The End of I.D. or Not

I’m not sure if its just me but it seems like everytime I pick up a newspaper these days there is an article about how design and design thinking is going to save American manufacturing and change the way businesses are run. Then several articles further into the same paper there are articles talking about China, India, Vietnam, etc starting up major industrial design centers to support their growing manufacturing sectors and how American business men are getting in on the action to shift everything over there into these new growth markets.

So which is it? Is it staying or going?

I’ve been moving towards another career field for a while as a way to supplement my design work but a lot of these stories that I’ve been reading are really scary, especially for a lot of these young student designers who are about to shell out a lot of cash for their degrees. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’ve noticed a big shift among companies that I used to work with. I’ve talked to a few and they don’t even know what an industrial designer would do for them now other than work in the graphics department and assist on “visualizing” 3D projects. When talking about traditional industrial design work I’ve started hearing “oh we just send that out now” a lot more often than I used to.

How are things in other parts of the country?, because here in the Midwest I’m definately starting to feel the pressure.

3 things to keep in mind here:

1). Asian designers are designing products to be sold in the US, many of them never having been to the US, let alone understand American consumers.

2). These businessmen taking jobs oversees for a quick payoff are going to be having major regrets when the US gets involved in N.Korea or China. (way to go George!)

3). I have read a few articles where, mainly in China, that all this industry being pumped into their country is actually at a point where they have labor shortages. For 2 reasons. One, many people working these jobs realize they can make the same and stay closer to home, so they’re moving back home to work the fields/farms. Two, the employees that aren’t bailing are clamouring for pay increases because of rising labor shortages (basically because they can). As in some areas of Asia, employees standards of living are improving, hence forcing US backers to pay up or they move on to a higher bidder.

Does any of these mean to not worry? No. But it is not as if ALL ID jobs are being farmed out. Right now, it is profitable to send certain tasks overseas, developing nations have lower cost of living and lower standards of living. As those countries benefit from our interests their economies will start to catch up, standards of living will rise and with it so will pay. Compound that with the rising price of oil (increased shipping charges) and there will be a turnaround, granted it’ll probably be a few decades.

Greenman’s right on some things but naively optimistic about where the design scene in the U.S. is really headed, at least as far as conventional, run-of-the-mill, or “generic” design services are concerned.

BusinessWeek magazine had an excellent article a few months ago titled “Outsourcing Innovation” about how and why R&D is leaving for cheaper pastures, and not only to China. Several much better known and respected professions than ID are being seriously hit, it is just arrogant of any industrial designers today to claim that just because we are geographically closer to our (dwindling) markets we are irreplaceable. What the hell do we know so much about our clients that’s such a big secret for others? There’s more hogwash about this from none either than design agency diva Rita Sue Siegel in an article she has on IDSA’s site about design being strictly American. What a load of hypocritical self-serving, not to mention racist crap in a world speaking a (sadly) unified and clinically homogenuous design language. Do any design schools keep track records of how their graduates fared over the years? Because I’ll tell you something - lots are doing just like you every day and changing careers!

Most ID schools only cared about enrolment and in the process acted with the same stupid short-sightedness and obsession for a quick dollar and the bottom line as the rest of industry, practically ensuring ID remained a cheap commodity traded on cost alone, and in the process, perfectly exportable. Too little was done to sell ID as a business proposition to industry as a whole because we had to graduate portfolios before ideas and the cool factor before a true value-added product. In the process, hundreds of design schools around the world were doing the same, only their graduates work for less. This is where we are now.

To hear anyone today having the gall to proclaim design can save American manufacturing is just hilarious, or would be if not also tragic for all the misled talented youth entering ID programs when they could have applied their creativity elsewhere. Design in America has missed the boat, it missed the chance to become a uniquely valued activity difficult or too expensive to duplicate elsewhere without losing in that value. Also, it is perfectly logical design will migrate along engineering, accounting and other business services replicable elsewhere. This is already happening.

By the time this transition completes (10 - 15 years max), the few American designers still in the business will be working for foreign markets anyway, that is if they are cost-competitive.

Forget U.S. Dept. of Labor statistics - designing for a disappearing industry is not worth getting a degree in today. If you already own the rag, read up on what’s going on around you and start planning your exit into something the “New Economy” will make use of in this country.

I would definately agree with both of you on many of these points. I really don’t think that anyone can say that foreign markets don’t know anything about selling to Americans and that design is a sole industry of this country.

People need to remember that since the dawn of this nation the U.S. has been a major trading partner with Great Britain, France, Germany and others, all of whom have had offices and partners here for many many decades if not well over a century. Add to that the giant success of the Japanese in this country with the sale of consumer electronics and automotive machinery. Do people really think the Japanese have been relying on American partners for their cultural understanding all these years. They have people in marketing and advertising that know just as much and probably more about us than we know about them.

What really scares me isn’t that the jobs are moving overseas, but that this massive growth in Asia is rapidly accelerating the depletion of resources. For me peak oil is something that I watch like a hawk because it is going to change industrial design more than any other economic force on earth. Forget global economies, outsourcing, and everything else. The U.S. oil supply peaked in the mid seventies, and now the Saudi fields are peaking. We are now in a state of diminishing returns that will only mean higher prices for everything. People can talk all they want about increasing output to lower prices but the truth is that there IS NO EXTRA OUTPUT.

Where are we going to be as an industry when the very materials we need to do our jobs are so expensive that no one can afford them? If the schools want to do anything they should be partnering with industry here and abroad to start coming up with new materials that don’t rely on oil in any way. Ive seen this is a few programs but not on the scale that people should. I would love to start a program that gets chemistry, engineering, and ID students working together on real solutions rather than projects where students design another freaking handheld electronic device and talk about how it will be a revolution once the technology becomes a reality.

Looking at China strictly as a graduator of 3,000+ industrial designers a year (according to a number I’ve seen bandied about here and elsewhere), I wouldn’t fear a Chinese ID graduate if you’re strictly worried about someone who can innovate cheaper than an American designer. Speaking broadly, the Chinese educational system (dare I say culture?) does not foster innovation. I spent time in China. I knew China. China does not innovate! Ask a Chinese undergraduate to write a position paper and they would be hard-pressed to do so. IMO, rote memorization of established norms (see the language, see Chinese landscape painting, etc.) is the end all for that society. The university I was studying at was building a new dormitory next to the one I was living in, and despite the fact that the one I was living in was built 30+ years before and had a host of obvious shortcomings, the one next door was an exact copy. The norm had been established, and thirty years of experience would not make a difference. I’m sure it will take years to change that view of the universe if it’s even possible. I would actually worry more about simply outliving the current American administration than Chinese Industrial Designers. Will the West have the last laugh when emerging Asian giants realize that we’ve used up all the resouces and left them holding the bag?

I think it is a matter of time before China catches up. Look at Japan and Korea. They went from copying to innovating. The Chinese are a smart and industrious people and actually one of the most innovative cultures in the world. You can see it inthe variety of foods, medicines, and inventions throughout Chinese history.

When Europeans were still making cave paintings in Lascaux the Chinese already had a system of government.

Years of opression both internal and external have slowed China’s progress in the past century but it seems they are waking up and this will be accelerated by all the influx and influences coming into China now from Europe, America, Japan etc.

Chinese are hungrier than those who have lived cushy lives here in the West. Students I have talked to are eager and diligent and really making an effort. I see this when I speak there in China, Taiwan, India. They are simply working harder.

I can’t really blame the Chinese or Indians. I mean who would turn away opportunities at a better life? I would also differ in opinion from those who are trying to scapegoat these countries. You have to remember, it is the multinational or big corporations taking their work to those countries to gain more profit. If someone came to you with a ID job would you tuen it away? They squeeze the Chinese factories too for low wages so they can make more profits. It is capitalism at work.

Would you buy a screw for $1 if you can get it for $0.01 elsewhere? So who’s to blame. Just have to suck it up and adapt to a new world.

I agree.

The Chinese are actually extremely innovative.
THey invented gun powder, paper, the compass, have an incredible language, deep in the arts with poetry, painting. and so much history. They invented printing, diverse martial arts, centeries old medicines, acupuncture…I can go on and on. IN fact most Asian cultures derive a lot from China. You see Chinese in most Asian languages and arts.

I think the person who p[osted earlier doesn’t know much about Chinese culture. You should visit the National Palance Museum in Taiwan or the science museum in Taichung Taiwan where some of this is on display.

I saw ancient mold making to make bells…it is still the same as what we do today in product design. THese people thought of multipart molds way back in ancient times. Look at the abacus…an amazing calculating tool that still holds up today.

I am a white guy who has traveled extensively in Asia. Most of my red neck peers in the USA have no clue and think other places are backwards. I know to not be so arrogant and that, in fact, many things in Asia are far advanced. It is not all barefooted people pulling ox carts like most of middle America thinks.

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore…all these places make some American cities look backwards.

I am a Chinese-American designer and I have to say I feel I am in a good position to be balancing work from both ends of the Pacific. It is pretty exciting to see what is happening and how things are developing. Chnage is inevitible so we must adjust and keep our minds open to the world at large. Don’t fear it, face it and utilize your talents and brain to accomodate it. I design fo0r both American and Asian clients so it is not all about designing for Chinese to sell to USA. We can go vice versa as soon we may be designing for a growing segment of sophisticated Asian consumers. The market there is huge and growing fast so start studying the Chinese.

Things are going to change but not in the way we think they are.

Has anyone has run some scenarios to try to understand what may happen?

(I guess I could and maybe I will)

I don’t doubt that the Chinese (as a design community) are intelligent and innovative enough to come up with their own successful product lines. I know a lot of people would like to believe that they are only capable of being copycats but that is largely from the black market which thrives in China and from the abundance of throw away materials from western assembly plants. Ive had several friends go to China and see first hand how people will take the leftover materials from clothing assembly and take them next door to another Chinese run factory where they are made into Chinese market products. But the fact is that they are their own unique product even if they look similar to the western counterpart if not only for the fact that the materials are the same.

I wonder however, how many of you have considered the larger impact this booming global market is going to have on Chinese society and others. A lot of American companies like Altria (Phillip Morris) have already begun talks to push cigarettes into China and the Chinese government has little or no concern about that health problems that they are going to face down the road. With natural resources there are already tensions heating up as you may or may not have seen in some of the underlying issues regarding Chinese / Japanese water boundary disputes. While I don’t doubt that China has serious issues regarding Japans war crime history, they are at the same time very concerned over who will have control over oil fields in the waters between the two nations.

The US has already positioned itself fairly well to have dominance over supplies in the middle east so where is that going to leave China and India when their booms continue and the fuel runs out to keep the fire going. Look at what happened to the US during the oil embargos of the 70s. I’m not so worried about where the jobs go, but that things are moving so fast that we are all setting ourselves up for big problems.

Design will never go away. Improving the status quo of everything around us will never go away. ID is infinite.

From an email exchnage with a friend last week:

ID has painted itself into a corner because it has developed itself into a sub servient service with benefits to only to the all mighty lords of profit and commerce; and not as a practice subservient to none, yet with benefits to all in general as archtecture has. Professional ID wants to be like architecture but wants to compromise with business to make money.

ID’s bottom line has become the same as any corprations bottom line: to be proftable. To be prifitable you need to sell more than you spend. R&D and innovation are risk; risk is only worth it if it becomes profitable or can be reduced. So ID must too be reduced to doing safe work to turn a profit.

It has become true that Business can live without ID; but ID can’t live without business.

With China “controlling” mass manufacturing, innovative techniques and processes are in their hands. With China now offering “free design” included with manufacturing, US mass market product design will drop by the wayside because the cost of ID outweighs its benefits to the consumer. UNLESS the focus changes from risk averse quick profitability to beneficial long term growth; ID will, as a service, price itself out of the market.

Unfortunately with our hyper economy and rampant consumerism, cost cutting hyper profitability is here to stay.

Thats does not mean that ID will go by the wayside. on the contrary, Good ID still will be done; it’ll need to walk softly and carry a very big stick. Look to the niches; small run, hyper focused, purpose/user driven design. Not the ID magazine stylist, mass market consumer accessory, fashion crap, but to good old ingeeous features/benefits design. Where functionality will blend with desireability to raise the eyebrows of the right person, in the right region at the right time,…


I agree with 8x10. Design as a human endeavor is infinite. For many of us, design is not a profession – it’s in our blood. However, how people pay their bills is a different story. The problem is not an either or proposition, after a period of “correction” I believe that the design profession in the U.S. will find an equilibrium.

I’ve worked both inside and outside the business of design and the issues in this thread are universal for all professions in the U.S. The problem has played out over history many times. Our country was founded on out-sourcing. We were the cheap industrial hub of Europe for tens of decades. The money and influence we accumulated in that time fueled our growth and made us a super-power. Now Indian and China are rising and maybe they will supplant us as the world’s largest powers, but we will find our balance and continue on.

This is a perfect opportunity to find a NEW way of designing products that works within our country’s rich manufacturing tradition and severe environmental realities. The “cottage industries” are beginning to flourish again and may give rise to a new round of small-manufacturing in the U.S. Large corporations will not be able to function in this way and we may see the passing of many large multi-nationals…weep for them if you like.

Your example of museums full of innovation is exactly my point. Sometimes being first makes you complacent, and China’s storied history is a testament to early successes that bred complacency and staleness. Gunpowder for fireworks? Sweet. Let’s stop there.

You should pick different peers. And instead of traveling, maybe settle down for longer than six months and tell me what you think.

interesting discussion. certainly not the tone here a year ago when some of us were saying much of this. and to fuel the fire…

Its a little off topic from what Ive written on this already but if any of you are avid readers and don’t mind a thick book then you should check out “Crossing the Rubicon”. It talks a great deal about how the US is positioning itself globally for the coming sh*tstorm of global economics.

For another good article check this out:

Heres an exerpt:
As living standards improve in China, India and other developing nations, oil demand will increase, especially for cars and trucks, Rajan told reporters. The IMF forecast indicates that China will be consuming nearly as much oil in 2030 as the U.S. consumes now. Currently the U.S. consumes about a quarter of the world’s oil production.

“The oil market will remain tight in the coming years, and high and volatile oil prices will continue to present a serious risk to the global economy,” the IMF said in its semiannual World Economic Outlook report.

That was me above, I got logged out of the system

a wise person is like a bow fully strained in balance, it’s grip facing the sky’s limit, and the negligent is like the forcefull uncompromising arrow that has hit the contemptible ground.

qazi Mo`in Al-Din Meybodi
monsha’at (letters)
no. 36

Great link, ykh. There is a terrific book written by David Halberstam called “The Reckoning” ( that basically retells the history of Ford and Nissan. One topic in that book, when juxtaposed with the news story you linked above, is like deja vu all over again. In the early 80’s the Japanese faced American tariffs that raised their sticker prices to on par with their American counterparts, and the American car companies used that as a pretext to raise their own prices to squeeze out a little more profit! The book is a bit dated now, but it still says alot about the power of monopoly on the longterm health of a company (and the corruption of absolute power, yada yada yada)…


Well, I disagree. China is advancing and becoming the world leader in space related programs. Look at their recent innovations and the commercial satellite industry. They have the highest success rate for launching commercial satellites so that statement “Let’s stop there” really isn’t what they are doing. Actually a lot of the scientists here in the USA are of Indian or Chinese ancestory as well. Silicon Valley is full of talent from those nationalities. Higher education is really emphasized in their culture and upbringing from what I see.