At nearly every gathering of designers and manufacturers in China, there is talk about transforming the country's massive product manufacturing industry from made in China to created in China.
It is the new mantra being offered up as the solution to China's industrial problems. Clearly both its industry and government want that change to happen. But what is the situation today?
Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the well-known U.S. design firm IDEO and designer of the first laptop computer, thinks product design in mainland China is in the same place it was in Taiwan 20 years ago.
At that time, Taiwanese manufacturers were anxious to move beyond making things for others and start developing their own products for global markets, Moggridge said.
Over time Taiwanese manufacturers made that change, he said, led by consumer electronics firms like BenQ, Acer and AsusTek. Now Taiwanese firms are leading the way in introducing the first netbook computers, for example.
Some say Chinese companies, while developing rapidly, have much to learn before joining the ranks of the elite product development companies.
Zhou Yi, who founded Shanghai-based design consultancy s.point 13 years ago, said design remains a passive function at many Chinese firms that excel at production and technology but don't think enough about design and related disciplines like marketing.
A lot of Chinese companies and consumers do not understand industrial design, he said.
Both Zhou and Moggridge spoke at two days of industrial design events in Shenzhen, China, as part of the China (Shenzhen) International Industrial Design Festival and the Business of Design Week in Hong Kong.
Craig Vogel, a well-regarded design educator in the U.S. and past president of the Industrial Designers Society of America, said China's manufacturing industry so far has focused largely on making products to specifications set by other countries.
There is a big challenge for Chinese companies to integrate marketing strategies and to fully integrate design strategies, said Vogel, who is associate dean of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati.
Sophisticated product development requires detailed research into consumer behavior, not just product styling, he said.
It's a point that Moggridge also made: He said Palo Alto, Calif.-based IDEO, which employs 500 at offices around the world, only has about 75 true industrial designers; but, it has equal numbers of interaction designers, brand experts, physiologists and engineers working closely together on teams.
He suggested that Chinese product-development organizations pursue that multidisciplinary model.
It really takes practice for people to work fluently in that, Moggridge said. It took us a long time as a company to be able to do that.
Others said the Chinese design industry tends to work at a much faster pace than Western designers, to meet intense local demands.
People here [in China] just rush in and finish it, said Sun Ichiang, associate creative director for design studio Ziba Design in Portland, Ore.
From our standpoint, if we make this in the right way, it will take six months, he said. Here they can do it in six weeks. How do you judge that? How do you value that?
Vogel offered the example to the Shenzhen audience of American consumer product giant Procter & Gamble Co. He said the company has a long history of focusing on product design, and as an example, used proprietary technology and solid consumer research to develop the profitable Swiffer-brand line of home-cleaning equipment.
Perhaps more on point to the current state of smaller Chinese manufacturers, U.S. firms in old-line industrial businesses also have used good product design to their advantage, Vogel said.
Warehouse forklift manufacturer Crown Equipment Corp., in North Bremen, Ohio, began employing industrial designers decades ago, and has excelled in its markets because it closely studies the needs of warehouse workers the ultimate users of what it makes in its product development, Vogel said.
That design focus is an important part of the company going from a very small regional company 50 years ago to a global firm in its industry today, he said.
Chinese firms are, of course, moving up the corporate ladder, and Chinese design is developing. Chinese computer maker Lenovo bought IBM's personal-computer business, and global car companies are increasingly setting up design operations in China.
Chen Wen-Long, head of Taiwan's Nova Design, one of the largest independent design firms in the Chinese speaking world, advocates that Asian designers be more assertive in using their cultures in product development.
One northern European designer who has been running his firm's Hong Kong office for two years predicted that Asian-themed design will become more prominent.
I have seen excellent examples of products designed in an Asian style [that] would be very competitive in the international markets, said Kristian Keinanen, managing director of Finndex Hong Kong Ltd., part of Finndex Group in Helsinki.
As an example, he offered a motorcycle he had seen designed with elements of a Japanese samurai horse.
It sounds quite kitsch, but it was a beautiful object and would be quite successful if [produced] properly, Keinanen said. When they get forward with this kind of thinking, I'm sure that the Asian style will become the other major style line, with the Western style.
The organizers of the Shenzhen conference, the Shenzhen Industrial Design Profession Association, said the local design industry is developing quickly, and pointed to the city's designation in November 2008 as a City of Design by UNESCO.
UNESCO has given that designation to six cities, including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Montreal and Kobe, Japan. UNESCO said it was recognizing Shenzhen's nucleus of 6,000 design firms, employing 100,000 people, among its roughly 10 million residents.
In spite of the accolades, speakers at the conference said the economic situation is not particularly easy for design firms in China, and said the industry is struggling for business models.
Zhou said the overcapacity in China's manufacturing industry limits the amount of spending on research and development. As a result, he said, Chinese designers tend to be better at implementation, while international designers are better at insight and innovation.
Zhou also noted that some Chinese design firms are expanding into manufacturing, a development he believes is not good because it puts those firms into competition against manufacturing companies with stronger technical skills.
If you change a design company into a manufacturing company, that is a sad trend, Zhou said.
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