Industrial Design in China: My Fourth Year in Shanghai

by Waikit Chung on December 1, 2010

This post was originally posted at my personal blog waikitchung.com, and I would like to share it here as well:

Mid October I invited a group of 30 Dutch product design students ,who were traveling to Shanghai to have a glimpse of industrial design in China, to Speck Design where I am currently working at. And I have shared them a bit about the key characteristics of Chinese clients.

The big difference is that Chinese are more concrete thinkers VS abstract thinkers among the Western people. This difference explains almost everything of how design works here in China.

Have you ever wondered why Chinese are so fast in detailed 2D renderings or super fast in 3D modeling?

Why are so few Chinese product designers less skilled in sketching?

No wonder why so few design studios here has their own workshop, to build quick and dirty mockups or more refined foam models.

The answer is that most Chinese clients are not able to think abstract or conceptual.

And what is the underlying reason of that? It is all about costs and afraid to fail!

Many companies do not have an innovative culture, as costs are extremely sensitive in product development decisions, so therefore clients are used to judge designs on costs in the very early phase of a design process. Consequence of this, is that designers need to provide them design drawings with as much details as possible. No way that you give them concept sketches.

Low costs means there is no time for process, so usually Chinese clients do not appreciate research work, which is in most cases too abstract for them. Also, it means there is no way to go through an iterative design process, in which different design concepts can be explored

Many company cultures and hierarchy issues create this non innovative culture, as the big boss cannot fail and lose face, and therefore his subordinates cannot try things out and innovate through trial and error.

The fierce competition between many companies don’t give them time to think about what to do next, no time for design strategy consult, at least no long term planning. This is a very dynamic economy with unexpected things that can happen in a short time.

But the next question is, does China need a lot of innovative companies now? It depends on how you define innovation. Let’s say that we agree that the iPhone is an innovative product here.

Hey, check this ‘Shan Zhai‘ product here. What do you think it is?

A Chinese designer told me that you can divide Chinese clients into:

  • Pathfinders: very few of them are pioneers and they do invest in innovative product development, like JiuYang
  • Leaders: companies like ChangHong who has a big market share, but not really developing breakthrough products. Some of them become pathfinders
  • Followers: many companies here are following the leaders, developing the same products, but with different aesthetics, extra functions, lowers costs and quality, but still making a lot of profits. And very few of them want to become leaders or pathfinders by being more original in design
  • Copycats: too many companies here are creating ShanZhai products, like the one in the picture above

Anyways, the Chinese market is much different than the Western market (I am talking about Europe and North America), and is actually not asking too much for innovative products, like the iPhone. Be aware that most Chinese consumers are less educated or poor to buy and appreciate design products. But it has been changing very fast since the last decade.

This is also explaining why Chinese designers seem to be less creative. I am hearing and reading this statement from the West a lot, and I want to defend it. They are creative and has great potential! But it is just that they have very few opportunities to show and develop their talents.

One day, design is mature here. Companies are learning to use design in the correct ways. So be ready, build relationships and prepare yourself for a lot of real innovative design work in the near future in this huge market here!

This article has originally been posted at www.waikitchung.com, a personal blog in which I share my industrial design career development, experience and life in Shanghai, China

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rapitypes March 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Some sort of ice dispenser?

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Waikit Chung May 3, 2013 at 11:04 am

Water Dispenser it is.

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Gaby Kafka December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Kanjana, you hit the nail on the head. There is no profit in “Design”. That part of a product’s lifecycle is an expense and it always will be. The profit comes from product sales. I believe this is why the vast majority of companies in China take existing products copy or improve then sell them. It basically eliminates their “Design” expense which substantially increases profit. They let others go throught the product developement headaches. As you stated, this strategy is what built the nation to where it is today and it’s a very smart buisness model. Now that these large profits have developed the nation, they can now re-invest into “Design” and produce original products where before they could not afford to do so. If you think about it on a global scale, they’ve managed to use their competitor’s own design resources at virtually no cost which allowed them to build up their financial resources to a level where they now out perform their competitors. It’s genius!

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