This post started as an interesting discussion in another post, when a Design Sojourn reader wondered why China suffers from this syndrome of copying product designs from the West. I’m no expert on this but having work with Designers and Vendors from China, as well as frequent trips there, I like to give my take on this issue.
Firstly I need to say I am not trying to defend China nor give any excuse on this issue. This is because the reasons are rather largely due to cultural factors. In the end I would like to see this post as bridging the cultural gap between the East and West, by hopefully allowing both sides to understand each other better.
Now let’s jump right in.
When I deal with China on the design front, this copying issue becomes a whole other ball game. For one, the reality of enforcement is not easy, possible to do, but not easy. In particular for the medium to smaller Chinese companies where funding is “limited”, I have to work out design strategies that actually deal with and possibly counter this issue. In reality many companies don’t even worry about protecting their designs as it’s a zero sum game in their mind. I’ll explain a little more about this later.
With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, things are starting to change but in reality the mindset is so ingrained in the culture it will be difficult to change.
1) Top down living
Don’t forget despite all the changes in China, it’s still a Communist country with a Capitalistic business system. Special Economic Regions I think they are called. However in reality it’s still a very top down managed country, a big brother approach to the culture, and a huge disparity in the rich and poor. Everyone is answerable to the person above him and “thinking out of the box” is not encouraged.
As a result many take a safe approach towards things, and this has a far reaching implications.
2) Business decisions are about justified returns
In China almost everything is a business decision. When you grow up in a country where life is cheap, things do get brutal and money talks. There is no area for the softer aspects of the business, like branding, experience and emotive products etc. These things are intangible and hard to justify as many decisions are made using an ROI (Return of Investment) as a base. Money put out equals more money back. It’s the best way to make money, but things start to get very crazy when it goes too far.
Put it this way, its commonly known that Chinese rather spend USD$100/Hr on English lessons than hiring a design consultants. At this time the softer aspects of a business are just not a priority. Want to make money in China? Teach English.
Another example is patents are only taken out for a product if it can be later sold, or licensed for royalties. In other words patents are seen as “offensive” in the East as compared to “defensive” in the West. The viewpoints are actually similar, but there is a subtle difference on how patents are viewed.
This business mindset is also applies to their interesting view that the world is “made from an equal specification”. OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacture) and most Chinese consumer electronics companies belief all products are the same, and its all about taking that product, change its color, tweak a few corners and perhaps its shape and resell it. Why spend money to make it a little different when 90% of it is all the same anyway. Sounds like the West a few decades ago, does it not?
3) Money is not the issue, its the risk factor
This lack of risk taking, wanting justified returns, and ROI focused decisions, often leads Chinese consumer electronics companies down the path of copying a successful designs (such as the iPod). It’s logical if you think about it, though it’s not really the right thing to do.
Also if you look back in history, it’s no different from the post-war Industrial Age of Japan’s move of taking Western designs and improving on it. China borders have just open up and the softer aspects of design and branding, they have yet to grasps, but not for long.
Oh don’t get me wrong. This is not always an issue about money. The larger companies especially have the money and are willing to buy design. However there is neither risk management nor contingency plans for introducing a product to the Market that bucks the consumer trend.
I once consulted and worked with a Chinese company that spend a boat load of money engaging Luigi Colani to do some design work for them. They related to me it was firstly hell working with famous designers, and secondly the final design they received was nice but so radical that they could not risk the tooling investment to launch it. They also felt that the market could not stomach a product of such a visual nature. Perhaps they made a wrong choice by using Colani for their brand, but I think you see my point.
4) Master Apprentice and student, and the learning system at large
There are some Joint Ventures with western companies in China, but in general copies you see are really just copies. Personally I think, this whole activity stems from their cultural background and the way Art and Design has been taught through out the ages in China.
Chinese Apprentice artists seek and hope to be taken in (ie looked after) for many years of study under a “Master”. Under tutorledge of the Master Artist, the student then follows or emulates the Master’s style and process. Therefore the master imparts his style to that student, leaving very little for external thought or exploration. Kinda like that 132 moves of the crane, crouching tiger hidden dragon jazz. This is also very much like in Europe during the Renaissance era, where students seek masters as they truly believe are that best at what they want to do.
Fast forward to today, this is also similar to (i dare say) most design schools in China where students come from a rote learning high school background and are thought to follow instead of think. At school they look to famous designers and architects as examples, and their work naturally becomes very thematic or contain the safest forms of expression. Furthermore it is expected that Schools focus on technical skills instead to thinking skills, as learning about creativity is about following a set way of doing things.
Take a look at this quotation from Core 77, it follows along the same line of thinking.
INQUISITIVE ADVANTAGE. However, even as schools pop up, few have evolved from a classical focus on aesthetics and products to embrace design thinking and research of the nature that HK Polytechnic promotes. The best Asian schools provide students with first-rate technical skills, but their graduates leave without the ability to work across disciplines or to use design strategically. They’re not about to do much business model innovation, for example. Much of this may be attributed to Asian education systems from primary school on, which still tend to stress repetition over independent thinking. Says Justice: “The U.S. has a quick advantage. We grow up asking questions. This carries over into our advanced education. They don’t have that in China, and it will take them years to develop that mindset.”
5) Consumers not brand conscious
Many companies also copy because the vast majority of many Chinese consumers are not brand conscious but form conscious. If they like a look or form, its not too difficult to guess that the next decision is not brand but price. Thats why many companies were falling all over themselves to get into China. A fertile ground of untapped minds that have no preconceived notion of a brand except that “foreign is good”. Fortunately of late, Branding (LV, Alessi and Apple etc.) in China has become very successful with people shunning copies, however it’s still a difficult process and there are many mindsets to change.
The Chinese consumer’s values and what is important to them are so different to us, we cannot even begin to imagine.
6) Willing to learn and improve and are copying to learn
Now comes to the most frightening part of my discussion. China has realized that they are actually very far behind the rest of the world under the rule of the Communist styled government. However with their borders now open, their have a ZEAL and hunger to learn bordering on fanatical. All this is so that they can catch up with the West whom they look towards as a place of a better life. What took the West to develop through their industrial/information age, is taking China 1/5 of the time, and perhaps even quicker.
Similar to Japan, copying is only the first step. Once they learn about the inner workings of how things are done the sky’s the limit. One of my ex-colleagues recounted a story about a Chinese Manufacturer proudly showing him a 100% perfect copy of a German MRI machine at 1/10 of the price and a large contract with all the local hospitals. AN MRI MACHINE! Think about this for a moment.
Unfortunately many western companies fall off their rockers when their products are copied and react accordingly. I don’t blame them.
However, in Chinese culture, its really about the fact that “copying is the greatest form of flattery”. Trust me, they do not waste their time copying the market failures. They copy who they think the market leaders are and only to learn how they got where they are. There are also many equally horrible stories of Joint Ventures going sour when the Chinese partner runs off after learning all he needs to know.
Therefore getting them to change is more about changing something so ingrained in the culture, and is almost impossible to do quickly. However the West’s tendency of focusing on this copying issue is really looking at the trees instead of the forest, as China will quickly move past this stage and start to create their own innovations very quickly. As it is companies such as Lenovo and Haier are already in the forefront of this new design movement. So I do suggest that companies get over the copying issue quickly, and look ahead and focus on their market positioning, branding, and strategic thinking.
Edit: I’m always an optimist at heart and tend to see the good in people more often than not. In this discussion, though slightly positive, there are always exceptions to the rule. I do know that there are manufacturers in China who knowingly copy just to ride the wave for the sole purpose of making a quick buck. These are also same many factories in China that close down daily. Fortunately for me, as a design consultant then, I never had to deal with them and probably never will.
Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)
Brian is a multidisciplinary Design Leader with more than 18 years of experience leading strategic design programs that drives successful Brands and Fortune 500 businesses such as GE, Philips, Nakamichi, Flextronics, Ericsson, Hannspree, and HP. His passion is in helping organisations leverage on Design Driven Innovation to make people’s lives better.