China is a place where many of the world’s most amazing products are manufactured, but seldom designed. Now, the China Academy of Art (CAA), backed by funding from the Chinese government, is making a series of aggressive moves to change that. The university is opening a Bauhaus Institute to educate students on the most influential design movement of the 20th century, as well as an International Design Museum, modeled after Cooper Hewitt and London’s Design Museum.
“Why do I care?” you might be wondering.
You should care because China cares. China’s already building the world’s products. And investments in bettering Chinese students’ design education could mean the country is designing those products, too.
Historically, China has leveraged its labor force, rather than its creative force, to gain a foothold on the world’s economy. As a result, Apple products are still “designed in California,” and America’s largest design firm was able to produce $42 billion in revenue last quarter, all without building a single retail iPhone, iPad, Macbook, or iMac in-house.
That relationship can’t last forever, and the tension between American design and Chinese manufacturing is growing more tense. Most recently, you may have heard of the huge market gains by a company named Xiaomi, which has become the world’s third largest smartphone vendor, and China’s largest smartphone vendor, in just four years of existence. The company’s secret? Xiaomi unabashedly saves on R&D by cloning Apple designs and selling them at a lower margin, a trend Jonathan Ive minced no words in calling “theft” during an interview earlier this year.
For now, Xiaomi has learned to perfect the knockoff and make money doing it. But in the next five to 10 years, given a continued investment by the Chinese government, a company like Xiaomi, or Foxconn (famous for manufacturing iPhones) could become a creative force all its own by tapping a larger well of design students. How will the U.S.’s creatives compete then?