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.

 

I. THE ESSENCE AND NATURE OF DESIGN

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.
 

II. CHINESE' RESISTANCE TO CHANGE & HUNGER FOR RESOURCES

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.

 

III. DESIGN'S GREAT CHALLENGE IN CHINA

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.

 

IV. REDEFINING "DESIGN IN CHINA"

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.

 

V. A VISION FOR BRANDS (AND DESIGNERS) IN CHINA

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?