A Report on the Progress of Industrial Design in China
Clive Roux, IDSA, CEO, Industrial Designers Society of America
November 18, 2010
My objective is to present an account of what I observed over the past year in China in reference to industrial design. I believe this account is important for your career development and important for the industrial design profession. I don’t believe I’m an expert, so please take my account as one well-informed perspective that can offer you some insight. The reality is that I don’t believe anyone has a real version of the truth when it comes to a machine of this size and complexity that is moving so fast. My account comes from discussions this year with over 80 people in government, education, design consultancies, associations inside and outside China as well as Chinese corporations.
On my most recent trip to China, I heard that China knows it’s the world’s factory and now it wants to have a service or creative economy. Not only does China want this, the plan is in place and already launched. In order to achieve this objective, the government has decreed that the country needs to promote industrial design.
Chinese Government Support of Industrial Design and What It Means
China differs from a capitalist country in that it is centrally controlled. China’s central government wants to shift the economy from being the world’s factory to a modern services economy, and it has declared that the country needs to promote industrial design to help it get there.
When the government sets an agenda, everyone must follow that directive. In order to climb the rungs of the government ladder, Chinese officials at every level—premier, state, region, city and the CEO of government-run organizations (still the majority)—must show what they have done to further the central party directives.
On this trip, I met officials from the country’s export organization (the equivalent of a ministry) as well as many deputy directors and directors of ministries, city mayors and large-scale project managers all working to execute this plan. For the most part they don’t understand industrial design, its practice or how to integrate it into business. But that doesn’t slow down their execution of “projects to promote design.” From what I’ve seen, the Chinese officials’ version of industrial design is very loose and includes anything creative.
Infrastructure Build Out
China is setting up hundreds of Industrial Design Parks and Cities across the country. In Shanghai alone there are over 100 parks. I know of or have seen at least five Industrial Design Cities in Chengdu, Wuxi, Beijing, Guangdong and Shanghai under construction or in operation.
An Industrial Design Park consists of a cluster of buildings in a small complex. The number of people working in these parks varies from 3,000 to 10,000. An Industrial Design City is a city-sized development that looks like a suburb and can house as many as 100,000 people. Like a small town, the cities have offices, homes, commercial, recreation and retail spaces.
In two provinces, I saw the beginning of an Industrial Design City where a series of factory complexes were being converted to an Industrial Design Park. A small nucleus acts as the seed to grow the city. The nucleus I observed featured nine four-story buildings, 50 companies and 2,000 designers. Developers expect the city to top out at about 10,000 designers. Adjacent to the developing nucleus are tens of acres of factory buildings, which formerly housed the largest home appliance company in the country. After the appliance company moved further inland, its old facilities are becoming phase two of the Design City.
Money Is No Issue in China
Because Chinese officials take funding and repurpose old factory complexes into creative spaces to attract creative companies, it is important to view these developments as real estate projects. To draw attention to the complex, they plan design-related seminars, conferences, design awards and media events. They use their own publications to try to attract international organizations such as IDSA, red dot, iF, International design schools and professional consultants to the parks. In one of the higher-class complexes, I saw an exhibition space on the ground floor where companies based in the complex displayed their works to promote themselves. These parks are attracting lot of attention.
Remember you are talking to realtors and construction project management organizations that don’t understand industrial design. In the Design Cities, city government corporations often act as funder while a privately-owned corporation acts as project manager. This seems to have already made a big difference in the quality of the spaces and environment!
ID Education Ramp Up
Industrial design started in China somewhere around 1985, but did not get the central government push until 2000. In 2000, only a few universities offered design instruction. Today, more than 1,000 institutions have design programs with around 1 million students taking design courses. I heard this from the country’s top art school director at the China Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA). The system has matured to ensure the design parks will receive a steady flow of design graduates.
To the best of our knowledge, corroborated a few times over now, we understand China to be graduating around 10,000 ID students a year from 350 schools offering ID courses. The quality of courses is difficult to measure—as is the quality of a given design program. When I worked in Hong Kong during the 1990s, I found that the Chinese designer’s competence derives more from how they are forced to work with clients than actual lack of abilities. In a central economic system, if the designer was the right hand of the CEO, they would be innovating far faster than the West. Presently, Chinese designers are way down on the totem pole!
On a previous trip, I learned how CAFA is advising Haidian Technology Park in Beijing on how to integrate industrial design and technology. Haidian wants to emulate Silicon Valley and realizes that the integration of design is as important as technology development. I believe that CAFA is seen as important in ID’s development by the central government. The director of CAFA is a party official so he is closely aligned with the government’s ideology. The relevance of this link is that CAFA is seen as one of the highest touch points of translating Chinese culture into art—which cannot be divorced from the politics of the country. It makes sense that CAFA would be entrusted to develop an industrial design course to make this first translation of Chinese culture into 3-D objects. But they have no competence in integrating design and technology!
I view the CAFA development as exciting for China and the West since we have not seen a new industrial design culture develop since the Japanese started to make a translation of their culture into modern technological products in the 1960s and 1970s. And while I believe that the Japanese tradition of attention to detail, beauty in materials and simplicity suited the translation into modern technology products, I am not sure what part of Chinese culture will translate well. Chaos, haste, quick actions for today, no real care for quality or detail, central control, subservience? I imagined CAFA as the Cranbrook or Domus Academy of China, but while they showed me around a campus
of 4,000 students, I was not shown the design coursework rooms, just the entrance of the building! It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Korea and Taiwan have not managed to do this so far and are derivative international styles still.
Evolving Design Practice (Or Not)
When I worked as a design manager in Hong Kong from 1994 to 2000 there were very few examples of good design that came out of Chinese consultancies. That is not the case today. While there I saw work that was very competent. Not particularly innovative, thought provoking or in any way strategic, but very, very competent. Inexpensive Chinese production is now married with competent design and good finishing! They are already too good for the U.S. mass market shelves in Walmart. What the consumer is getting in the U.S. is the lower end of their product ranges!
The design value is rising fast. The average price of a project in Guangdong is around 30,000 RMB (about $4,500) start to finish in CAD files. When I left Hong Kong in 2000 design projects only cost $200! However, because there are so many consultancies offering design, manufacturers at the middle to lower end are able to shop around and trade the consultants down to low prices, thus depressing the growth of Chinese designers’ skills and abilities. I have witnessed their great potential in my own studios when they are given the time to develop their thinking and design processes.
This is also a challenge to U.S. companies wanting to do business in China as you will only find a few companies willing to pay U.S. fees. Finding a way to bring your cost structure down will be crucial.
Many parks will offer amazing deals to capture international companies, including three years rent-free plus other benefits from the district authorities. The cost of a designer will set you back around $750 a month. And utilities are negligible!
You have to stand in a park with 50 design companies and 3,000 designers around you to get a sense of the opportunity. The largest industrial design company in the world today has around 500 people on staff. When I stood in that Chinese complex imagining the possibilities, I ran the math and I was stunned by the potential scale of China’s industrial design industry.
Let’s say you took half the park rent free for three years and put 5,000 designers into it. That would only cost you $25 million a year. You can earn $50 million a year from 200 to 300 designers, so what if you put 4,500 designers to work developing spec projects for you, doing design research and strategic thinking! Potentially you could be doing the $50 million work, pocketing 10 million at least and still have the power of a team of 4,500 innovating and generating new value for you! Of course what I am suggesting has some issues. For example, the quality of the designers you would need to get that sort of work done probably does not exist there right now. Certainly the market for that kind of output does not exist in China, but think what that would do for you in the West! As a side note, with that many designers working, you could win every global competition and get unprecedented publicity in the myriad of conferences and activities running in China.
There are few famous Chinese names in industrial design today. Based on volume of graduates, potentially great Chinese designers are coming and coming fast. If you want to be a world player in design in the next 20 years, I think you need to start your China operation pretty soon. I would urge you to think about what is happening in China, because like it or not it is a phenomenon that will affect your career or your business. Whether you chose to view it as a threat and defend yourself or as an opportunity and take advantage of it will of course be entirely your decision.