In recent years concern has risen about the potential of China as a global design superpower and the threat of China becoming a design source for the west, threatening the livelihood of thousands of designers and designers-to-be in the US and Europe.
Perhaps this is the inevitable evolution of the design profession where the creative input becomes a commodity with no real lasting value beyond it seasonal life span. Or perhaps this broadens the gap between design as a commodity and great design that is driven by context.
China is well structured to support its design needs, according to a study published by the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) by Professor Tsai Lu Liu, IDSA, from Auburn University, China has over 230 design schools and more than 11,000 graduating industrial designers each year, that is certainly enough people to support the design needs of the east and west as well.
However dark this picture may seem for western designers, I see this as an unavoidable event and an opportunity that must be embraced, knowing that understanding context is key to producing great design work.
Although I never lived in China, for the last seven years I have been there more than twenty times and I have become familiar with their culture, thinking and values.
Last month I was invited as a guest speaker at the GAFA (Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts) where I had the chance to meet great designers with outstanding skills and an impressive work ethic. At the Q&A session after the presentation and based on the questions I received, I realized that it is unlikely that China will become a global design superpower given that most Chinese designers do not have an intimate understanding of the western consumer, their way of life and the cultural context that a western designer understands, because he/she have had a lifetime of exposure to the context in which their designs are going to be used. Great Designs are the result of an intimate understanding of the context. Without a clear understanding of the market, the user and the social drivers, a designer relies on guesswork and luck in order to produce a meaningful and lasting design.
For this same reason Chinese designers are the best suited to design for the Chinese market. Although some western-designed products (mostly with a strong brand behind them) break into china they seldom take on mainstream and the Chinese version of the product is quick to follow with a much greater reach.
Commodity design may move to China, to India, or other countries and that may be unavoidable, but what western designers need to know and understand is that they are the best suited to produce meaningful long-lasting designs for the west and that observing and asking the right question to gain greater awareness about their environment and behavior is key to success.