What is going to happen?

Will the availability of inexpensive and talented designers in Asia lead to the end of design work here in the US? I have nothing against Asia or asians, but I am scared. I don’t want to lose my job or ability to make a living. What is the best way to deal with it, and how should designers in the US be reacting? Discuss.

Answer is simple afaic: be worth the money you charge in excess of what your competition charges.

What is it that sets you apart from other designers? That’s the value that you and you only can provide. I personally would think in the direction of creating a demand for yourself, something which no one else can, instead of pointless competition. IMO only untalented people compete with price because they have nothing special to offer.

What is that supposed to mean?? Overhead is overhead. That is the U.S. problem, not a lack of talent or over-charging. Most designers are constantly throwing in gratis work to keep a client happy. You still have to put food on the table. Unfortunately, the U.S. ID community is spineless because it is so poorly represented in the world of manufacturing.

to be honest, from what I’ve seen about the projected habits of retiring ‘boomers’ the Asians are not the threat to be worried about.

In 15 years alot of very experienced, talented designers will be wanting to slow down, but remain active - contribute to society/proffesion with less stress/responsibilty/etc…Typically, retirees are excellent performers.

So, say your a consultancy with a specific project, you basically have a skeleton crew full time and farm out tasks to a large pool of retirees, who work on small portions of a project when it suits them to. All you do is get clients and assemble/present final results. Maybe you need more staff during golf season but not alot of drawbacks compared to working with people on the other side of the globe.

I read a really good article in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs. Basically, the author outlines that the next wave job creation and job disappearances will follow the lines of personal services and impersonal services. If what you provide to your clients can be put in a box and shipped, or sent digitally via email or conducted on the phone, your job is going to India and China. If your job requires personal contact with people in North America, you are safe.

Make a checklist of the activities you do on a daily basis in your job and ask yourself, “Could someone in ____ do this too?”

The author also states that education will not save you. Buildings can’t be put on ships (yet), so high school graduate high school construction workers are safe. Computer software can be written in Mumbai as well as Seatle, so that guy with a PHD in computer science is screwed.

The last tidbit of job help is that if you are in government you are safe. After all, if you will never vote for the boss that fires you.

Lastly, the author pointed out that this change will happen quickly, and has barely even begun, so buckle up! Moreover, he argues that US unemployment and retraining programs are vastly underprepared to deal with the changes that a good 40% of the working population will face. That’s where designers really come in. Get involved, and spread some creativity!

Today, there is a huge demand for Industrial Designers in Asia. This is due to the majority of students studying advanced degrees in engineering, science, etc… and overlooking art - and consequentially ID.

However, due to this major oversight, we can expect to see an upswing in enrollment and program development in ID in all Asian nations. They are mastering the field of design just as they have done so with engineering & science. Which they are learning in US schools and universities only to take back home, and the schools pay them to do this too!

To boot, many employers of design firms worldwide have begun to master the field of design theory and strategy (in their own minds) - they just call it innovation. This is a big blow to the design industry as well.

So what do designers here in the US have to look forward to?

IMO industrial design is resorting back to its roots as a craft - specializing in making the presentation sketches, models, and concepts to show people who have the power. Asia will excell in doing this better and cheaper. Corporations think they can innovate better and they hold all the cards. Unless Industrial Design can evolve beyond the sketch pad, you better learn Mandarin.

But there is hope - Asian companies still need to sell stuff in American markets - how can you help them with that?

There are hundreds of US companies trying to pierce the asian market. (Wal-Mart, motorola, Caterpillar, etc…)

Can one Core 77 person name an asian company that has pierced the us market? I know that 90% on the stuff on a Wal-Mart building was made in asia, but I can’t identify the company that made the exact good or product. I would still say Japan and Korea are the only areas that have put a valid five star effort into finding out what sells and what doesn’t in the US or Europe.

There is rarely a Chinese company or other asian company that makes a serious effore to crack the European and US barriers as a complete company. I say complete company, because most of the MFG houses in asia rarely perform as a vertically integrated enterprise.

As a designer you may just be a puzzle piece in the vertical integration of most companies. Your job will not go to another part of the world, the whole vertically integrated company will get shipped there.

A very interesting discussion. In the age of communication, what can be coded can be transmitted. What is transmitted can be mastered in places where costs are low and labor is plentiful, and it will be. So

“Unless Industrial Design can evolve beyond the sketch pad, you better learn Mandarin. “

may be accurate.

Asia is vast. The dynamics of East Asia is vastly different from South East Asia. So are the attitudes, in playing the catch-up game. Korea has demonstrated that you can play the catch-up game better than the old masters. The other countries in Asia may be a bit slow to learn, but I am sure will be in time be able to do the same.

A Few things that I noticed in my last visit last year to the US.

  1. The US does not have a national design agenda or funds to support it like most Asian Countries. I guess due to the assumption of its centrality in the world of design.
  2. The US has failed to develop Latin America as a Manufacturing Base – which would have created a very different dynamics.
  3. The US has failed to harness its own cultural dynamics in Design. Take a walk in New York – the world is walking around you. The minority cultures in the US are powerful links to the globalizing world. Their cultural dynamics is tremendous – switch on your radio and open a design magazine – if you have not noticed the difference.
  4. The Yankee Ingenuity - necessitated by the new world that the immigrants had to adjust to seems to be fading.

However, the US has great cultural advantage over South East Asia due to its non-Confucius culture. Decsion making in firms seem to be less hierarchical and minds are less compartmentalized, allowing greater opportunities to be explored. The moderators challenge :

“Can one Core 77 person name an asian company that has pierced the us market? I know that 90% on the stuff on a Wal-Mart building was made in asia, but I can’t identify the company that made the exact good or product.”

Is valid.

Asian companies are not doing great job, except a very few in Japan and Korea.

I believe that great products will continue to be thought out in the US, but will be manufactured else where. As the global platforms equalizes in costs, creativity will become a key value and truly creative designers will be valued. We haven’t seen a Charles Eames for quite some time. We do not see designers who have something to say - except some kind of marketing blurb. US is not producing the kind of designers it could. It cannot ride on an old heritage, which the Europeans will continue to do. It will not be able to compete with the cheaper and far more hyperactive designers else where who are able to follow in lighting speed the bad designs coming out of the centers of design.

There is a future for some fresh thinking

For those of you who don’t believe Asia is a force to be reckoned with…just look at what markets the world is watching. We all know what Americans are buying, but in Asia - disposable income has never had more power. It is a scary to think that the US markets won’t be the most important in the world, but that is exactly what is happening.

Oh, by the way, this company is gaining momentum in the US markets. They are Taiwanese, but you can’t tell their brand name because they’re products have Verizon, T-mobile, and Sprint on them…did I mention they’ve partnered with Microsoft…read more here:


This isn’t my opinion. This is a business fact. If a company can get the same service for less money (due to lower overhead or whatever), they’re going to do that. The issue is whether or not they’re getting value for their dollar.

The worth to which I’m referring is exactly what I’m going through now. I’m directing an overseas team that’s effectively incompetent. I didn’t pick them. They were chosen by the CEO before I came on to direct the effort bc they’re cheap. No one asked if they understood American culture. No one considered that they might play the “miscommunication” card many of us know all too well. But everything that could go wrong with this group has gone wrong.

If it had been left to me, I’d have chosen a group that would get the job done. In the end, the tiny savings gained from going with an offshore group is completely irrelevant to the overall success of a project. When considered in the larger picture, there is usually enough worth in a local (within the U.S.) group to justify them over the cheaper offshore group. No CEO is really going to give a damn to the difference in overhead if the entire project tanks - unless of course the project wasn’t worth doing in the first place.

And yes, there are good offshore groups. But increasingly they’re not cheap either.


Have you heard of the small Korean companies LG or Samsung? I hear they’re trying to pierce the US market.

How about Lenovo? They’re Chinese and might try to pierce the US market too.

If you asked someone 5 years ago if they’d heard of Lg or Samsung they would have asked if you meant Sony. The Asian companies are here.

Brett: Lenovo is only here because they bought a US brand (IBM personal computers). Otherwise, no one would know of them. I would use the example of Danby. They make small refridgerators and air concditioners. They are really dominating their markets now and under their own names. They are also making superior products, and broke into North America by developing a breakthrough product (small wine fridges).

SK: I fully understand your perspectives on the US, but I take a different view on some of it.

  1. “No national design agenda”. It’s true, the US government spends 0 on promoting design. In my opinion though, American design is more integrated into business than anywhere else on the planet. I think that is because designers were forced to show their value rather than depend on outside support. I really noticed that when I moved out of the country!

  2. The US did develop latin america, and then left. When the US signed onto NAFTA (it’s a free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, ie, 0 tariffs), there was a loud sucking sound as industry moved to Mexico. Unfortunately, labor costs in Mexico are higher than China. So, all the makers who could move their tooling easily, left!

Today, the US has recently expanded the free trade zone to all of Central America. I don’t think it will change the balance of trade though.

  1. New York and LA are the epicentres of US design for the very reason you mention: dynamic cultures. The reason US design doesn’t reflect that is that products that are designed for Kansas sell globally. Until that changes, design briefs won’t change.

  2. Again, as an American living outside the country, I really miss Yankee ingenuity. My friends and family were far more eager to shake things up, or start up a new business than most people I meet in Canada. I have the impression that Americans are, on average, far more willing to strike out on their own with something different than any other population.

cisabella: I am with csven on this one. Value for money is more important that cost. And on that front, US designers are still in front.

Your post also reminded me of something a foreign friend told me about his out-sourced to Asia graphic design department, “They are soooo f***ing lazy”. If my friend wasn’t asian as well, that would have sounded so much more racist than it is.