In search of an identity for Made-in-China goods

3 min read

(l-r) Yao Wenjin (moderator), Alpay Er (WDO), Soon-In Lee (Seoul Design Center), Zhi Guanxian (LCDSHK) and Hu Qizhi, (Guangdong Industrial Design Association) at the International Design and Technology Conference. (Image Credit: TechNode/Nicole Jao)

Last weekend (December 9), Shunde, a district located in Guangdong’s Foshan city, hosted the International Design and Technology Conference (DTech), where entrepreneurs, academics, designers gathered to exchange ideas on how to breathe fresh air in to the economy of the historically manufacturing-heavy district and the Greater Bay Area.

The past decade has been the golden age of development at Guangdong Industrial Design City, said Hu Qizhi, secretary general of Guangdong Industrial Design Association. Technologies have advanced rapidly, many businesses have flourished and consumption has grown significantly. But what is the DNA of Chinese-designed goods?

“Nowadays, every company wants to make bao kuan [roughly translated to “best-sellers”] and every designer hopes to create the most iconic design,” Hu said.

Other than technology, however, humanity and culture also need to be taken into consideration, said Hu.

“We need to go back to the basics of design,” Hu said. “Without self-confidence in the Chinese culture, how can companies and brands know how to communicate with their international audience?” he added.

Soon-In Lee, chairman of Seoul Design Center, said that the design culture is different from the kind culture most people understand. For example, from user experience and interface design of a China-made phone is different from one that’s made in South Korea. Traces of cultural influence are quite noticeable, said Lee.

It is also important to recognize the role that technologies like big data and artificial intelligence play in pushing forward design and influencing trends as well as how technology and design can jointly bring about smarter solutions.

“Design identity” is a hot topic not only in China but everywhere, said Alpay Er, member of executive committee of World Design Organization (WDO).

Over the past 20 years, China has been a “playground for designers,” Er said. The country has been very open-minded and unfettered in experimenting with new ideas. The process of experimentation has helped Chinese designers become more confident. Other countries’ confidence in Chinese-designed and produced products have also grown. “China is becoming an important player in the international design community,” he noted.

The sweeping waves of globalization not only affected the economy at large, but it also changed the way companies look at the design of their brand and products, according to Er. He pointed out that as companies grow larger and become more international-facing, rolling out products that cater to the consumers in target markets overseas become increasingly important.

When companies shift focus from domestic to international markets, Er said oftentimes the needs of local consumers get overlooked and design identity lost. This is a common issue many countries run into, he said.

Er said the key for Chinese brands is, therefore, to look inward—create innovative products that fulfill domestic needs and at the same time suit the taste of markets overseas.

South Korean smartphone giant Samsung did not overlook the high domestic demand for the hand-held device when it began eying other lucrative markets like the US, Germany, and Japan a decade ago, he said.

China is changing so quickly in terms of product quality, product presentation, and many other aspects, Christian Schwamkrug, design director of Porsche Design, said in an interview after his speech on the importance of design in brand building.

When asked about his impression of Chinese companies, Schwamkrug said he was very optimistic.

The company recently unveiled a premium hi-tech washing machine it designed for Japanese electronics giant Panasonic, which is available to only Chinese consumers.

Sometimes products can be “over-engineered” and crammed with features that users don’t actually need, Schwamkrug said. It is important to be smart in selecting features out of a pool of technologies, he noted. A good designer is like a funnel, whatever comes out of it is the essence, said Schwamkrug.

Christian Schwamkrug, design director of Porsche Design. (Image Credit: TechNode/Nicole Jao)

The Germany-based company has had years of experience working with Chinese brands, and Schwamkrug is looking forward to more opportunities. Reflecting on his experience, he said, there was an adjustment period and a very sharp learning curve. But now, Chinese companies are beginning to understand what design is all about.

The design studio also designed the new Huawei Mate, which also recently launched. Schwamkrug said the premium phones the company worked on with the Chinese smartphone maker have been very successful.

“China is so vibrant,” said Schwamkrug, many Chinese brands including Xiaomi, Huawei, and DJI are becoming widely known in Europe and getting recognized in international design awards. The company is hoping to intensify business in the country in the coming years, he said.