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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

When American Design and Chinese Manufacture Stare at each other

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Author: Director of Transportation Design Center of China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Member of Industrial Designers Society of America, and founder of San Stone Company

When American Design and Chinese Manufacture Stare at each other

Text/Tang Tingbin

When I was about to come back to China from the United States, I went to many department stores. I wanted to take some commodities not Made in China as gifts for families. However, I could not find a real American good. This is not my individual situation. Many friends who have ever gone aboard have the same experience. Even somebody asserts that where there are people, there are products made in China. In fact, products made in China have greatly affected life and work of people in many countries and regions, including the United States. The rapid development of Chinese manufacturing industry has seriously affected the United States, so it arouses controversy among people from different industries.

Some arguments are positive and some are negative. Media, newspaper, magazines, TV and broadcastings in the United States all have discussion about these problems.

Business Week has a special issue: “Will China Dominate Design?” “The China Price” and “China-Pressure to revalue”. Many people feel panic. This is not difficult to understand. Americans pay much attention to unemployment rate event to a paranoid state. But it is difficult for Chinese to imagine.

I find an interesting phenomenon in Chicago. The winter is long and cold in Chicago. There is open thick snow on the road, so every winter salt was to be poured to help snow melt. However, the salt will corrode the road surface. Every spring the road surface is full of bumps and hollows, so that the municipal government has to spend a lot of money repairing the road. Actually it can be easy to solve this problem. Adding cement with special integrant can prevent the road from being corroded by salt and save a lot of labor, material resources and inconvenience. However, why didn’t municipal government do so? The answer sounds a little funny and unbelievable, but real. It can avoid unemployment of roadmen. Unemployment is serious. Development of Chinese manufacturing industry causes unemployment of many workers of manufacturing industry in the United States. No wonder many American consider Chinese development as a great disaster.

Subcontracting of Design Project with Low Technology Content

It is same in the design industry. Design is directly related to manufacturing. The development of Chinese manufacturing industry must have impact on design industry in the United States. The relationship between Chinese Manufacture and American Design is always a hot topic of design media and conference. As I know, on one hand, many design projects with low technology content have been transferred to Asia. On the other hand, more enterprises tend to conglomarative service of design and manufacturing. American design must be correlated to manufacturing industry of China. A lot of American design companies I know have been affected in different degrees. For example, JOSS Design started in 1970s. It has a history of nearly 30 years. They used to have a floor of office building on the busiest street in downtown of Chicago. There had over 40 staffs at that time. Now they only have an office and 5 staffs. Their operation method also has changed from design consulting in the past to independent development design, and then production in Asia. They market by themselves. We can see the whole industry from this. It represents the current situation of some American design companies.

Of course, this is because their positioning of design service in the past has problem. They focused on appearance modeling design and consulting. However, companies focusing on production innovation and development, such as IDEO, Insight PD and HLB, are not affected greatly. It is not difficult to see from this phenomenon design industry in China mostly still focuses on appearance design with low technology content. There is little real product development and design.

Many friends of the author engaged in design establish design company in the southern part of China. Some even reach agreement with manufacturers. The design expense is included in tooling charge. No doubt this practice looks down upon themselves and creates illusion for enterprises; design is given for free. This disrupts the design market and misleads the public’s correct knowledge of design.

Is the global design model still American?

Ms. RitaSue Siegel is the President of a head-hunting company for professional and senior design talents in New York. She published The Global Design Model is American in the 2004 summer issue of INNOVATION, publication of American Industrial Designers Association. She thinks countless countries, companies and people are still eager to study American commercial and design marketing strategy. Design market is robbed by Asia. It becomes bigger. Therefore, the bigger design market in Asia is, the larger the market share US can gain. She mentioned the difference between design process of China and America in the article. American designers usually start from observing consumers, users, products and environment. They go through brainstorm, test, improvement and the final proposal. The information provided by them for design process is far more than sensual images. I used to study and work in America and personally experienced the difference of the whole process. I agree with Ms. RitaSue Siegel.

In the United States, pre-phase research accounts for 90% of the work. Subsequent proposal only accounts for 10%. But at present in China most design companies are eager for quick success and instant benefits. They only complete the last 10% of work.

However, I do not agree that the global design model is American. Design industry just started in China. It is still a little messy. The industry’s understanding of position of design has to be improved. However, now the global design model is global and diversified. Furniture design in Northern Europe has always been traditional. Japanese design represented by Sony and Korean design represented by Samsung all has their own characteristics. Paying attention to research and development of innovation technology is not only the special skill of the United States. Design in Hong Kong started early. Product development develops well. For example, DAKA Design Corporation and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University developed several new technology products together. SEA SCOOTER, permanent flashlight and other products are sold well on Therefore, the better development of design in China depends on increasing awareness of the whole industry on design. Pay more attention to design process, research, and application of new technology and new product. Design is not only the work of art designer.

Blending of Chinese and American Design and Manufacture

Midea’s design started early in China and develops well, but they still subcontract quite a lot of design projects to American design companies. Hair, Lenovo and other big companies are the same. Every year they have many projects subcontracted. The expenses for subcontracting of the projects are much higher than domestic design companies. On one hand, this is because domestic design level has to be improved. On the other hand, for enterprises themselves, it is not bad to not depend on internal design of the company or domestic design and introduce new elements for the product. Therefore, this is actually a cycle. Some design projects in the United States are subcontracted to China, and some design projects in China are subcontracted to the United States. Of course, with the development of Chinese design industry, we hope to see more high-tech products developed and designed in China.

The development of China’s industry and manufacturing industry really brings great market demand. More and more foreign design enterprises enter into China. They even directly establish branches, such as Motorola, HP and Apple. More and more foreign enterprises become aware of the benefits of in Chinese market. The models of mobile phone, computer and other products in China become diversified. The speed of replacement is even higher than that in European and American market. Consuming capacity of Chinese market is huge.

When European manufacturing industry was developed, the Thames in London was black; decades ago in the United States all the buildings in Pittsburgh were black. At present these manufacturing industries are moved to Asia. European and American countries transfer to high-tech products. Since the industrial revolution makes human beings change from agricultural society to industrial society and the current information society, transferring of manufacturing industry is unavoidable. We can predict that with the development of China, labor-intensive low-tech industries will transfer again.

I have ever met many American in the industry. Some of them have positive attitude to China, but some reject. However, I found an interesting common point. All the people who have ever come to China have positive attitude; and those with negative attitude have never come to China. So we can see that more and better communication, exchange and learning from each other will promote better cooperation between two sides, develop the market and promote development of the industry.

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