better.
Q: How fast is the trend of outsourcing design service growing? I suppose it's easier to transfer across regions, since it does not involve manufacturing space, machinery and other physical assets.
Fletcher: I think the outsourcing of design, purely for cheap U.S. design by Chinese, is decreasing. The cultural issue transfer is too much of a problem. People tried it with Hong Kong in the late 1990s with no success. The Chinese can be part of the process, of designing U.S. products, but not completely in control.
Q: What's your take on the design education, talents and services in China, especially on the mainland?
Fletcher: The schools have very good facilities and the level of sophistication in the look of the product is highly refined. The part that is missing is the research to find out what the users really need and want.
Design, in China, still seems to be a styling exercise instead of innovation producing. This is also an issue with Chinese businesses that ask, ``How much will it cost to restyle my product?'' instead of ``How can you make my products more innovative?''
Businesses also seem to think that Chinese designers are inferior and if they can just get a Western designer to do the work, then that is better.