We Got Sick of Hearing About Design & China,
So we Got on a Plane and Went There
by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie Munson
Off the Couch
There has certainly been a great deal of speculation lately regarding the real or perceived rise of Chinese industrial design. We say "perceived rise" to emphasize that their impending world domination in this field is not a foregone conclusion, despite the frequent flurries of listserve chatter and design-conference panel discussions supporting such a notion.
We would agree that China's entrée into the global design community demands careful attention as the stakes are high—remember when US factories weren't filled with yuppies and their Sub-Zero refrigerators (made in China)? But so much of what we have been hearing smacks of alarmism and over-reaching conjecture. We were dogged by the question of what is really going on with Chinese industrial design—education and practice—so we decided to go there and get a glimpse for ourselves.
Spanning May and June, 2005, we spent three weeks traveling in China—starting in Shanghai, then 1,000 miles west to Chengdu (Szechuan province), and back east to Beijing. In addition to meeting with Chinese industrial designers and even western entrepreneurs probing the mainland design market, we had the good fortune of being invited to lecture at one of the most established industrial design departments in the country—Southern Yangtze University, School of Design, located 80 miles east of Shanghai. (They were extremely gracious hosts, and we are grateful for all of their efforts.)
So we thought we would share some of our impressions with Core77 fans.
While discussing the state of Chinese industrial design with students, faculty, and practitioners, we were struck most by the challenges facing them.
Having heard the statistics about China's now 400+ design schools and 10,000+ graduates each year, we were surprised to find that only a small portion actually finds design employment. Numbers like that (there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of design schools since the 1980s) makes you think that there is great demand. However, students' outlook on job prospects seemed worse than in the US; they had very low expectations that they would be working designers in at least the near future.
While we are advocates of design education being useful in fields outside of traditional boundaries (we both have full-time academic positions), there is a question about what a backlog of many severval tens of thousands of educated designers would mean. (We realize that this is a very small portion of a 1.4+ billion population, but the staggering numbers are what make this all the more perplexing.)
Will an oversupply of Chinese designers drive wages down, helping to further commoditize design skills? Could there possibly be enough work to absorb even the present, thousands-per-year graduation rate? (And Good God, what would that mean for the environment if they were all designing products?!) What would an abundance of Chinese designers hungry for work mean to the design market in other countries—what types of spillover could occur?
An Indiscriminate Chinese Market
While an overage of graduates is nothing new to countries like Australia, Britain, and the US (among so many others), why do the near-term possibilities for the Chinese designer seem so daunting? After all, there are so many products being engineered and produced for China's large and growing domestic market. Simply, the answer has to do with how immature their market and (dare we say) quasi-capitalistic-production system are.
We were struck by the similarity between the Chinese market and the post-war American market of the late 1940s and 1950s. It is so large and relatively unsophisticated, that bad design sells quite well. Many Chinese manufacturers don't see a need for designers, or even good design—there is little business rationale to spend on design.
The only reason there is more "good design" in the West is because we have had to invest in it as a necessary differentiator within saturated markets. Why should Chinese manufacturers employ designers, when the schlock their engineers come up with can't be cranked out fast enough?
Or similarly, why do they need designers when manufacturers can "steal" the intellectual property of the rest of the world? Even cars are brazenly knocked off.
China loves foreign goods and brands (partly because their own are seen as low-quality), and manufacturers serving the Chinese market are compelled to just ape existing designs. The design skills needed to update a product line, or knock off the hottest gadget, aren't particularly sophisticated.
And this is something that Chinese design educators and students openly admit. As one professor mentioned in broken English (that is infinitely better than our essentially non-existent Mandarin), "Our creative is not good." Several teachers that we spoke with lamented that Chinese design education focuses on traditional styling and basic problem-solving skills rather than the bigger, problem-defining issues that they could be tackling. This is a similar issue in the US, but is a more pronounced problem there.
Business Before (Creative) Pleasure
The real-world-business focus became awkwardly apparent as we lectured to several hundred Chinese students—Stephanie on an explorative (year 2020) project surrounding commodity trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Bruce on the research and development work of the think-tank, Ideation Group, at Haworth.
This type of conceptual, forward-thinking, sometimges-pie-in-the-sky design work was largely lost on them. While in the US these types of projects are sought after and have a bit of cachet, the Chinese students kept asking, "why?" Through their questions and comments we were struck with the sense that they just did not value design work that stretched very far from the exigencies of daily, business-as-usual manufacturing.
And this seems to be the biggest difference between much of the ID education in the US (which we can speak most for) and China. As so many have previously stated, this innovation and problem-definition work is what should differentiate the US in the future, amidst the commodification of industrial design from abroad. Indeed, what other choice do we now have when Chinese designers can provide styling for a fraction of western fees? We agree that US ID education has to move even further upstream to avoid future irrelevancy. Check out Myth 1 of Elaine Ann's recent article for Core77.
But this also raises the question of how long it will take before China's 10,000/year graduates are doing this too. One Chinese professor stated that it would be forty years until they had widely developed the upfront research, ideation, and problem definition skills that are taught in some of the more forward-thinking US design departments. Certainly such a forecast gives the West some time, even if it were off by a couple of decades, but it begs the question of what then? While this kind of soothsaying is interesting, and helps illustrate the present thinking of design, looking too far into any nation's future is a precarious endeavor.
What We Don't Talk About
Some of the lesser-discussed challenges facing China that would impact design have to do with social and political issues. Many scholars both within China and from abroad are quick to point out the many (enormous) hurdles that the Chinese will face in the future. Remember that they are a communist country playing in a capitalist sandbox (wonderfully evident in the paradoxical gauntlet of the hundreds of state-sanctioned, Mau-ware Tchochki hawkers that line the exit area of the Chairman Mau Mausoleum in Tian'an Men Square, which solemnly displays the preserved body of this ur-communist hero).
There are enormous issues of personal and social freedom that challenge the core of the Chinese political system. Also, the Chinese are engaged in a massive social experiment in uprooting hundreds of millions of rural folk and forcing them to live in (newly-made) cities, hoping that there will be employment, civility, and happiness. There is also a massive over-investment in infrastructure—superhighways are constructed with no destination, and massive hospital-complex projects are abandoned half-way through, only to be inhabited later by homeless Chinese.
There are also the issues of enormous economic speculation (the crushing challenge of any communist regime); a corrupt (even in light of recent US and European events) stock market; little willingness to abide by intellectual property issues at home, challenging global relationships; the looming Taiwan issue, whose gravity is little understood by the common Westerner; and a deep-rooted culture where seniority is nearly dictatorial, challenging innovation and squashing bottom-up insight.
Quintessential American "Can-Do" Optimism
So while we would agree that the China issue is hugely important in terms of threats and opportunities for US industrial design (and all others nations), it is also important to appreciate the many social, cultural, and political issues and challenges at play. Unlike other professions that have already been crippled by outsourcing, US industrial design has an opportunity to reconsider the competitive landscape and adjust accordingly. Our thoughts are that now there might actually be more opportunities than threatsif we are smart about it.
But this will require us to avoid the pitfalls of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and arrogance to which we frequently fall victim. The China question provides the opportunity for us to rethink what design education is all about and what
the business of design is all about. If the US is indeed a leader in up-stream design thinking, problem definition, and ideation, then we now have the luxury and opportunity to apply this aptitude toward the question of Design itself.
Let's get off the couch (for it might eventually be designed in China, rather than just made in China).
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Bruce M. Tharp was recently hired to teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in their new graduate program in Designed Objects. He is also an independent designer and consults for his former employer, the Ideation Group, at Haworth, helping to bridge the gap between research and design solutions. In addition to a doctoral education in sociocultural anthropology, he holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Bucknell University and a master's degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute.
Stephanie Munson is an Assistant Professor of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she teaches industrial design and interactive product design studios. She holds an MID from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan.
Email us your questions, comments, beefs and refutations.