hip or hype - what is the deal with china

We’ve all read and heard about the articles in business week and fortune mag lately regarding the future of ID in america (b/c of china taking all the ID jobby jobs). Will ID jobs become design/business consultant positions? Will all ID schools go more towards theory, sales, and reading texts on stat vs idea communication and craft? Will art school become tech. schools for the dreamers who won’t be able to find jobs when they graduate? Are we all going to be working for IDEO type companies creating research, experiences, and fonts, with image boards being our final product? Academia doesn’t know for sure. BW and Fortune sure as hell doesn’t know. What do you all think?

Nah, I think it just makes good headlines. It’s all about differentiation. If the same services are being offered in Asia, as in the US, we need to step it up over here.

I think in general Europe has done an excellent job with this. They have massively educated their consumer about European design. They have differentiated themselves as a region, and by nationality (though a portion of that is a combination of stereotype and posturing), and most importantly they have provided a rational for their consumers to spend more on European design and manufacturing. They didn’t try to compete on price with goods coming out of the US.

For us it would be a loosing proposition to compete on price with Asia. They have manufactured our goods for decades. A lot of the production engineering is done there now and a lot of comodity design will continue to go there as well as product development and egineering. We need to figure out how to provide value above and beyond.

An easy case for that is that designers living in the US will better understand the US market, which is one of the largest consumer based markets globally. As product purchases continue to not just be based on need and function (let’s face, they may never have been based soley on that, even in the olden times you could get a fancy sword “step up to the Excallibur”), but also on want, desire, lifestyle, it will be critical to have designers positioned globally in regional markets that understand that particular culture. It is the reason why Honda and BMW have design offices in California, it is the reason the Nike has design offices in Tokyo and Amsterdam. As advances continue in production proccesses that allow products to be produced inexpensively in smaller quantities this trend will continue. Regionalization, Nicheification, whatever, it is just good business to develop products that people want.

So rest assured but work hard. My take on the situation anyhoo.

Could you, based in US (I am talking in general here) design for Asian market? … ok with a lot of research maybe you could
Could you do it better than a person with the exact same skillset but who lives in Asia and knows the culture/trend/feeling… in who ASIA is rooted in?
I would guess not.
I’d think same would go for an Asian designer designing for US.

The only thing is that the US doesn’t appear to have a strong culture (other than consumerism) unlike Europe and Asia. That is where a problem may lie.

I do agree with general education of the consummer. But also think that perhaps digging in the past for cultural elements and icons (think Raymond L., etc) and introducing them … sorry, RE-introducing them into future designs for the US market will somehow help educate the consummer.

Maybe that is where the whole RETRO trend started? Some brilliant marketer foreseeing an ‘asian invasion’ :wink: :smiley:

chinese have a different view of ID. they’re not just competing with US but taiwan, korea, japan and other asian countries. if you visit china you’ll see that this statement stands true.

the one sided view that US is the only place that has good ID is something that these magazines try to force on readers. so as far as ID jobs in US is concerned chinese have no control over who is getting hired or not. if you make your own conclusions out of it’s purely your problem.

ID has always been based on good theoretical thinking. everything starts there even in china. if they told you anything else you’ve been misguided.

schools for dreamers- that is the reality of ID schools. just like those who want to get into entertainment. they all want to be superstars but most end up doing something else. in the end it comes to hard work. i had a discussion with a musician friend of mine. he argued that mozart didn’t succeed because he was talented. it was because he worked hard. basically his arguement was that no matter how talented you are you won’t be able to succeed unless you are capable of working hard to understand all aspects involved in your profession. but you can’t force your way through talented people who work harder than you. that’s the reality of it.

eventually the best dreamers are those who stick with their commitment and don’t flake out from the slightest irregularity or unsuitable settings. stability comes after you create not before. and it doesn’t stop there. you should be ready to meet the daily challenge of decision making which is probably very tough if you only want to be a dreamer!

i don’t think it’s right to create a standard for ID firms. each ID firm has it’s foundation in some type of a routine they have created for themselves. if they go try something else chances are they’ll mess up. so the only solution for ID firms is to stick to what they do best and hope it’s better than competition wherever it might be.

finally, i recommend instead of reading all the bs in fortune and bizweek start working hard on your design and worry less about your career. because human beings are not measured by their career choices, and their money in the bank but rather their intelligence and will.

I work for a Chinese company. They have hired a staff of US designers and based us here in the US for several reasons:

  • We are designing for the US market so we need to understand it.
  • We need intimate contact with our customers (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.)
  • We are much more talented than the EXISTING talent pool in China
  • We don’t want to move to China

These are all reasons for using US design resources TODAY. I agree with the magazine articles that things are going to change quickly. I have seen huge rooms in China full of engineers using Pro-E detailing models and drawings. That wasn’t there 10 years ago. I have seen model shops in China with the latest SLA machines burning models. That wasn’t there 10 years ago.

The key to China’s slow growth into design is their educational system. It teaches you how to do repetitive things you can learn from a book (think Pro-E detailing), but not to think outside the box. They lack the creative gene because they aren’t allowed to use their imaginations. It simply isn’t promoted in their school systems.

This is going to change. More designers are going to school abroad. More Chinese companies are starting their own training programs. China is waking up to their new age of capitalism and realizing the weak link in the value chain is the first link - design!! They can’t spend the rest of the millenium knocking off the rest of the world, they need original design.

I will go out on a limb and say we (US & Europe) have another 10 years left as the “center of the design universe”. After that there will be a true global design economy that is no longer location-based.

I’ve seen how fast China moves in other areas. It’s not long before they become a player in the design community. There are already a few Chinese companies enjoying success because of design (have you seen any Haier products?).

I don’t want to panic anyone, but don’t get too comfortable…

I agree with earlier posts. I am an American designer of Chinese descent so for the time being I have an advantage of being a bridge of sorts between Asia and the West. I grew up in the USA but after college, have been absorbing and learning more and more about Asia by traveling and working with overseas clients there. I help many companies here source factories there and help companies there design products that they want to sell here. It is a niche for now but I see Asia catching up fast. In fact Korean design is a great example…they are on par with Japan now and are starting to take huge leaps. They are in some cases the world leader in some electronic design. Samsung stuff just keeps getting better. Taiwan is trying to do the same with BenQ.

I say just keep honing your skill sets and adapt to a changing world…no use being scared of change…we jsut have to keep thinking on how to take advantage of what’s happening globally and not be stuck thinking and hoping things stay the same because the only sure thing is that things change in this world.

No body can tell what will happend in 10 years.
The progress of China is somewhat natural interms of world’s industrial progress. They had been suppressed by communism for long time, and now they are facing the open world-Change in politic do bring them giant alter in economy.
Look at the history. French Revolution to U.S Industrial Revolution that have been so influenced throughout the all over the world. Westernized Eastern is after effects of both western and eastern historical movements.
Chinese do understand what America is like more than Americans understand about China. There are more Chinese living in US than Americans in China.
Almost same for other Asian countries. Asians became Americanized, and it is easy for them to come here and study. After the study, they can become a part of melting pot, or they can go back to their mother’s country to earn money or contribute what they have learnt in U.S.
So what can us U.S citizens can do at this point? At list us IDers?
I am a Korean born American student who will not go back to my mother’s country. I do love both Korea and America. So what is my choice to get ready for next 10 or 20 years? I can learn Chinese, Japanese or even other languages that I wanted to learn. I can meet Chinese or Chinese Americans as friends. I can learn about their country and their life styles, marketings, politics and their deep thoughts. I can not become Chinese, but I can learn to understand them. True melting pot in U.S and ID companies are neccessary. Red-states in U.S must converted to understand more about what is out side of their “zone”-.
Adapt more digital uses, buy and trade newer products and circulates them as bigger markets. We need to hire sales people in stores who knows what they are talking about to educate consumers.
Conservative life must opened up a bit more in center states.
Try to understand the “others”. Because discrimination is still with us, and it is causing seperation. What are we made out of?–different pieces like a puzzle board. If we are worrying about Chinese it is because we see them as “others”. We need greater education in our selves first before learn how to use markers to render.

Just my opinion-no hate reply please.

hu jintao (chinese head of state) smiled when he heard george bush was staying in office for another term, george does not care much about outsourcing, international trade etc…

in 10 years, china will be the most powerful country in the world, followed closely by her neighbour, india, putting the u.s. at number three (i wonder how the competitive u.s. will handle that?). forget about who has more nukes, if it comes to that, its all over anyway. jintao and his cabinet are using an international strategic approach to formulate trade consortiums with countries like brazil, germany and france. there using a similar model that japan used to attract top tier talent to help build their industrial economy. no doubt, china is using a similar market research program that japan used to design high end products for american and european consumers.

what china currently has working against itself regarding the industrial design catch up is :

  • three weeks to ship from china to u.s. west coast. too long, we want it now.
  • chinese people have not been taught or were encouraged towards innovative free thinking like western counterparts. this is largely due to the stranglehold communism has had on free thinking. this is changing though…
  • largely homogenous culture with restricted media. china lacks the international diversity that america has. it’s media is censored to conform thinking. these challenge the initial stages of the design process very much.
  • lack of educated consumers.
  • lack of native brand identity. there are not many well recognised chinese branded products out there on the international markets yet (although they are beginning to grow like acer computers…taiwanese, oops!)
    many chinese consumers are loyal to the big brand and designer names like bmw, nike, calvin klein etc…but they have not yet established power brands like these yet. ergo, these power brand companies will bankroll this new fortune in the coming years in china until china produces its own power branded products.

i.d. in the u.s. is being ‘pruned’. some will remain, the best, the ones which offer a more local service requiring geographic proximity. the power brand companies will remain, they have an established and growing consumer base for now.

Some of your logic is flawed.

  • The three weeks to ship from China to the US isn’t going to impact industrial design. Design uses technology to speed the process (we can go from art-to-part on a new plastic product in 60 days now!). The 3 weeks only applies to shipping physical products. That has been the case for the last 10 years and the major retailers are getting use to it. Their forecasting systems are very sophisticated and can predict volume requirements to within 95% efficiency.

  • Education in China - I agree.

  • Homogenous culture and limited media: I’ve been traveling to China for the last 18 years ramping-up new products. The back-water farming communities are still cut off from the rest of the world, but the industrialized parts of China are eating Big Macs and wearing Nike knock-offs!! They are hanging out in back-room internet cafes surfing porn and learning how the other half lives. Things have changed!!

  • Educated consumers: As wages in China start increasing the buying power of the country has started increasing. I have seen the poorest looking factory worker carrying around a $200 cell phone. That has become the first major acquisition ANYONE makes in China because it “puts you on the grid”. In a country with 1.2 billion people it’s the only way you can be located. Cell phone stores are on every corner. People study the phones for months while they are saving their Yuans. To me this is the beginning of a culture becoming “educated consumers”.

  • Lack of native brand identity: This too is changing. Lenovo computers (China) just bought IBM’s PC division. How’s that for instant brand identity!! There are many Chinese cell phone brands that you have never heard of that sell as many units as Motorola does in the US. The same is true of TVs and computers, The car industry is about to explode because the banks are going to start giving out car loans!!

There has been a lot of press about China recently for two reasons:

  1. Things have changed quickly in the last few years. It’s a different country.

  2. People don’t understand it very well. It’s the paradox of being the “world’s workshop” and becoming a huge self-sustaining market itself.

The Chinese education system teaches students the knowledge, not how to think. I am interested in the design. I will not study in China if I have the chance to go abroad. I don’t how to do and what to do after I graduated from engineering in my school. The teachers require us remember the textbook and tell us to think why things work out.

These years the design field is quickly going further in China. Many companies cannot find the design talents. So there are many identical products in market because the easiest way to copy.

Allow me to support your prediction, One-Word :

Design Education in china: Rapidly increasing at a tremendous pace - 50 new schools of design. While this will result in short term disparity in student quality, in the long run the schools will stabilize and proceed to produce the designers that china needs. A good analogy is Japan - no designers prior to the late 1950’s and then reaching the hefty 5 figures within a decade and a half. While many chinese undergrads do aspire to study in the US, visa regulations make this extremely difficult. What is happening instead? Hong Kong has just begun work on a national design policy that supports better and advanced education for this very purpose. Singapore has launched a new school of design with the specific intent of catering to the Asian market (India and China are worst hit by the US Visa rules) and wants to establish itself as the source of design talent in the region. 10 years maybe the outside edge in this area.

Conferences and workshops: While waiting for the design education to pick up steam, China is not sitting around but instead conducting conferences, workshops and teacher education to capture as much knowledge in this area they can as soon as they can.

As One world can testify, they’ve figured out the fastest way while they wait for their own critical mass of chinese designers is to hire international talent. And there are chinese brands who have taken design as a strategic part of their corporate planning to heart - Lenovo (Legend), Haier, Bird to name a few.

Again, in this regard, to those of you who feel this is not a threat yet, no it isn’t yet, but look again to Japan as an example. Quality assurance was a tool that the American Manufacturers were late in embracing but the Japanese saw the point of it early on, adopted it with a vengeance, then began to the US mfrs a run for their money. I say that the same will happen with design and China and beginning to see this possibility NOW and planning for it is important.

Yo implies that differentiation is all that is required as Asian firms begin to offer the same services at competitive prices, but points out European design differentiation as an example. As one long term strategy that maybe feasible, but for the US, without a cohesive sense of culture int he first place, US design alone as differentiation may not be the only solution. How can you differentiate what is difficult to define. I also say that it is only a matter of time before remote research methods and user observation leads to better design for any region from any region.

This is school of thought I subscribe to:

In the coming years China will continue to be benefit from the US outsourcing jobs and services oversees. China’s economy will continue to thrive. The standard of living will rise. Eventually China will loose its competitive edge. It will no longer cost less to pay someone from Over sees to do an American Job. In a way our economies will balance each other out.

As China becomes more successful new markets will be created. The workforce that is now making the products in the factories will be able to afford the products they are manufacturing. Neither China nor America will be the “center of design”, however, there will be designers in both countries designing for their respective markets.

This is not good news in the short term, for many jobs will be shipped over sees in the meantime. The good news is that whatever damage is done is not permanent (if this in-fact happens).

Of coarse some people I have talked to have more unpleasant predictions about how this whole thing will play out. However, I refuse to believe that America will loose its place as a world leader. And more importantly I refuse to believe that I am entering a dieing profession. Maybe I’m just naive.

Look at the uber business consultants such as Bain, McKinzey, etc… what do they offer? They are consultants who employ professionals and experts. They group their specialists in to teams. Then, “They take a fact-based approach to management challenges, ensuring that the weight of the evidence is behind our recommendations and that out clients have confidence in their choices” (from McKinsey’s site). So, they form collaborative teams and use research to back up their recommendations? Sounds a lot like user centered design to me.

The thing that companies such as IDEO, Jump, The Doblin Group, Gravity Tank, and the various other design strategy companies are doing is selling value. No, not the same as “value pricing.” Value is about recommending solutions, not just offering them. Too many designers and firms offer their clients a multitude of solutions w/ no clear direction or method for testing and validating them. This is where design strategy comes in. They are following the lead of business/management consultants and selling the value of their work by backing it up w/ research. Design strategy involves using generative research to identify user insights, synthesizing the insights into archetypes and then validating their effectiveness through quantitative research. It basically is a testable, repeatable process that is more appealing to corporations than hoping that designers alone will come up w/ something that is innovative and A MARKET SUCCESS (something the design community far to frequently overlooks.)

Value is not commodity based… the design work that will go overseas is. I am not saying that all design work will be going to china, but the corporations that view design as a commodity vs. a value proposition will continue to shop around for the lowest bidder; be it in China, India, or Africa. The only way to command higher fees is to establish a higher value.

Thank you for articulating the value proposition with far greater clarity.

I think the design profession is going to be split in half in the near future. This is already happening in some corporate design groups.

  1. Advanced design - This requires deep research to develop truely innovative products that are “new-to-the-world”. These are the breakthrough design projects that require 1+ years to get to market. These are the projects that you see coming from IDEO and Frog.

  2. Cowboy Design - This is what I do. It is fast and dirty design where speed-to-market is crucial. The products are simpler (no electronics) and can go from art-to-part in 6 months or less. We aren’t going to win any design awards because we re-invented the wheel, but we make “things” that people need and use. Think Rubbermaid. This is the group that is most at risk of seeing their jobs sent to China or India once the basic design resources are brought up to the level of US and European design.

A lot of people are getting pissed off about off-shoring jobs to China and India, but think about this:

20 year ago the design process started with sketches and marker renderings. To show a customer 10 different variations of a concept you needed to drain a few markers to develop the renderings (2-3 days). Prototypes would take 3 weeks. Then a room full of draftsmen would spend a few weeks developing detail drawings.

Fast forward to 2004…

I can pound-out 10 different product variations in a day using Solidworks. Prototypes take a few days (SLA machine instead of 5 model makers). Then I e-mail the solid model file to an engineer who develops a set of drawings in about a day (not that we need them because the tool room uses my IGES files to make the tools).

I’ll bet we lost more jobs in the last 20 years because of TECHNOLOGY than off-shoring!!!

Interesting point. I think technology has also enabled designers to take away many of the positions that were previously held by engineers. Your simple Rubbermaid part is a good example. As a designer that can drive SolidWorks you are no longer building a “looks like” 3D model and then handing it over to the engineer to finish out the details of parting, shelling and making sure there is 3 degrees of draft on the textured surfaces. ME’s typically command higher pay, especially fresh out of school. So if an employer can get an ID kid, who is so excited about design that they are damn near willing to work for free and teach them the basics of plastic part design and SW, they can save 15-20k a year.

Either way, I completely agree that is type of design work going overseas. It is the commodity-based work, where no matter where you go the quality is “good enough” and you can always find someone who is willing to do it for less.

Similar to One-word’s “advanced design group” I think design in the states will become much more about facilitating what to make and less about how to make it. Design coupled w/ business strategy and user research will help corporations navigate the fuzzy front end of development. Research will be performed to identify the needs and insights then designers will quickly synthesized them into testable concepts. The concepts will be validated thorough more user research; the end deliverable being a thoroughly defined design guide. This guide is then the basis for the quoting process where the winning (overseas) design & development firm will work w/ the corporation to take the product through production. The stateside designer’s role will be more about understanding, synthesizing, and articulating insights into innovative solutions and less about styling, and engineering.

Excellent points all (and a great discussion – I’ve been following all week).

I’d definitely agree that US designers are only going to continue to hold an edge in the strategic, research-based side, though I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the engineering will all move overseas. Certainly manufacturing engineering will (or already has), but European, American and Japanese engineers are still better trained and conduct far more research into new technologies than their counterparts in China or India.

James Dyson’s lecture, posted on Clogger last week, made the excellent point that losing the advantage in large-scale, commodity manufacturing does not equal losing the advantage in every type of manufacturing. And that the UK (and I would venture, the US and much of Western Europe) still has a great advantage when it comes to small and mid-scale, high-value manufacturing.

Unfortunately, to many domestic companies that already manufacture offshore, “adding value” through design means improving styling, and it’s clear that Chinese design schools are cranking out very competent stylists at breakneck pace. What designers in China have yet to do is develop any semblance of a thoughtful, significantly innovative product that wasn’t already conceived elsewhere. This kind of development requires a fluid discussion between engineers, researchers and designers, or better yet, product developers who are familiar with more than one of these fields. One of the great weaknesses of large, state-run education systems is a tendency to compartmentalize disciplines and kill this kind of interdisciplinary expertise and discussion.

Let me add one more dimension to this discussion. Corporate strategy.

  • Some (most ) corporations in the US are very concerned with short term performance. What can we tell the shareholders at the next quarterly conference call? What can we launch in the next 6 months to help boost the stock price? This type of thinking makes it tough to develop a major product initiative that may take 2 years to develop and commercialize!! Upper management wants instant results. They don’t subscribe to the “no pain - no gain” philosophy of new product development.

  • The long range strategists are the ones launching new technologies and breakthrough products (how many prototypes did Dyson make before his vacuum cleaner worked?). This takes time and money. It also takes a corporate philosphy that is willing put big money into BOTH long and short term projects.

What kind of company do you work (or consult) for?

Most products are INCREMENTAL IMPROVEMENTS over an existing product. In fact most patents include those words in the description. In my mind, the latest breakthrough products are MAJOR incremental improvements that have been supported by a corporate strategy of innovation. Apple only improved the MP3 player when they introduced the I-Pod, but it was a MAJOR incremetal improvement that was developed after a whole bunch of research, UI development and form studies. They felt the pain and are now enjoying the gain…

Chinese compaies are looking for fast growth. They are just jumping into the game and can’t afford a multi-year ramp-up of a new product. That’s why they are focusing on me-too products. No pain…

somewhat of a related tangent: