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MasterBlaster
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Eh- but now I am thinking of Bruce Lee and Zhu Zhu Pets- and my argument is not as strong :)


davidhu
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cdaisy wrote:Respecting intellectual property would be a good start for the Chinese if they want to be taken seriously as a design culture.


I agree. I want to point out, though, that intellectual property and the "respect" of it is actually quite a Western-derived mindset. In a previous post of mine, I pointed out that Chinese culture has a long history of believing that the way to excel is to COPY the best. The idea of "it's not moral to copy someone better than myself" is not fostered as strongly as it is in the individual-oriented mindset of the West. (In fact, the individual-oriented mindset began as far back as the earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe (geocentric) theories that existed in the West until the 17th century. On the contrary, the Chinese have long held that earth was simply a temporal place existence--a tiny bit of the whole of the universe.) In Chinese culture, it has long been an obligation to copy someone better because the logic is, "How else would you be better? Certainly not by yourself!" When you have a history built on god-like emperors versus lowly peasants, it's easy to see why the general consensus was that the individual could wield only little power/influence.

ADD: Here's an example of Chinese mentality of innovation: bullet trains. Whether or not you like it, that's what it is.

Having said that, I also believe that design can sometimes make much more progress when it's a collective effort and when intellectual property is NOT a priority. You'll see that in designs for social changes, philanthropic efforts, and community services. Intellectual property rights definitely have their place in design, but I would also argue it's not always a requirement for bringing out good design.
Last edited by davidhu on April 19th, 2011, 4:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.


davidhu
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MasterBlaster wrote:A country or region will only become a cultural exporter, once it is an economic powerhouse. Until that is the case, it will ape the cultural exports of the dominant economic/political power. The extent to which the cultural power extends is the extent to which the rest of the world wants to be like that leader. The extent to which China becomes a design producer will depend on how much the rest of the world wants to be like China or follow in its footsteps. This is not to say that Chinese designers will not produce good design- but that design that comes from a Chinese viewpoint will only arise from confidence that customers will consume Chinese cultural exports.


I'm still pondering if your first sentence is true, but in any case, China already IS an economic powerhouse (#2 in the world, in fact). So by all means, by your definition, it's--at the very least--ready to become a cultural exporter.

As to whether or not people are ready to consume Chinese cultural exports, I think they are. However, it's long been a consumption of mostly superficially/stereotypically Chinese cultural symbols. This is, of course, partially the fault of the Chinese people themselves as they are eager to feed the West with low-margin, low-value goods. Again, self-reflection and an willingness to develop a sophisticated design mindset will be required.

The Chinese are developing very quickly in the mold of Western design. In the arguably most visible field of car design, domestic companies are rapidly improving their designs (if not quality). Both the Japanese and subsequently the South Korean brands quickly caught up and in many cases exceeded Western designs; it won't take long (within 10 yrs, I'd say) for the Chinese to make equally dependable and good-looking cars. What I would like to see happen, though, is for Chinese design to not simply "look better" and "sell at a lower price" than Western design. Chinese design has a real opportunity to be something more and something that can benefit design as a whole, and NOT be the focus of simply being cheaper than everyone else. I think we're on the cusp of that change; if we wait too long, then China will simply be America: the Second Coming. Times 10. Given the planet's limited resources, that's not what the world needs.

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one-word-plastics
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This is a great thread, for a few reasons:

1) It has a high intellectual tone that I haven't enjoyed on these boards in a while. Nice writing style David.

2) Other than a couple low shots the conversation seems to be genuine.

3) This is a fascinating topic that I've been observing first hand for the last 25 years. I've been involved in product development in China since 1996 and have watched Shenzhen grow from a fishing village into the workshop of the world. A very fast evolution with many growing pains.

I'll throw out my opinion in an abridged post.

I've been waiting for the "essence" of China to be translated into product designs for a while. I've worked with a lot of Chinese designers over the years and I think there are a few key reasons you won't see this happen in the near future:

a) Design education is weak - China is graduating an incredible number of designers from universities every year, but quantity does not equal quality. My observation is that graduates are being groomed for becoming Pro-E jockeys as versus free-thinkers. This is of course a generalization, but it's based on what I see at the companies that I deal with in South China.

b) The majority of design job opportunities in China are with companies making products for export. A US corporation or local trading company comes to China with their style guide (or someone else's "reference design") and asks a factory to give them 10 designs to review. This process is restrictive for the design staff and breeds "knock-off thinking" instead of "design thinking". If more Chinese companies opened their business models and began developing "open line" designs instead of only being involved with contract manufacturing then designers may have the opportunity to stretch their wings and fly. Recently I noticed that IKEA is opening a product development center in Shanghai to help their sourcing efforts. I'm not sure if this will include design or if it's strictly project management. This could be an opportunity for Chinese designers to develop localized products for China. I've shopped at several IKEAs in China and their mix is different than in the US.

c) For a designer to "reach back" and utilize some of the ethereal cultural elements in their contemporary designs is a challenge on many different planes, the biggest being the fact they're ethereal. It's a real challenge to reference Taoism in design. I guess the best example of this type of principle is Muji. I can feel the minimalism of traditional Japanese values when I walk in the store and look at the shelves full of simply designed products. The materials, forms, colors, function and packaging all embodies their brand message. But it's difficult for me to give another example!!

d) As China becomes more capitalistic and exposed to western culture through media and the internet the buying population seems to be less interested in "buying Chinese". The huge market that exists in China wants to buy Levis or Apple or Nike. The high cost of genuine products forces the working class to buy knock offs - which are readily available in most supermarkets. This is a simple supply and demand relationship. I'm shocked by the number of Chinese ladies carrying Louis Vuitton handbags to the grocery store!! Obviously this trend is difficult to reverse without some government intervention. I've witnessed a crack-down on stores that sell bootleg DVDs, but that's about it. There's a new wave of Chinese-owned sporting good stores appearing in urban areas. They seem to provide their customers a "Nike-like experience". They're well merchandised and offer nicely designed goods. Hopefully they won't become as saturated as the cell phone stores and kill each other!! The market may drive future demand for "Chinese inspired" design, but sometimes you need to ask yourself "if I build it will they come"?

I could go on-and-on with this topic. I've had this same conversation a hundred times over a few Tsingtaos in Shenzhen.

David - are you a practicing designer in China / US or an academic? I'd love to understand the background of your observations.
"Life is pretty simple: you do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”
—Leonardo da Vinci


enigma
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davidhu wrote: Having said that, I also believe that design can sometimes make much more progress when it's a collective effort and when intellectual property is NOT a priority. You'll see that in designs for social changes, philanthropic efforts, and community services. Intellectual property rights definitely have their place in design, but I would also argue it's not always a requirement for bringing out good design.


Congress enacted intellectual property laws as means to promote progress which is a legislative intent and mandate. IP law, collectively, incentivizes individuals and groups of individuals (teams) to develop innovative ideas to further civilization for a limited government protection (i.e., certain terms of years of protection). To that end, the West has done that quite effectively and well. With due respect to China and other cultures and their way of doing, thinking, etc., the modern China in the past 100 or so years with communist stronghold has impeded progress. Fast forward, China is exploiting capitalism just as much as capitalism has exploited China - it's the new wild, wild west. With respect to China and other Asian countries, counterfeiting, on every level, has been rampant and blunt. But, let's not be naive. Many in the West has done the same, but in a more subtle and clever ways, i.e., Microsoft copying the Apple user interface in the early '90s only to settle after a lawsuit was brought on by Apple.

I do get the gist of David's original post, but it would be a tall order in light of the clash and fusion between communism and capitalism for the moment.
Last edited by enigma on April 19th, 2011, 8:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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davidhu
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one-word-plastics wrote:This is a great thread, for a few reasons:
(Shortened for space. My apologies.)


I appreciate the kind words, one-word-plastics. At the risk of beating a dead horse (always a funny idiom to me), I want reiterate that I'm not trying to offer this as a perfect solution, because the 'problem' (to Westerners, at least, not yet the Chinese) is multi-faceted.

In response to your comments:
#3. I'm interested by the idea of "growing pains." I don't deny their existence; instead, I'd like to offer my view on why the Chinese have mostly allowed for it. To put it simply, they've gone through far worse. In the last century alone, they've endured their own holocaust, civil war, and a three-year-long famine (where at least 15 million died). When the country is having an unprecedented economic boom that took 500 million people (entire U.S. population: 311 million in 2010) OUT of poverty in 20 years, it would be willing to give up a lot. I think almost any country would, and--if you look at even the U.S.--many DID.

a. Design education in China IS weak. This is mostly a result of the same mindset that has guided the economic boom: get it while it's going. I'll fall back to the growing pains: when you have a trend (and in this case, it is design education), schools think it's easy to create design classes taught by under-qualified teachers. The logic is, "We'll attract students now. If there's any room for improvement, we can make them down the road. After all, why would anyone want to improve a program with no students?" This is a very different way of thinking from the West. In the West, we like to sort out as much as we can before we put something to use, primarily because we are so consumer-, market-, and time-driven that we often think first failure is the last failure. Don't be surprised or offended by this: it's prevalent in our economic, political, and social behaviors. For example:
- Designers are being increasingly frustrated in our corporate environment. Why? If there's any doubt that a product won't be an immediate success, then it won't be a success for the shareholders and so it won't be released. (e.g. Microsoft Courier)
- If a president cannot fix our economic situation in 18 months that's been 10 years in the making, we want him to step down. (You know who.)
- If we suspect that we are in any way slighted by someone, we sue--even if we never felt any physical or emotional harm.

Of course, you can name exceptions, but they don't make the rule. This is not so in Chinese culture. Again, as a result of the mimicking-the-best mindset, it is perfectly all right in Chinese culture to keep trying until you achieve your goal and then surpass it. Instead of pointing out the failures and giving up, design schools will set up programs without experience (and, of course, profit from it) but at the same time, push themselves to improve because they know they'll have to in order to stay competitive. It is expected that one will fail, but if you give up before trying, then it's more shameful than failing over and over again. That being said, design education in China will improve eventually. Even if only 10% of the schools improve; only 1% of the students are qualified to do design; and only 1% of THAT group is on par with foreign design students, that's still more than enough for now. And when that number inevitably grows, you'll begin to see why I'm saying without having bigger visions, China will simply become a second U.S. Except 10 times bigger.

c. I am, too, a fan of Muji because of the mindset that they have beyond their products. (If anyone has the opportunity to read this book, I highly recommend it: Designing Design by Kenya Hara.) Muji products are only a sliver of the thinking behind the company. I believe they are one of the very few companies that can put into practice what I mean by design of philosophy. However, I had hesitated to bring up Muji or any other company for two reasons: one, I wanted to avoid people simply saying that I want Chinese design to be just like Muji; two, I didn't want anyone's impression of Muji, good or bad, to distract from the topic. Of course, no harm done, but I wanted to stay on the safe side. I can go on and on about the merits of Muji, but that's for another time.

d. This is a bigger conversation than a online discussion can tackle, but here are my thoughts: Chinese won't stop buying knock-offs and foreign companies won't stop having to fight them UNTIL Chinese design has genuine validity and can show the world that it can lead design, too. Even then, knock-offs won't end; after all, even Americans in the U.S love to buy knock-offs (best example: private brands). I believe part of this desire to own--genuine or knock-offs--name brands stems from the fact that China's still very much in the developmental stage. The poverty that the Chinese endured relatively recently makes it highly desirable to disassociate from the past and to embrace artifacts of the modern societies. The appeal of Louis Vuitton is not because of its fine leather and that of Nike is not because of its superior performance--that's marketing's creation and the consumers' acceptance of the brand story. The true appeal of those brands is their representation of a comfortable and affluent society--one that the Chinese (quite justifiably) long for and one that is being fed to them as a utopian vision of the future. You can see this in many developing countries with a more or less free market; that's also why these brands can't justify the $1,000 bag or the $100 sneakers. Ironically, it's the Chinese who see these brands for exactly what they are: imagery. It doesn't really matter if the leather bag is genuine or if the soles of the shoes are really all that shock-absorbent. Westerners often see this desire only from one perspective: that of a copycat trying to make a quick buck. But it's also the same desire that drives many Americans to justify three-car garages, 3,000-sq.ft. homes, and heated seats in our cars. The only difference is that we have the privilege of having all of the basics already and we have the means to acquire extra-luxurious goods.

Your last question: I'll simply say I'm a designer by practice, but it's not important to the conversation what I do. I'd like everyone to come into the conversation without prejudices about the topic because of what I do, where I work, or where I come from. My observations come from lots of reading, thinking, and writing. Thank you for your input.


davidhu
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enigma wrote:Congress enacted intellectual property laws as means to promote progress which is a legislative intent and mandate. IP law, collectively, incentivizes individuals and groups of individuals (teams) to develop innovative ideas to further civilization for a limited government protection (i.e., certain terms of years of protection). To that end, the West has done that quite effectively and well. With due respect to China and other cultures and their way of doing, thinking, etc., the modern China in the past 100 or so years with communist stronghold has impeded progress. Fast forward, China is exploiting capitalism just as much as capitalism has exploited China - it's the new wild, wild west. With respect to China and other Asian countries, counterfeiting, on every level, has been rampant and blunt. But, let's not be naive. Many in the West has done the same, but in a more subtle and clever ways, i.e., Microsoft copying the Apple user interface in the early '90s only to settle after a lawsuit was brought on by Apple.

I do get the gist of David's original post, but it would be a tall order in light of the clash and fusion between communism and capitalism for the moment.


You may be right about why Congress enacted IP laws, but they are not the only way to incentivize people to innovate in order to "further civilization". There are lots of reasons people innovate and lots of things that can move civilization forward. After all, the concept of patent law began only about 300 years ago and the term IP didn't even exist until the 19th century, and yet civilization had been able to move forward just fine until then. And contrary to your statement about progress being impeded, China's rapid progress has NEVER been seen in the history of humankind. I think we should be careful about using the terms incentivize and progress. What incentives are we talking about? Is it money? If indeed true, then we would have a very pessimistic view of the world--one that I would not want to be a part of, because I believe and HOPE people would innovate without the incentive of money. Likewise, if, as designers, we set money to be our only incentive and expect IP laws to protect us and serve us, then I would also say the field of design is walking a dangerously self-destructive path. In fact, you'll see corporations being more motivated to circumvent patents in order to make a profit and not be sued. Meanwhile, corporations often apply for over-arching patents and never release a product due to cost; the end result being great, timely innovations never see the light of day. Don't get me wrong: I believe in the usefulness of IP laws; I simply don't believe it's the only way to incentivize people and much less move society forward. Best example? Open-source coding has given the technology some of the best and biggest innovations in the past few decades.


davidhu
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I came upon Core77's posting of Adam Werbach's short talk on cultural sustainability and I think it strengthens the idea that we need to seriously investigate how Chinese design can be shaped for the future. This affects not only the preservation of Chinese culture but also lays the framework to how we can continue to do the same for other cultures as well. If, as singletrack pointed out before, the world is homogenizing culturally, then it's even more important that we don't just lose them to anything that's--from the perspective of human history and future--temporary like social networks or ever-changing technology. Regardless of how some people may try to shake it off, our cultures are still a big part of what defines us and makes us unique; we should be motivated to preserve it--or, in the words of Mr. Werbach, sustain it--as designers.

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Hi David,

Interesting post, abet a rather long rhetoric.

I have also been thinking about this as well, but more from an Asian (of which China is part of) context.

Having worked in, with and around China for a number of years, the challenges of Chinese Inspired Designs has to do with localization and confidence.

Localization has to do with developing designs UNIQUE to china. ie, ChiPao dresses, Ching dynasty architecture, jade pendants etc. But the problem is that rather than interpreting such wonderful unique cultural identities and modernize them, designers are instead looking to the West, adopting a western style and then making it more Chinese. It is a subtle difference and reframe.

The second part is confidence. Confidence that the design unique to china can become popular. A great example is Javanese Furniture from Indonesia, it is very popular in the west and has quietly become a unique Indonesian/Javanese style. Another good one closer to China is Shanghai Tang's Han clothing inspirations. In my mind, Shanghai Tang is the closest brand to creating something uniquely Chinese.

Saris from India, Swedish furniture, German automotive all follow a similar track record. A unique local look, language, and design relevant to the culture of that country, then gains popularity overseas due to its uniqueness and cultural references.

Until China has the confidence to celebrate their own creations first, Chinese inspired designs will not be able to influence the world.


steppenwolf
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ChrisB wrote:Designs created by Chinese designers in China will definitely be important in the next decades. The simple reason is economic growth and the size of the domestic market. However, it is also an untapped source for insights and inspiration.

If people would like to see how the future of Chinese design could look like, I would suggest taking a look at the Taiwanese designscene. Here is a parallel Chinese culture that was allowed to develop and flourish in freedom for the last 50 years. In that sense these Chinese designs are a lot more advanced, mature and refined than anything coming out of China at this moment.


Being in Asia i see no Asian design (other than copying the styling, form, colors of past products or antiques). 99% is useless pointless design highly influenced by western and Japanese design.
Not that western design demonstrates anything with depth and philosophy. It is highly styling and technology driven (not minor factors of course but i think not the most important ones) and oh, yes, human-centered-design (nice).

The big design movements of the past (Scandinavian design, Bauhaus, Italian design) were not just design movements. They were manifests deriving from changing societies. They had a very specific [b]raison d’être[/b].
Do you happen to see anything like this today? All this IDEO bs about human centered design / design for society blah bla blah is just taglines to promote / bs about their work and justify the money they ask. Just Communication... NO MANIFESTATION!

.. being here i just realize that there is so much crap around.. so much... Ah... my nightmare is visiting vendors who so proudly show products that i honestly believe offend the human kind.

Going back to the designers, i have the chance to collaborate with many young designers (or not thaaat young). What i found really fascinating was the fact that none of them was/is really rough-prototyping anything (God bless ProE), only pre-production cnc models, and that their only research/inspiration is coming from design blogs !! Other than this NOTHING...!


steppenwolf
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I also second enigma's post-response to davidhu's reference on Chinese mentality about "copying".

I am not an expert on Chinese or any Asian culture. I have started reading some books, yet it is too early to express any opinion (ok, my previous post was more related to everyday life observations).
However, i do have the feeling (and also i have talked with western desigeners who have been to HK and China for a long time) that Chinese are 100% into capitalism.
I would agree with davidhu's post IF we would see from the Chinese factories that copy (in order to improve) an evolution from copy-cat makers to original manufacturers. IF they would try after 100K copies to alter/add/modify something from the product they used to copy.
About design education in China (i do not have first hand experience) however i am wondering, will the Government is wiling to create "thinkers" and not a design-graduate-product line? Maybe they practice Mao's words

""Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land."

Maybe you allow hundreds of flowers (designers) to grow and some (maybe very few of them) will really grow and blossom (excel).

Going back to "thinking". Thinking and questioning is dangerous in China. Remember Ai WeiWei. Design i believe is a kind of applied philosophy/anthropology/sociology. Design has to suggest, to question, to transform. None is allowed to question.

I know Chinese ancient culture and communist culture create a very complex mindset that indeed must be very difficult for a foreigner (even Asian, not necessarily Western) to understand. This is the challenge and the beauty to live/work in a such a different context. Nevertheless i am really really curious to see how this culture will transform after been exposed to the Western influence. Already it is devastating big parts of it (look at architecture). As mentioned before China is the new wild wild West (in fact East) and to be honest i do not think the conditions and culture of wild West of those times was something for a nation to be proud of. Time will tell.


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simon_four_fingers wrote:You know how in the 80's Japanese stuff was real hot. And in blade runner there is all that Japanese influence. And how now everything has a heavy Japanese influence just like how blade runner predicted. (pause for sarcasm)


Simon_Four_Fingers San you will find that Rick Deckard was supping on a Tsingdao at the beginning of the movie, which is a rather popular Chinese brew...Blade Runner may be closer to the future than we ever dared imagine, maybe a few other clues to the fact that the dystopian society of blade runner is actually a more Chinese centric one but I don't have the time to watch (pause for realisation of pawnage).


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Steppenwolf I agreeded with your post before last about this country mostly churning out poor design but with your last post I have problems.

steppenwolf wrote: Maybe they practice Mao's words

""Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land."

Maybe you allow hundreds of flowers (designers) to grow and some (maybe very few of them) will really grow and blossom (excel).


At the time this policy to promote progress was actually "a twap" set by Mao and his cronies to catch those who would willingly criticize the new regime (they may have been surprised by the amount of negative feedback they received), those who spoke out quickly found themselves out in the countryside manning the latrines or worse during the great leap forward and the cultural revolution which swiftly followed, the monster was nothing but a reactionary and an enemy of logical thinking. I hope anyone with even a passing interest in Chinese design would read up on Chinese history, as it would show how far back what amounted to a design industry at the time was pulled and how much further they need to go before they are truly taken seriously as an engine of design.

steppenwolf wrote:I know Chinese ancient culture and communist culture create a very complex mindset that indeed must be very difficult for a foreigner (even Asian, not necessarily Western) to understand.


The Chinese (mainland) mindset is much less complex than you would imagine and at times disturbingly simple to the point of frustration for an outsider (my fav example some mouse for a brain in the sticks cranking out fake durex in his factory, "cheers for the close call buddy"); thank the lord for the communist party marshaling the masses and forming them in to something useful (cheap workers).

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