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Roland Boal

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Posted by Roland Boal  |  29 Mar 2013  |  Comments (4)


Note: The Latin script versions of Chinese names contained in this article are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be accurate Pinyin (the official Latin script version of Chinese characters.

It is not a novel observation to say that names, whether they belong to people or to brands, are important, but in China they assume an even greater level of significance than they do in the West. Amazingly, this is sometimes overlooked by companies moving into the Chinese market, sometimes to their cost.

In China, names always mean something descriptive. Take popular girl's name 丽娟 (pronounced Li Juan) for example. Its popularity stems not just from its agreeable sound, but also because it means 'beautiful and gracious.' Brand names are no different: to succeed they must not only sound appealing but provide some kind of suggestion as to what the product or service is offering the consumer.

A foreign company looking to launch their brand in China must overcome several challenges before settling on a suitable name. Insisting on using a Western one implies a lack of respect for the local market as much as it misses the opportunity to communicate something 'on brand' to consumers unfamiliar with the name.

That is quite apart from the fact that anything written in Latin characters will be illegible to many people.

Instead, a name needs to be found that does at least some (but preferably all) of the following:

1.) It can be written using Chinese characters
2.) The chosen characters result in a name that sounds enough like the original as to be convincing
3.) The characters sound pleasing in and of themselves
4.) The characters mean something appropriate to the brand, either an expression of the values of the brand or the performance of the product or service.

I first became aware of these layers of subtlety when I was learning to introduce Priestmangoode in Chinese. The name 'Priestmangoode' is a combination of the family names of two of our directors and, as such, doesn't actually mean anything. We needed a version of our name that could be written in Chinese, and eventually settled on 普睿谷. Pronounced 'Pu Rae Gu,' it sounds enough like our original name to be convincing and can be translated as: 普 - universal, popular; 睿 - wise, astute; 谷 - valley. Whilst this may not immediately appear to be a perfect match for a product and transport design consultancy, each word does reflect a value of our brand. We believe that good design should be universal and available to all. Our experience of designing products and services all over the world over many years means we offer design solutions sensible to their environment. As for the translation of 谷 to valley, this actually means 'a place where treasure can be found.' Not unlike Silicon Valley.

When deciding upon a Chinese brand name, it is possible to take one of several approaches. The simplest of these is to identify a straight phonetic translation that means nothing. Cadillac, for example, are known in China as 凯迪拉克 (Ka Di La Ke), which sounds spot-on, but has no meaning: an approach that would only work for an already well-known brand.

Another solution is to choose a name that means something but bears no relation to the pronunciation of the original name. It would be hard to argue that 佳能 (Jia Neng) has much in common with Canon, or that 路虎 (Lu Hu) really does sound like Land Rover. But they do mean largely brand-appropriate things: 'Good and Capable' for Canon and 'Tiger on the Road' for Land Rover.

However, the strongest examples are those where all four criteria are satisfied, and there is an almost poetic symmetry to some of them. Coca-Cola, for instance, known as 可口可乐 (Ke Kou Ke Le), works on every level by also meaning 'delicious and joyful.' Even with tens of thousands of Chinese characters to choose from, that is either very lucky or very clever.

Subway, the high-street sandwich chain, have also been successful. 赛百味 (pronounced Sai Bai Wei) means 'better than a hundred other tastes.' Whilst off-road vehicle manufacturer Hummer are 悍马 (Han Ma) or 'Tough and Strong Horse.'


Posted by Roland Boal  |  18 Dec 2012  |  Comments (2)


The change in perception of goods being 'made in China' to 'designed in China' is very important to Chinese industry. Whereas the former is indelibly associated with high volume, low quality production, the latter signals a long-overdue transition from decades spent as a producer of throwaway objects to the creator and manufacturer of world-class products.

At least, it should do. When it comes to China, instead of defining 'design' as a broad discipline, encompassing mass-produced products to hand crafted objects (and everything in-between), the global design press often seems to be focusing on arts and craft, to the exclusion of almost anything else. Any mention of the nascent design scene in China on design blogs or in magazines invariably focus on 3D designer/makers and 3D artifacts that are products only in the loosest sense of the word: that they are physical things that have been man-made. That this is not the be-all and end-all of what is being designed in China seems to be going largely unnoticed.

I am conscious that as an industrial designer I am tempted, by default, to define design as being limited to products like consumer electronics or vehicles. There is no such limitation, of course, but it is true that if you were to stop someone in the street and ask them what 'design in Italy' means, they would undoubtedly say: Ferraris, suits, handbags, stylish homewares, yachts... all consumer products.


Posted by Roland Boal  |   9 Oct 2012  |  Comments (0)

BJDW2012_OpeningCeremony.JPGOpening Ceremony of Beijing Design Week 2012

Having lived in Qingdao for a few months now, it has been interesting to observe and reflect on the differences in working cultures between the West and China. Watching the opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games in particular led me to think about what these inaugural showpieces say about the host nations.

The London 2012 ceremony was quintessentially British: ingenious, rambling and bursting at the seams with creativity. Four years earlier, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games was a beautiful and expansive showcase of impeccable timing, precision and immaculately orchestrated entertainment. Its sheer scale and splendour were unprecedented, even for an Olympic event. As one commentator pointed out, the Beijing ceremony was both 'awe-inspiring and perhaps a little intimidating'.

Interestingly, what I have been able to observe over recent months is that the scale and grandeur demonstrated in Beijing 2008 was just one example—albeit the biggest —of the way in which the Chinese use pomp to ensure an event gets underway with the most successful start possible.

I had another opportunity to witness this on a recent trip to the opening of an industrial design expo in a city near Shanghai. Having arrived early for an 8:30am start, I was somewhat taken aback to see over 3,000 people arrive en masse to listen to senior local dignitaries rhapsodize about the importance of the expo for the town's future, and convey how proud they were to be a part of it. After perhaps an hour of speeches, the theme from The Magnificent Seven rung out and an enormous explosion of fireworks lit up the sky. Following the display, everyone—including the politicians—promptly left the event on chartered coaches. Show over. Having never seen anything like this in Europe, I turned to my guide and asked if that was typical. 'Of course!' she eagerly replied, seemingly confused by my question.


Posted by Roland Boal  |   1 Jul 2012  |  Comments (1)

Bamboo Electric Vehicle, Professor Matsuhige Kazumi, Kyoto University from "Rethinking Bamboo" exhibition at the Beijing Design Triennale 2011

In February this year I decided to give up a cozy life in West London and move to Qingdao, China, to head up the first overseas office for one of the world's leading industrial design consultancies, Priestmangoode.

In recent years the design industry has become less narrowly focused on the West and increasingly global. From Sao Paulo to Beijing—which will be running its second Design Week later this year—design hubs are now dotted all around the world.

This is not so much a shift away from the West, but the creation of new design centres (especially in emerging markets) where previously there were none. The opportunities presented by this combination of rapid development (and nowhere has it been more rapid than in China) and the West's long history of using design, promise to be very exciting. It is wanting to be right at the meeting point of these two design cultures that motivated me to come to China in the first place: to both observe and have a part in shaping what will hopefully be a more globally inclusive industry.

At Priestmangoode, we have already been working in China for several years, and whilst there are some similarities between the way things are done there and in the West, there are many differences too. The scale of many of China's projects and companies is impressive (Qingdao is home to the world's longest bridge over water, electronics giant Huawei is the word's second largest supplier of mobile communications infrastructure, to name just two examples) but what is perhaps more interesting is the speed at which projects are completed and products launched.

Not unlike some other Asian electronics companies, the approach of many Chinese manufacturers is often to launch several models of a particular product type in quick succession, each either building on the last or exploring a different market niche. Whilst this does lead to vast product portfolios, and some lapses in quality, it does mean that the needs of small, otherwise alienated, consumer groups can be met, and products refined 'in-use', a process we are unfamiliar with in the West.

There are merits to both this approach and the West's focus on quality of choice rather than quantity, and the potential for a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge is very promising for the future of design.

This column will explore these and other issues surrounding not just design but also living and working in China. It is not meant to be a systematic portrait of, or be the defining authority on, doing business in China. Its intention is to provide some insight into the Chinese design industry from someone on the ground, as well as the differences in office culture and work ethic. I will consider the value of design in China, how consumer culture is so completely different and what misconceptions we have (and bad advice we are given) about working in China.

China is actively trying to shed its image as a country of cheap manufacture. Rather than 'Made in China', the future lies with products that are 'Designed in China'. I will be looking at how and where the changes necessary for this to happen manifest themselves. I will also be considering what challenges face a country with such vastly different regions when trying to establish a distinct design identity, more or less from scratch.

In doing so I hope to bring a little objective clarity into a fast-changing industry in a fascinating country, dropping in any interesting observations, thoughts on my favourite places and things to do in China along the way.