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The Economic Price Of China's Shoddy Design

Chinese business owners should know that low prices alone are not a recipe for longterm export success, says a renowned German industrial design expert.

Mass production of kitsch
Mass production of kitsch
Sun Qizi

XIAMEN — Exports from China’s light industry total $560 billion annually, compared to import totals of $140 billion. For any major nation, the manufacturing of light industrial objects and craft items is crucial to increasing employment and boosting the economy. But despite its current export strength, this sector of China’s economy is neither strong in added-value nor in quality, with a particular weakness in innovation, research and development and design.

“China’s export enterprises are currently transforming and accelerating," said Zhang Jie, Vice-President of China Light Industry Crafts Association. "It ought to form its core competitiveness in quality, technology and innovation and this requires efforts such as in design R&D, brand-marketing, technology as well as services."

The particular question of Chinese design was the topic of a recent interview with Peter Zec, CEO of Red Dot, a renowned international product design competition. It was the southern Chinese seaport of Xiamen that award organizers chose as the site for this year's competition.

Playing catch-up

Zec reckons that in comparison with 15 years ago, when he first visited China, Chinese designers and the entire industry have changed dramatically. “China has achieved significant progress in the industrial design sector," he said. Zec singled out Lenovo — the Chinese computer hardware and electronics — as "one of the rare companies that doesn’t copy Apple. It has its own style and design.”

Still, there remains a notable obstacle to design in China at the corporate level, where senior managers don't understand the commercial value of design. Beyond certain exceptions among Chinese multinationals such as Lenovo, Huawei and Haier, too many Chinese companies are still reluctant to make real investments in the design of their products.

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A Lenovo store in China (bfishadow)

“The difficulty is that so many Chinese firms are succeeding even without making efforts in design, so that it’s hard to persuade bosses to invest in design," said Zec. "China has low labor costs and as long as its model produces high profits, it will be difficult for Chinese industry to attach great importance to investing in design.”

Still the time may be ripe for change on this front. Zec argues that only if Chinese people realize that design serves the bottom line will they pay more attention to it. “If price is the only option for customers, competition is going to be extremely fierce. Chinese products are very cheap today but in the future other countries’ will be even cheaper," he said. "Thus quality is going to decide the final market share. Quality comprises technological and engineering aspects but also the aesthetic and design aspect. If both are satisfied, the product can be sold at a much higher price and beat the competition. Apple is the best example for how good design can bring success.”

Learning from the West

To raise the level of general industrial design, Zec believes that China has a lot to learn from Western designers about how to apply it in mass production. “Industrial design originates from the West — precisely speaking from Britain. Later the center shifted to Germany, the United States and other countries. What China needs now is to keep in close contact with Western advanced industrial design," Zec notes. “Another crucial point is personal freedom. Good design can only be born in free thinking. Good designers must be crazy enough to be able to overcome barriers. Good design can only grow in a free mind and a free personality. This is a prerequisite.”

Nevertheless, Zec is convinced China has great potential. “China is the future because it’s so full of possibilities. I am convinced that China is going to be very strong in the field of design. In the next 10 to 15 years, China will own many big international brands. It’s just the world has yet to realize this.”

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