Op-Ed: Chinese-inspired design is the future of design

Some food for thought: many industrialized countries have each made its mark on modern design—the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, recently South Korea, just to name a few—could China do the same? More specifically, can Chinese design be as prominent as the others have been during the 20th century and today? Right now, I would categorize Chinese design, in general (there are always exceptions), into two main groups: the copycats and the cliché. We are all familiar with the former. The latter arose from decades (if not centuries) of cultural misunderstanding that started before the Cold War, through China’s own Cultural Revolution, and then under a deluge of entertainment (e.g. Kung Fu) imports from the only Liberal link to the West during most of the last century: Hong Kong.

Stereotyping is easy. Much like the way in which the great Ancient Egypt is often typified by pyramids, pharaohs, and an awkward 80s dance move, over five thousand years of rich Chinese artistic history have often been replaced by cliché symbols of dragons, jade, and badly written tattoos. While designers are helping to create products whose manufacturing fuels the world’s factory, China is being typecast by raging criticisms of the social and political kind. In response, the Western general public and designers are left simultaneously ignorant and wary of a waking giant, and looking for excuses to not understand it. But as we tip-toe gingerly into the second decade of the 21st century with arguably more caution than optimism, it’s important that we are not blinded by the headlines but instead take an active role in defining things beyond our geographical boundaries (unless we are willing to give the sole responsibility of maintaining healthy, cultural exchange to our political leaders!) If we take a moment to open up our eyes, our ears, and our minds, we’ll see that the actual question is, what can design be and what can the Chinese culture bring to it?

The Chinese made significant contributions such as the invention of print, gunpowder, paper, and the compass. Over 2,000 years ago, it also gave the world two major schools of thought: Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism teaches extensively about compassion, humility, and being in harmony with the world. Meanwhile, Confucius taught the importance of bearing the responsibilities of a righteous citizen and leader in society. (Of course, these are generalizations for the sake of brevity, but I invite all who have an interest to read the two books of wisdom, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and The Analects by Confucius, both of which are available in various translations). In fact, for the past two millenia, Confucianism has been and still is the foundation for much of today’s Chinese culture and thinking. And as a way to promote Chinese culture and language, dozens of Confucius Institutes are being established all over the world. Now, if these two philosophies are so significant and applicable to today’s needs, couldn’t a genuinely Chinese-rooted design be just as universal and meaningful?

Two years ago, I thought about this question during a search for–and subsequent finding of–a shortage of good, prominent Chinese designs, and so I spent the next two years researching and meditating on why it’s been a challenge for a culture so rich with history and knowledge. My personal take is this: in order for Chinese design to be of a level of significance on par with its rising influence (in whichever way it’s measured), it must look deeper into what make Chinese Chinese. To be imitative of other cultures and other societies will never bring out a true Chinese sensibility. With confidence I have decided that true Chinese design must be a “design of philosophy.” This term is intentionally distinct from the various “philosophies of design” such as minimalism, user-centered, sustainability, etc. (You can read more about what I mean by design of philosophy here). In short, Chinese design must supersede what has come before it by being more humanistic and free of the limitations of what we currently consider to be culturally reflective. Yes, it can be universal and also distinctively Chinese at the same time, just as its philosophies have been. As Lao Tzu and Confucius would have surely agreed, being a good person is to be an upright citizen of whatever profession, origin, and social status; and to be clear about one’s role in society and to contribute to it in the best way you can is to be in harmony with the world. Although the desires driving environmentalism, social equality, and user-friendliness are constantly re-labeled as various goals-of-the-year, they simply denote the same honorable sentimentality–to perserve our ways of being decent human beings. The vision of specialized philosophies of design–neatly compartmentalized by a company’s needs and market position–and cultural design was perhaps appropriate for the previous decades, but in a world more interconnected and aware than ever, design simply cannot afford to be so fragmented and undisciplined. Instead, design will need to be increasingly self-reflective and moral in order to continue to bring true changes and benefits to the world.

There is little doubt that China will take on a rapidly more influential role in design; its status as the economic engine of the world dictates it so. Designers may feel the need to stand on the tracksides of the incoming train, but if we can see that these borders have been arbitrarily drawn all along, then design doesn’t need to be constrained by them. With constant dialog and today’s technology, we have the resources to influence and shape the way in which Chinese design can be meaningful not only to its people but to the world. We can help design evolve–no, improve–beyond consumers, brands, market shares, sustainability, and even our very own profession. Sure, Chinese design is still in its infancy, but in its future we will find also the future of design.

(You can see this article and other thoughts on Chinese design on my blog: http://www.huyuwen.com/blog/)

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)

You’re using a second-degree relation to dispel the notion that Japanese design has had major influence on design in general, which it undoubtedly has, especially in automotive technology, product design, design thinking, and fashion, etc. Gotham City is an American creation, but I don’t expect to need Batmen and Supermen solving crimes for us. By the same token, if American design could have global influence during the post-war boom years, Italian design during the 60s, Japanese/German design in the 70s and 80s, and now Apple/American design influencing personal electronics, why would it be a stretch of the imagination that a genuinely Chinese design movement couldn’t propel design for the next decade or so? Considering that we are in a more globalized world with mounting environmental and social issues, it’s also not impossible that a holistic, humanistic design movement could have even longer-lasting influence.

Actually, contrary to perhaps what you’re hinting at, I’m not proposing that in the future we will be building artifacts reflective of Chinese history like dragon statues and pagoda-esque homes. Instead, I propose that Chinese design take a more radical approach: finding inspiration in its philosophies. Taoism and Confucianism are, at heart, Chinese-rooted, but universally applicable. You may not be Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or an atheist, but you can’t deny the global influences of each of these religions. Furthermore, each of these are not locked to their respective cultural origins but instead speak to the world and humanity at large. So when I say Chinese-inspired design will be the future of design, I mean that Chinese design–if philosophically based, not simply symbolically based–will spearhead a movement for each culture to look within itself to find design inspiration and to ask what kind of contribution it wants to make to the world. This is not only a design issue, but also a moralistic issue, the answers for which will have big impact on our future.

I am confused by you post. Are you giving a hypothetical future that may come and looking for comment on that. Or are you telling us this is how Chinese design will unfold. Because if you are telling I am not sure I agree. I see the next big design moment being one of the world not of a particular country. The movement will be one of a blend utilizing every countries strengths what every they maybe. This is an extremely idealistic view but I think we will see it more and more with the homogenizing of the world. Cultures have already started to blend so much that some of the deeper rooted views of particle cultures are falling to a side. If you follow that progression with the internet and all the other forms of communication it will just increase this trend.

I am doing both: strongly proposing that Chinese design be a philosophically-based movement that leads other cultures to do the same AND hypothesizing that Chinese design won’t take hold unless it looks at its philosophies for inspiration and foundation. Of course, at the same time, I’m inviting comments because this isn’t a process that I alone can begin. With more feedback, I can take the opportunity–as I am now with your comment–explain further what I mean. I won’t be able to make it make sense for everyone in one shot. And if there’s an opportunity to mold it and shape Chinese design together with others, I fully welcome it.

As for your view of a homogenized world, I partially agree. Yes, cultures are blending together more so than ever, but more important, they are exchanging and adopting ideas more so than ever. However, precisely because of it, people will be even more driven to find unique and authentic things that they can identify with while also accepting other cultures. Homogenization will be particularly apparent in technology and communication methods, but it will likely be less so with culture and identities. If I may use a simplified analogy: everyone can be on Facebook 10.0 in a few years, but each person’s belief system, background, and social circles will still be unique. The ‘homogenization’ of everyone being on Facebook simply means Facebook becomes a standard platform for people to communicate more directly, openly, and freely. And it’s a good thing.

David are you UFO? Have you finally come back after all these years!

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not UFO. I am, however, interested to see what he has written in the past, especially if he has some viewpoints on Asian or Chinese design.

Thanks for your comments, ChrisB. Let me first include the definition of design of philosophy, as written in my post on my website, in case not everyone clicked on the original link:

"The term design of philosophy can be defined in two ways:

  1. The designs originating from or inspired by one’s belief in a particular philosophy
  2. The effort to reconstruct or communicate a particular philosophy in the semblance of a designed product

"This is meant to be clearly distinct from the term design philosophy, which may be loosely defined as a designer’s interpretation of what design is and what it should achieve. This, of course, varies greatly from one designer to another: one designer may strive for timeless aesthetics; another may chart a course along superior ergonomics; still another may chase functionality and feature sets. Naturally, the debate on which should rule above all else has not been settled, nor will it likely ever be.

"Design of philosophy (DoP for simplicity) more closely resembles terms such as design of products, design of buildings, design of interaction, design of graphics, etc. One may ask, “Why not, then, call it philosophical design, just like product design, interaction design, or interior design?” There are two results with this usage:

  1. The term design, as the recipient noun, implies a concentration in the general field of design, i.e. the same level of categorization as product design or graphic design.
  2. The term philosophical, already broad in its meaning, provides no framework for design.

"Being philosophical has always been a critical part of the design process, so it would be redundant to say philosophical design–just as it would be to define a car as a moving car for the sake of pointing out its ability to move. The term is abstract and without significant meaning.

"What about ‘philosophy of design’, as some may suggest? Wikipedia aptly defines ‘philosophy of design’ as “the study of assumptions, foundations, and implications of design. The field is defined by an interest in a set of problems, or an interest in central or foundational concerns in design. In addition to these central problems for design as a whole, many philosophers of design consider these problems as they apply to particular disciplines (e.g. philosophy of art)…most practitioners are philosophers…” This is inherently a grander topic, because it grounds the importance and influence of design, but it is a pursuit that affects all design and is not something of which one can claim to be the authority.

“The core of ‘design of philosophy’ is still design and the skills involved therein. It is meant to be applicable in all traditional design categories and therefore does not limit itself to any single field. Work produced from this effort should not be motivated simply by market needs but by humanistic needs such as the need to learn something new, to understand one’s environments, and to experience emotions like wonderment and satisfaction. These are the needs that are fundamental to being human, and design can be the platform with which we can fulfill them. This is the true goal for design of philosophy.”

Now, here’s my response to your thoughts:

  1. Just to clarify–just in case it was misunderstood–I’m not limiting Chinese design to Chinese designers in China, nor any designer of Chinese descent. I’m actually promoting that a new Chinese design be a collaborative effort among designers and design thinkers–regardless of their ethnicity–who have a genuine interest to use Chinese philosophy as design inspiration to help develop this “design of philosophy”.

  2. Again, I would like to break the term “Chinese design” from what may be the conventional way to thinking about “_______ (insert culture) design”, because I don’t believe by taking cues from simply past art and symbols will further Chinese design as a whole (to simply redo a Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty won’t move design forward, just like it won’t do American design any good to remake the Ford Model T in carbon fiber, even if there’s a market for it.)

  3. Here’s my take on Taiwanese design–again, generalized, because there are great designers in Taiwan just as there are great designers all around the world: it still very much falls under the trend of “international design”. By that I mean, as a whole, Taiwanese design seldom captures the essence of its people’s beliefs or culture. They’re very much influenced by Japanese and European designs. The vast majority of the design work I’ve seen in Taiwan could have easily originated from other countries and other cultures. As advanced and refined Taiwanese design may be, it lacks the level of maturity that comes only from self-reflection. Furthermore, with a domestic marketplace that is stifling to original design (strictly talking about consumers’ willingness to pay premium for good design) as a result of Taiwan’s manufacturing background, it’s hardly a place to cultivate young designers without them hitting career dead-ends within 5 years of professional life. To bring its domestic design level up, I believe Taiwanese designers will also need to subscribe to a design of philosophy.

  4. As for the “creative people often get throw into prison” thought: yes, I admit, this is an ongoing issue and one to be IMPROVED. However, one should also realize the amount of political and social freedom that have come to the people in China over the last 60 years (I hesitate to go into history but I feel it’s important to note)–and that’s after 50 years of bloody Japanese occupation and WWII (est. 20 million Chinese died) and a brutal civil war. Just to put that in perspective: the same 60+ years ago, blacks and other minorities were far from being equal citizens in the U.S.–a country BUILT on freedom 180+ years prior–and were also often brutally oppressed as second-class people. Yes, human rights are always top priority, but we must also take care not to let sensitive political issues overly influence other issues. Your generalization of “creative people often get thrown into prison” is not taking into account the astounding progress China has made since the privatization of businesses in the 80s and the amount of freedom–even creative freedom–people of China have right now. If you’d like an analogy, this is roughly the same as the U.S. going from being an English colony, to Revolutionary War, through the Civil War, and up to the booming 2000s in about 70 years.

  5. Exciting and surprising also do not a relevant design make. And to pour on a ‘philosophical sauce’ to justify mediocre designs is also not what I’m pushing for. In the same way that “design thinking” played a great role in moving design forward but now has been butchered by the many who don’t follow through with it or have devolved it. However, that doesn’t take away the essence of what design of philosophy can be. It’s a thought process without a rigid method but instead requires deeply personal and cultural insight and exploration. I’m just a part of what it can become and it’s simply my belief that Chinese design will only be truly beneficial and genuinely unique if it followed that path.

I think when Chinese Design is relevant, we will see it. Yes, China has a long and colorful history but there has been nothing new from China in a very very very long time except cheap labor and production. Everything else I see is based on the very distant past.

Can you define Chinese Design in one sentence? (you write too much for me to get a grasp of what you are trying to convey)
One can define the design from Japan, the Dutch Design, Germany etc.

All my friends who are from Taiwan say they are NOT Chinese, they say they are Taiwanese. So this rejection of being classified as Chinese might be the reason the design looks European or Japanese. Plus Japan had a great influence over Taiwan’s industrialization.

There’s a fine line between “defining Chinese design” and “hoping to define Chinese design”. The first assumes that it exists and can be defined. The second makes no such assumption. I’m at the latter for I also don’t believe Chinese design is mature enough to be defined.

I will try my best to summarize what I 1) HOPE to see happen , 2) BELIEVE will need to happen, 3) PREDICT will happen:

  1. I hope that designers seeking to find Chinese-rooted design will see that they cannot rely on the following: mimicking western/international designs or replicating Italian/Japanese/German/American/UK/etc. design and simply putting a “Chinese flair” on it and call it “Chinese design”.
  2. I believe that in order to establish a true Chinese-rooted design, it will need to originate from its philosophies, not simply artifacts and symbols of the past. The two major philosophies just so happen to be Taoism and Confucianism, which I believe can still have universal appeal and applicability. These two philosophies require tremendous self-reflection, study, and an overall humanistic world view in order to channel their essences into design.
  3. I predict that Chinese design will never take hold or have lasting, significant impact in the world of design until they adhere to #1 and #2. I also predict that ONCE Chinese design adheres to #1 and #2, other countries and cultures will realize that they, too, should self-reflect and take a more humanistic and philosophically-based approach to design in order to further their own designs.

Hi David your writing style just really reminded me another person called UFO that visited this site a long time ago.

I dont want to divert this discussion to go off topic, but maybe you can post in the off topic section about how do you have time to write/think such a long essay and responses, please share with us your time mgmt skills.

I’ll take that as a sincere question. I won’t start an off-topic section because I don’t think how I spend my time is all that interesting or beneficial.

About why I take the time to write this much: even if I’m pretty sure about something, I still spend the time to research the people, look up their backgrounds/stories, events, spelling, and re-read and edit my posts and re-read other people’s posts, because I take what I write seriously and I try to leave assumptions and prejudices at the door. In my experience, only when I’m backed up by solid research will readers appreciate what I’m trying to say. If I made a mistake about a historical fact, it often detracts from the conversation and I lose credibility–same as a journalist (although I’m not one). Moreover, I spend the time to think and process everyone’s responses in my head until I have a roughed-out answer which I’m satisfied with and I think will benefit the conversation, and then I type it up with edits. That aside, I have spent the last two years thinking about the future direction of design and where I want to take it, and I have an answer that’s be built over time to be solid in my mind. It makes for clear-mindedness and–unfortunately–very long answers. Like this one. :wink:

Got it! I have nothing to add but it will be interesting to see how things develop.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.