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.This discrepancy has come about because although China is in many respects a very modern country, a country of smartphones, soon-to-be 4G mobile data networks, high-speed inter-city trains and some of the world's best and most precise manufacturing, it is also a country that celebrates its history and its connection to the present far more so than do Western countries. This affects not just broad political issues but the way many Chinese consumers behave too. For instance, whilst browsing around furniture department stores looking for things with which to decorate my apartment in Qingdao, I was left with the distinct impression that Chinese consumers are far more likely to buy a timber bed carved with an obtrusive and ornate pattern in an ancient style than are their European counterparts.
This veneration of the past, and its influence on the present, is unusual to us in the West. Whilst we remember and respect our histories, we tend to view our countries as distinctly modern, post-war. I do not think we extend the same understanding to China, and this skews our interpretation of, amongst other things, the creative output of the country.
This, coupled with the fact that there are not yet many internationally recognizable Chinese brands, only serves to reinforce a stereotype that Chinese industrial design is all old-fashioned and traditional and, by extension, not ready for application to the sort of consumer products that, say, South Korea or Japan are famous for.
Few people, for instance, will have heard of Haier or Hisense, beyond those who have encountered the small number of their low-end white goods that find their way to European shops, and yet these two companies produce some great-looking and innovative products. Both companies have a very sophisticated understanding of the power of industrial design. Yet, where is the coverage of Haier's new wireless charging home appliance range, their exploration of unusual materials in refrigerators or the integration of a multi-room, audio & visual home entertainment system?
Haier has all the potential to be as well-regarded as LG or Samsung, and in purporting to support the creative industries in China the design press is doing Chinese industrial design a disservice by focusing largely on the kind of art and craft design that is interesting to the few rather than some fantastic consumer product design that will appeal to the many. Perhaps it is time we shift our thinking away from the individual towards the wider design community, and broaden our understanding of Chinese design.
Roland Boal is Head of PGD, the China branch of Priestmangoode - a leading multidisciplinary design consultancy specialising in transport, aviation, environment and product design for a roster of significant brands across the globe.
Roland Boal is an experienced design-led strategist and designer with extensive experience in the consumer electronics and aviation sectors, running projects ranging from mobile phones and vacuum cleaners to aircraft cabin interiors. He has worked for a number of large industrial design companies and recently joined Priestmangoode to head its first overseas office, Priestmangoode Design, in Qingdao, China.