Has Chinese Design Arrived?

In my opinion, design in China has leapfrogged ahead faster than the West did. But have they arrived?
I recently stumbled over a interesting interview, “Taking the Pulse of Chinese Design” with Jia Wei the founder of LKK Design.
Here are some of the good bits.

Q: How do you view the current state of Chinese design?
A: We’re not short of good designers in China, nor good design agencies and good clients. What we do lack is a systematic approach to design, a design process with a particular cultural basis. I’ve always believed that it’s the underlying economic foundation that determines what can be built. The current boom in the Chinese art market is a result of the expansion of the economy.
I am convinced we will soon be seeing a similar boom in Chinese design. The important thing for a designer is to be able to use economic, artistic, cultural and scientific methods to make design something three-dimensional. Design that only considers artistic or scientific aspects is not good design. So many designers now fail to use this three-dimensional approach when they design a product. They only consider aesthetic aspects and try to copy that clean European look. That is someone else’s creation and they’ve been developing the style for decades now. Even if we do design like that really well, that’s not being creative, it’s just continuing what’s gone before. We ought to be creating an age of three-dimensional design
Q: What is “Chinese style” in your understanding and as you hope to create?
A: The culture of the East has a kind of restrained fullness, a grand magnanimous style that is modest, elegant and non-ado. What moves me very much in it is the understanding of the relationship between Man and Nature, a harmony between Heaven, Earth and Man. It’s a symbiotic culture, very human but not anthropocentric. The smaller universe of man exists in the larger Universe and is only a single element of the larger whole. So much industrial design takes the human as its measure and alters nature to satisfy human demands, but the result is that you lose something even where you succeed. Take air conditioning for example. It can warm a room but it weakens our natural ability to control our body temperature. Products alter Nature and change the human body.
People are becoming weaker. This is not a symbiotic relationship, it is an isolated existence. When we speak of sustainable design we mean symbiotic design. Products should be in a symbiotic relationship with Nature, and people should be in a symbiotic relationship with products.
When the natural life of a product is over it should be reabsorbed into Nature. That is the ideal.

What he describes is not entirely unique to his organization. While his process may be different, the strategy is also practiced at Lenovo and a few other Chinese organizations. As Jia Wei worked in Lenovo in his early years, their strategy could have rubbed off on him.
This thematic approach to design is a common characteristic of industrial design in China. It will look lovely if done well, a Dali cartoon if not. The problem here is such techniques make a design very culturally relevant and thus only a hit to certain people. How then will such designs work elsewhere in the world?
Just look at how the world has taken to the Swedish furniture or Japanese Zen styled products? Air travel and the internet have made our world a smaller place. This has allowed people to have a much broader outlook in life, and also a chance to indulge in esoteric tastes! A “Universal Design” probably won’t work these days.
So I think China has just about arrived. All they need to do is take the next step and develop a unique Chinese style for the world to celebrate. How long will it take and what would it look like? With leaders like Jia Wei at the helm, I think it will be soon and will no doubt be good.
Do you think this is the right strategy for China to take? Can they make it with a design strategy that could be seen as superficial? Should they focus instead on a more business integrated design strategy or using design as a holistic solution? Do have your say!

5 Comments
  • Waikit

    August 31, 2008 at 12:28 am Reply

    A general ‘visible’ unique Chinese style might not appear, since its culture is so diverse. How many countries do have their own unique design style anyways?
    I believe that China doesn’t necessarily need to come up with an unique ‘visible’ style.
    What about saying that current Chinese’s style is in general ‘invisible’ cheap, compared to German’s ‘invisible’ high quality?
    Chinese are continuously improving the quality of their products, while remaining a low price. Don’t you agree that this is what their strength and style is? I believe that the world loves to celebrate that! Good quality for reasonable price. This works!

  • soo

    September 7, 2008 at 3:37 am Reply

    well, they do not have any design schools you know. i mean a lot of people can do photoshop and churn out very very cool graphics (and I’ve worked with some good people there) but there’s no understanding of page design, layout, typography, the gaps that formal education usually fills in! so unless they set up a design school i don’t see them coming waaaay close to the US/Europe.

  • soo

    September 7, 2008 at 3:40 am Reply

    ok that may end up sounding more negative than it is. But it is really based on personal experience and it is only my personal opinion.

  • DT

    September 7, 2008 at 4:15 pm Reply

    Hey Waikit,
    Nice to hear from you and thanks for your comments. That is a good point, and one of the areas where the “style” can come from. German’s had a passion for precision and that plus some good marketing was translated to their products and hence a style. What is interesting here though, is that people are celebrating local styles, this could mean that it is not really necessary to develop a style that can fit all.
    Hi Soo,
    Thanks for your feedback. And I do somewhat agree with your observation, but there are some very good design schools such as Tung Hua that are churning some top notch graduates. While they may not be on par with the top schools like RCA, I would say that they are better than most.

  • soo

    September 7, 2008 at 4:26 pm Reply

    hi DT, that’s great news! i admire China as a country (I was there for a few days last year) and I admire the working ethics of the Chinese! I worked with some really talented, efficient and intelligent people there!

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