The Great Challenge of Design in China by David Hu

In my exploration of the meaning of "design in China", I have observed two important traits about design:

  • The essence of design itself is change.
  • (Therefore) Design is Western by nature.



Some may say the essence of design depends on whom you're designing for. Others may say it depends on why you design, how you design, or which methodology you use. I believe, however, that there is one essence—"an essence to rule all other essences", so to speak—of design.

Design is, at its core, about making a change. Take change away and design could no longer exist, because it leaves the designer with no purpose to strive for and no outcome to expect. The change could be big or small; it can be positive or negative; the degree of challenge and impact of that change may also determine whether it is innovative. How you go about making that change is up to your viewpoint and your skills. Regardless of the field of design—graphics, communication, product, or others—the premise is the same. We can also further break design down into the intention of making a change; the process of making that change; and the awareness of a change taking place. Without intention, change is simply happenstance. Without the process, the possibility of change doesn't exist. And without the awareness of a change, then both intention and process have been fruitless. All are necessary and indeed they are the most basic motivations for designers.

The second trait about design is that it can be, is, and will continue to be an essential part of most Western cultures. The West, in general, places great emphasis on the idea of change. It believes in the nobility of having a vision for something better. It values the efforts of those who try to make a change—even if they fail. And, most important, Western cultures anticipate those who have the power to make a change to, indeed, do so; some would go as far as saying this power, in fact, bestows upon one the responsibility of affecting said changes. This has been a basic tenet of the Western identity since its earliest beginnings. The ancient Greeks told stories of heroes who, even with their weaknesses, persevered against all odds to achieve something great and to become a better version of themselves. The West's innate admiration of the changed/redeemed hero is the most foundational reason that design can and will continue to be a major force for change in the West today.

These two traits of design have significant implications on how design, as a practice and as a mindset, can (or perhaps cannot) be suitable for China.


The Chinese culture is highly resistant—resilient, even—to the idea of change. To the Chinese, change is unpredictable and risky; instead, they seek predictability and stability. This assumption stems from their belief that nature is cyclical and always return to a predetermined norm, or a balance. Large changes are deemed as aberrations beyond their control. Whether this worldview is fatalistic, defeatist, or eternally optimistic/pessimistic is besides the point; it has remained the same for eons. However, the Chinese are masters of adaptation.

If the world "flowed" like a river, then Western cultures are the individuals who seek to change the river's course or upend the status quo. The Western individual is entitled to try to do so: if not create a torrent of change, then to at least carve out his own path. The Chinese, on the hand, takes no pleasure in a river unexpectedly changing its course. In order to survive and maximize the use of the river, the Chinese will learn its habits and mechanisms, knowing full well that they cannot control the waves or tides but instead adapt to them. By finding a position of the highest stability along the river, they can move in relative safety and make adjustments to any disturbances as necessary. Furthermore, the Chinese will not take a position on the water's surface, where they could succumb to the strong winds and waves above, and where they face unknown dangers below.

Within their safety zone, the Chinese will establish their tried-and-true social hierarchies, trading on resources for "guanxi" (interpersonal relationships that are often mutually beneficial for obtaining favors). But resources can quickly be expended, disappear, or worse, lose their social currency. So success is heavily dependent on the abundance and newness of these resources under one's ownership. The result? As both a collective and as individuals, the Chinese constantly desire "new" and ignore "old", and in the process, they seldom build loyalty to any organizations, entities, or brands outside the family. As with most things in life, the Chinese see their constant yearning for the new as 1) a savvy adaptation to their environment and as 2) a competitive absorption of resources. This process continues ceaselessly and is self-fulfilling.



It is evident in the real world that the Chinese are able to rapidly adapt to and absorb massive amounts of new technologies, consumer trends, and business opportunities as long as they are modifiable to the Chinese' own set of values. Change, or the desire for change, is unnecessary because adaptation works faster, risks little, and maintains a general sense of continued stability. Yes, the Chinese are always hungry for newer and better things, but that wouldn't be the whole story.

Recall that design, at its core, is about making a change, which is comprised of intention, process, and awareness. But if the Chinese have little appetite for change, then what intention could design possess? And if the Chinese' clamoring for "new" is simply a reaction to its availability, how could the process of change take place at all? Finally, if the Chinese' definition of success lies in the abundance of resources and maintaining stability, how can they ever be aware of change taking place? Altogether, then, it would seem that the Chinese culture precludes design as a "change agent".

So, if one can accept this hypothesis about design in China, then the question for us designers concerned with this subject is, "What is design's purpose in China?" It would seem to me that all of the current efforts of design (in particular, the companies that create "innovations" for China) are simply feeding the Chinese with resources to consume. These resources are short-lived and do little more than offer stepping stones for the Chinese to seek out more later. Of course, many companies will temporarily profit from these, but to what end, except a replication of Western design? It is clear, then, that we need to redefine what "design"—and by extension, "new", "innovative", and other associated terms that we take for granted in the West—is in China, because the context and value system in which it exists are wholly different between the East and the West.



To state again: design in China cannot be the same as design in the West.

Mired in the Chinese' resistance to change and emphasis on new resources, there is a singular opportunity that should now be obvious: we can literally mold the concept of Design in China. But for design to make a lasting impact on China, the essence of design needs be wholly rethought and remade. To start, this means:

  • Not over-relying on the West-developed design thinking methodologies;
  • Not focused on bringing change but on forming and shaping beliefs about the future;
  • Not resorting to globalization—or, rather, westernization—as a shortcut to success for your products, services, and brands.



The Western nature of design extends to the modern concept of branding. Many of the most successful brands in the West leverage the fact that they have been around for decades, if not more, because it often conveys dependability and quality. More important, history triggers the notion of the resiliency of a few who have fought the odds to remain true to their core and be successful at it. In the West, this value is aspirational and is often worth paying for.

The dependence on history in the West, however, creates a challenge for most multinational brands in China:  frighteningly shaky brand loyalty. In fact, once a brand has been distributed and becomes accessible to lower social tiers, it is considered spent—a clear warning sign that its followers are blind to new resources and should discard the brand immediately. Thus, brand loyalty doesn't set root nor accumulate. A brand wouldn't even have much success in trying to leverage nostalgia because the Chinese have a strong disconnect with the past.

But there are values in the Chinese culture that are worth designing for—ones that will require us to abandon some long-held values but also embrace some unfamiliar ones. And so, the advice (and challenges) I give brands invested in China is this:

  • See the Chinese people not only as individual consumers fitting particular demographics but as infinitely interconnected representatives of their culture;
  • Create not only finely studied market needs but a vision of a better future—one in which you, too, are eager to dwell;
  • Tell not only stories of your brand but stories of what it means to be Chinese.

I also ask designers—especially those trained in China—to keep the following in mind, so you can contribute as much as, if not more than, the brands that take said challenges:

  • Develop your skills to not only be applicable in a project or industry but to also give yourself better awareness of your environment;
  • Constantly impart in your work a vision of your future self and the futures of the people and things you care about;
  • See your profession not only as a career choice but rather a personal commitment to be a cultural leader.

Design in China is a vision not yet realized. It's like a rocket ship ready to be launched toward the Great Unknown, while everyone is still fighting over land and arguing about how much they have. Design in China should be about a future that doesn't discard the past; a "new" that doesn't overshadow the "old"; and an optimism that's not weighed down by the status quo.

You are again standing along the river. Will you continue to stay where you are comfortable? Will you, like some others, carve out streams for yourself so you are never in want? Or will you venture forth, find where the river ends, and prepare a new path for others to follow?

设计的虚拟现实 by David Hu

我曾在科技博客 Ars Technica 上读过一篇关于 Oculus 的报道(详情点击如下链接),这是一家正在发展虚拟现实平台的公司,其中有一段文字尤其震撼到了我:

Oculus 执行总裁布伦丹.伊莱布指出,Facebook 创始人马克.扎克伯格也许钻研得还不够深入,并声称虚拟现实‘实际上真的会成为最终计算平台’。



  • 我们最终会营造一个未来虚拟世界,它将向我们的感官提供精确反馈。
  • 我们撇开电子游戏里的虚拟世界不说,因为它们已超越现实生活。
  • 我们也撇开科幻电影常描述的世界末日景象不说,因为它们大部分以生死为前提。
  • 同时,我们仍然需要赖以生存的东西,比如食物,空气,住所,等等。





我愿意相信,设计的主要用意旨在强调它的物理性。因此,它一定会受到物理限度的制约,而我们设计师也面临着那些局限性所带来的挑战。我希望物理性可以产生变化,无论其多么的微小;因为在虚拟世界中,实在是太容易复制出一模一样的东西,就算可能有无限的其他选择。原因何在?正是由于在现实世界里,局限性给予我们做人的真实感;而人类永远拥有的限制使我们这些设计师渴望和愿意去做设计。 局限性给予了我们超越目标的动力,并在我们没能如愿以偿时,让我们领悟到挫败的价值。一个完美的虚拟现实其实夺取了这些。所以我惧怕的并不是虚拟现实的可能性,而是它的无限性。

The Virtual Reality of Design by David Hu

I read an article on Ars Technica (linked here) about Oculus, an in-development virtual reality platform, and a particular paragraph struck me:

"Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe suggested that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg might not have gone far enough, saying that virtual reality 'actually may be the final compute platform.'

The journey that has taken computing from mainframes to PCs to laptops to mobile phones could have a few more intermediary steps in the future, such as smartwatches, Iribe allowed. But, he said, 'once you replace vision with a very comfortable virtual vision that you can look around in—that you get the sense of presence, you believe is real and is comfortable—if you can have this collaborative social experience where my brain truly believes we're in a virtual place together and that you're right here in front of me even if you're not, this is the ultimate platform and this is what we've been imagining for so many years. The Holy Grail.'"

What is not really in doubt is the validity of Iribe's argument. But what is interesting, and perhaps significant, to explore is the effect this will have on the field of design. Currently, we know that video games are created by a team of storywriters, conceptual artists, programmers, and, of course, game designers. They create virtual objects, virtual people, and virtual worlds: things that each imitate—but in exponentially elevated forms—similar physical counterparts.

For the sake of argument, let's presume a couple of things:

  • We will eventually create a future virtual world that can provide accurate feedback to our senses.
  • We will still require the things that allow us to live and survive, like food.

Furthermore, we will set aside the apocalyptic visions of "living virtually" as showcased in many sci-fi movies. My focus here is solely on the implications of an all-around virtual world on design. What happens when the former becomes so compelling that we place more value on virtual objects than on physical objects? If the things that attracts us, compels us to spend money, and brings us great enjoyment all exist in the virtual world, what importance is left in the physical objects that we create?

I foresee diminishing value in many of the consumer products that we often crave or take for granted. Why spend money on a designer chair when you can buy a digital one and touch the virtual leather? Why buy a superbly sculpted car when you can sit in an even wilder and faster car without worrying about its physical limitations and consequences? Not to mention that in a virtual world, nearly unlimited options are at one's disposal at anytime. If the market need is there, would current product designers give up designing physical objects for virtual ones, especially when it also holds the promise of not expending physical resources (besides those to run the program and the computers); of unlimited trial and error and variations; and, possibly, of much more financial gain? What if we extended this inquiry from products to brands?

From a brand perspective, a dwindling need for physical products and perhaps even physical interactions means brands will increasingly be communicated digitally. What is left of a brand that's traditionally physical when it becomes completely virtual? Do we become disconnected from its history? Can a brand even build loyalty exclusively through a virtual world? Branding, at its heart, is an exercise of creating a virtual reality. Strategists, marketers, designers, and others work together to give life to and maintain what is basically a virtual lifestyle for consumers to aspire to. Logos don't live physically anymore. They're not the signatures that they once were before the digital age; they now simply manifest in physical products where applicable. Their only permanence lies in the fact that they can be infinitely duplicated—by anyone and on anything.

For products that we buy because they are reflective of ourselves (e.g. fashion), what will become of them if we no longer need them on our persons? What if the only fashion we are willing to buy exists online because our avatars are more presentable or, we feel, more representative of who we are? Couldn't any designer with the right coding, then, be able to create things that surpass those in "virtual quality" made by established brands? And if the latter becomes true, perhaps virtual reality is not simply the "final compute platform", but also the final step in democratizing design. But I'm not sure I would be willing to accept that without a fight.

I want to believe that design is meant to be, first and foremost, physical. So that it would be constrained by physical limitations and that we designers are challenged by these limitations. I want physicality to give birth to variations, however minute, because it is too easy to duplicate exactly in the virtual world, even in light of the infinite possibilities. Why? Because the real world works this way. Limitation is the one thing that makes us human; the omnipresence of the human limit makes us designers want to be designers. Limitation gives us goals for us to exceed and to be disappointed about when we don't achieve them. Virtual reality, at its most ideal, takes that away. It's not the power of virtual reality that I fear, but rather its infiniteness.

A New Consumer Responsibility by David Hu

“Responsibility” is a ubiquitous term in today’s corporate and consumerist policies. Companies claim to abide by it and activists espouse it as a way of life. In whichever form it takes, be it environmental conservatism, minimization of harmful materials, end-of-life waste management, or the many other causes, everyone can now shop Responsibly-with-a-capital-r to his hearts’ content. We consumers tell ourselves that we are being more responsible and aware than ever before; that we exercising our right to choose; and that we are making the necessary changes for a better future. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But there is another type of responsibility that has been forgotten over time and should now be on every consumer’s mind: the Responsibility of Appreciation.

The meaning of the term “appreciation” has a very unique connotation from a consumer's perspective—one that is different from its meaning in other contexts. A large part of that is the result of the broad interpretation and subsequent use of this word, especially by the companies who sell the products we buy. We most often associate it with the idea of “customer appreciation,” i.e. how a business can/should reward us for our loyalty with things like club membership, coupons, bonuses, gifts, add-ons, travel mileage, etc. (Note that this doesn’t include warranties, as they are actual guarantees of the product’s quality, not simply an addendum that is largely unrelated to the product.) In some ways, it's a strange notion that the consumer, who has first willingly accepted the price of the product in exchange for the product, should then expect a gift from the company that makes or sells it. If we are indeed entitled to some sort of post-purchase benefit, what does that say about our original perception of the product's value? Had it not been the extras would we have bought it? If not, why was the decision to buy determined by the promise of something unrelated to the product itself? If we are indeed easily swayed by these extras, perhaps we should question whether the product was worth owning in the first place.

How do we appreciate a product? There is, of course, no perfectly universal criteria for judging a product's value to any particular person, but there is nonetheless an opportunity to determine the relative value of ownership. Let's use the common pair of sneakers as an example; an appreciative consumer would perhaps take a moment to consider a few of the following:

- The fact that someone developed, created, or researched the many materials and chemicals that compose a single sneaker
- The (many) workers who put the sneakers together do so with such consistency that one size 9 is the same as another size 9
- The lengthy trips those sneakers have taken from a factory floor, to a shipping dock, onto a boat/plane, into a warehouse, onto a truck and into a store
- The particular ways in which those sneakers were displayed at store shelf, photographed for a billboard, or marketed on TV, which then compelled said consumer to try them out in the first place
- The fact that even though all those factors combine to make these shoes, they are being sold so cheaply (or expensively?)

Finally—and critically—appreciation should elicit the question: now that I have considered all of the above, do I still appreciate these sneakers enough to warrant my purchase and ownership of them?

The most important aspect of being appreciative is actually stated before each of the questions above: can I consider? The ability to challenge ourselves to pause and think thoroughly is not easy in our busy lives and less so when they make seemingly little difference, but it can make a world of difference in how we conduct ourselves as consumers, out of respect not only to those who make the products we buy but also to ourselves, because we worked hard enough to make ownership a reality. This level of awareness can do the world a lot more good than simply thinking about popular issues like organic, recyclable, environmentally friendly, BPA-free, etc. Without the act of appreciation, we effectively reduce our decision-making process to just yes’s and no’s while STILL allowing for over-consumption. And if the decision to buy things is done on a whim and at the easy mercy of product packaging claims and brand image, then even self-proclaimed responsible consumers never really need to exercise any responsibility.

What the modern consumer culture has done is remove the notion of appreciation from the sum total value of a product. Sure, we may be thankful of the fact that we have products that make our lives more convenient or comfortable, but we rarely consider the effort that went into designing, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, or selling them—all at a price that allows a business to turn a profit and make newer and better things that we will hopefully also like and buy in the future. This is a self-destructive mentality for both the consumer and the company: we value less and less the things that come so easily and are so accessible, and companies become so price-sensitive that they become willing to sacrifice quality and longevity.

Instead of focusing only on the things that come after the purchase, we should also try to be appreciative of the things that come before, for they make possible the products that we want. Many of us have everything that we could ever possibly need to not only survive but to live very comfortably. In fact, many of us are also under no pressure to accept anything less than spectacularly made products—for that alone we should count our blessings. But let's not lose what makes ownership so special and rewarding, because only when we can appreciate what we buy will we become truly responsible consumers.

Chinese movement by David Hu

Some say successful designers are like good storytellers; their success often stemming from personal stories of inspirations and motivations. In more ways than one, the story of a designer's life is the foundation of his livelihood, and the themes upon which these stories are built make them particularly convincing. One of the many themes that designers endlessly explore is movement. Automotive designers sculpt sheet metal in ways that mimic the body lines of felines or horses, thus instilling a sense of movement that is both logical and natural for an object in motion. Likewise, furniture designers often use sweeping lines to evoke waves and wind found in the fantasy environments in which we could imagine enjoying ourselves.

Movement is an especially interesting topic for designers, but what does it mean on a more primitive level? What is the essence of a moving animal from which car designers draw inspiration? We cannot always be certain that one designer's perspective is the same as that of another, so couldn't these perspectives be also subject to one's cultural influences? For the purpose of our particular studies, do the Chinese observe movement from a perspective that is unique to its culture?

dong, meaning move or movement

dong, meaning move or movement

dong, formed by zhong and li

dong, formed by zhong and li

The word for movement, or move, in Chinese is 動. The character is actually comprised of two other characters, which sit side by side. The character on the left is 重 (zhong), meaning weightiness, and the other is 力 (li), meaning force. This force, by definition, requires a body subject to its influence. Therefore, from the character structure we can see that movement is actually a movement of a body; and, at the very least, a direct reflection of what is visually observed in nature. This may seem insignificant, but it is in fact different in connotation to the West's. While Chinese movement focuses on the presence of a force and a recipient, the West's definition of movement reflects a change in location and thus can be independent of any physical form.

If we want to fully understand movement and its significance as a part of the Chinese language, it is not sufficient to simply analyze 動 alone. For more clues, we can take a look at a few words and phrases that use this character and their meanings both figuratively and literally:

1. 動作 (dong zuo): "movement performed" — action

2. 活動 (huo dong): "movement that is alive" — activity or event

3. 動物 (dong wu): "moving creature" — animal

4. 運動 (yun dong): "movement that is carried/transferred" — exercise, sports

5. 互動 (hu dong): "movement that goes between" — interaction

6. 動靜 (dong jing): "movement and stillness" — very slight movement or an object's state of movement

7. 動如脫兔 (dong ru tuo tu): descriptive idiom, "to move like a freed rabbit" — describes something that moves quickly as if running away

8. 動靜有常 (dong jing you chang): stative idiom, "all movement and stillness have their own naturalness" — describes a then-commonly accepted fact of life that all things in the world follow their own natural ways

As evidenced by just a few select examples, movement is not just action but is also a literary and defining part of many common concepts in Chinese, even if movement is not visual. In other words, the Chinese place significant importance on two things: an object's capacity to move and the manner in which it moves. Although "interaction" requires no physical movement, there is a sense that something is passed from one person to the other, whether it is in the form of words or emotions.

What is the "capacity to move"? The word 動靜 (dong jing) gives us some clues and appears in two examples above. The two characters separately mean "movement" and "stillness", but they combine to form a very uniquely Chinese concept: extremely slight movement. But 動靜 is not quite as simple as that, either. This is a movement that is so slight that it lies just beyond stillness, can easily return to rest, and is almost always unpredictable. It is also proportional to the size of the body. When the 動靜 of an enemy army is observed, then it is any movement beyond the ordinary, daily activities within the encampment. However, for a person or animal, 動靜 can be as slight as the rhythmic motions of taking breaths. 動靜 describes more than a state of movement; it is also a sign of life to which the observer must be highly attuned in order to detect. That is, only the presence of LIFE allows for the existence of 動靜.

If movement indicates the presence of life, then it takes on a meaning different from how it is typically defined. That is, Chinese movement is no longer a mimicry of what is observed in nature. Indeed, when we study the language of the Chinese, we can begin to understand how movement could not be—nor is it meant to be—dictated by a designer at his whim. Even a seemingly ordinary concept of movement is, at its heart, evidence of life and of an invisible force. Contrary to what many designers may strive to do, trying to capture Chinese movement by the use of static lines is meaningless; it would be better to allow movement to reveal itself only where necessary and when it would be purposeful.