Made in China vs. Designed in China
Dichotomies between East and West have permeated thinking about politics, economics, and cultures for centuries. The West is thought to be dynamic, creative, individualistic, and forward thinking. The East is often portrayed as static, derivative, collectivistic, and traditional. During an event that I spoke at last week on design for Asia, these issues came up in the often repeated question: Can the Chinese develop a culture of innovation?
In terms of product design, China is often thought of in two ways: a dumping ground for cheap stuff, and a producer of cheap stuff. I often encounter the perceptions that Chinese consumers are too poor to care about good design, and that while the Chinese are great at making low-cost knockoffs, they aren’t able to think outside of the box. Both perceptions are becoming increasingly inaccurate. US companies will not succeed in China if they continue to base their strategies around these beliefs.
In fact, the transition from “Made in China” to “Designed in China” has been well underway for the last decade, with the creation of over 200 design schools, the establishment of several key R&D labs, and the strong emergence of local brands and products in China. Handset companies such as Nokia, Motorola, and Siemens have staffed their China R&D offices with local design capabilities. In fact, one of Nokia’s most popular models in Asia, the 6106, was designed entirely in Beijing. In order to satisfy the world’s largest market for cars, a team of 21 Chinese designers worked on the Buick Excelle, one of the most popular sedans in the country. Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, often called the world’s hottest computer lab, works on the cutting edge of human-computer interaction such as speech recognition and multimedia communications. And, as the exhibit “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China” demonstrates, the spirit of visual innovation is alive and well in the PRC.
Perhaps the more important question US companies should be asking is not “Can the Chinese develop a culture of innovation?” but rather, “How will China’s culture of innovation affect global perceptions of good design?”