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The Rise of Asian Industrial Design



While many in the advertising business are lamenting a looming drought in creativity, the designers who work behind the scenes to shape the products that we use do not share the same outlook. That is because their source of inspiration is to be found in the world's most unexplored corners. As they roam the world, they embrace the cultures of different peoples with the boundless curiosity of youths.

As globalized market competition becomes ever more intense, rivalry that encompasses product quality, functionality, technology, price, service, and marketing is gradually coming to an end. The trend toward products becoming more and more alike is unstoppable, and an attempt to use traditional differentiators to gain a long-term advantage is futile. At a time when new technologies are emerging faster than novel fashions, companies are constantly asking the question: what can we give you, our customer, to please you?

However, BMW, Apple, IBM, Sony and other such world-famous brands have been able to maintain a distinct impression in people's minds, keeping their products best-sellers. Most admired brands, has sustained its position because of a factor that is often neglected-distinctive product design. Today, a solution to the competitive dilemma faced by large companies lies with their "eternal youths"-their designers with their unassuming appearance and manner. In fact, they have already fomented a "design revolution" that marks this as a "golden age of designers".

A Golden Age for Designers
"Market competition in the 21st century is a competition among designs"-this fact is one that companies cannot avoid. Professor Kung Chi-Ching of Japan's Chiba University considers industrial design as one of the key factors behind the rise of Japanese economy. Without a doubt, in an era in which so much stress is laid on brands and brand personalities, industrial designs that convey a distinctive appeal will become a focus for manufacturers. King Liu, chairman of bicycle manufacturer Giant, says: "Without industrial design, a product is just a piece of machinery, with very little added value."

People's hope for designs is that they will reflect the creators' broad and far-reaching outlook. Olivier Boulay, a leading automobile designer who was once head designer for Mercedes-Benz, points out that a designer cannot be only an engineer. He must also be a businessman, able to understand all aspects of the industry. Akira Fujimoto, editor-in-chief of Japan's Car Styling magazine puts it bluntly that in the past designers had only to be able to make sketches. Now, however, designers must also be able to have a sense of societal trends, becoming keen observers who can project what the future portends.

Taiwan was a key beneficiary as manufacturing industries shifted from the West to the Far East. Taiwan once fielded a powerful advantage by using its ability to manufacture virtually anything to a high standard, and leveraged this advantage to create an economic miracle. The ongoing shift of manufacturing from Taiwan to China once aroused worries about Taiwan's economy being "hollowed out". With the pressure of this unstoppable trend hanging over their heads, the Taiwanese were forced to discover new sources of value and competitiveness. This in turn stimulated interest in industrial design.

Many Taiwanese noted the fact that in just a few years, Samsung transformed itself from a second-tier OEM vendor into the owner of one of the world's most prominent brands. A former Samsung design manager, who once believed Samsung's products were "all rubbish," now thinks Samsung has "the industry's best products." Samsung's metamorphosis relied in large part on a series of revolutionary designs. Previously, the company's design department had been considered dispensable, but today, the design department's position ranks with that of management.

When looking at Japan, the Taiwanese saw that Tokyo bookstores carried more than forty magazines to help women aged 15 to 30 to choose clothes. Because the Japanese are very attentive to their appearance, it enabled thousands of Indonesians to make a living (by providing raw materials from which Japanese make paper). The degree to which beauty care has been commercialized in Japan is not less than that of technology. And just because of their discriminating taste in aesthetic experience, the Japanese have been able to create digital devices that virtually dominated the world consumer market.

For Europeans, living is in itself an art that entails an industry to serve it. This concept has permeated to the core of their product design, and driven its originality. Because of its people's attention to detail and aesthetic sensitivity, Denmark has earned a reputation as a center for design. The eponymous founder of George Jensen, a renowned century-old Danish brand for silver accessories, was named by newspaper New York Herald-Tribune as the greatest silversmith of the past 300 years.

Japan's "beauty economy" and Europe's "originality economy" both appeal more to Taiwanese when compared to the economies such as Indonesia or China that are fueled by labor-intensive industries or low-cost labor. This is because Japan and Europe's economies account for two-thirds of the world's GNP.

Taiwan's Design: From "Creating Cost Advantages" to "Creating Value"
In the last two years, design capabilities-which have been called Taiwan's "third competence" after manufacturing and logistics by the local media-have shown amazing growth, attracting large numbers of internationally recognized designers to Taiwan. Regarded as one of the world's most important designers, Philip Starck pointed out during his visit that Taiwan is the world's biggest source of 3C products, and that there was great potential if Taiwan could combine its superior manufacturing capabilities with design capabilities and brand management.

Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei lauds Taiwan's achievements of recent years in brand management and product design: "Taiwan has gradually come up with its own brand approach." The brands of which Idei speaks include that of a company that only formally introduced its own brand at the end of 2001-BenQ.

BenQ won seven awards for 2004 iF Design Awards. Likened to the "Academy Awards for design," the iF award competition attracts the world's foremost industrial designers each year. BenQ won a huge victory for Taiwanese brands on the international stage through its achievements. Ralph Wiegmann, managing director of iF International Forum Design GmbH, was moved to remark: "BenQ's design capabilities are truly amazing!"

Subsequently, a BenQ-designed LCD monitor was featured on the cover of Business Week magazine, as it was regarded as a symbol of Asia's rising design capabilities. At the Milan Fashion Week that took place recently, a LCD monitor that was designed to resemble a lady's purse also astonished Western observers. One well-known European fashion designer integrated the notebook into one of his own shows, where many members of the media assumed it was the masterwork of an Italian designer. It was only when the actual designer came on stage that everyone learned that it was in fact from Taiwan.

Manfred Wang, Director of BenQ's Lifestyle Design Center, told this reporter that BenQ's current design team was established just two-and-a-half years ago. Initially, the industry was skeptical about the prospects for Chinese design when faced with global competition. But BenQ's considerable achievements over the past two years have been an enormous confidence booster to designers of Chinese descent.

How did BenQ do it? One thing is very obvious-that consciousness about design depends upon a consciousness about brand. The development of these two types of consciousness is simultaneous and complementary, as demonstrated by BenQ.

Wang explained this transformation to this reporter: "Competitiveness is equivalent to the ratio between value and cost. In Taiwan, which was oriented toward OEM manufacturing, more thought was given to the question of how to reduce costs-of labor, materials, and production. Industrial design considerations existed, but played a completely different role than it does now. Overall design thinking revolved around manufacturing, and aimed only at satisfying the client's requirements. There was no need to consider the end-user, consumers. Today, attention is placed on how to increase value, and that is the role that industrial design plays in Taiwanese companies now."

Chen Shi-kuan, Executive director for the Greater China region at GE/Fitch, one of the world's largest design groups, commented on the past: "Taiwan's design departments had no voice inside companies. Members of the design staff were seen as "craftsmen" and not "creative people." They had to acquiesce to the views of the R&D and manufacturing departments regarding products. Designers, trained under the OEM business model, also lost their ability to predict product trends based on consumer behavior."

At the time, BenQ had just seven industrial design people in its R&D department. When the company decided to introduce the BenQ brand, the implication was that the company was shifting from a manufacturing-oriented to a market-oriented approach. As the company was building up brand management concepts, its views about design fundamentally changed.

In order to more closely intertwine brand management and design concepts, the company established its Industrial Design Center. The seven industrial design people were assigned to work at the Center, and the company's design resources were restructured. It was only at this time that a systematic approach was applied to everything from talent recruitment to the establishment of a comprehensive design process and philosophy. Later, in order to reflect its market-oriented approach, the company changed the Center's name to the Lifestyle Design Center, and put together a design team consisting of roughly 200 people.

Wang once studied industrial design at Germany's State Academy of Art and Design Stuttgart. Before Wang graduated, his faculty advisor Richard Sapper, IBM's lead design consultant and a world-famous designer, told him something that moved him deeply: "Designing a better tomorrow is in your hands."

Today, as Wang sees it, only by seeing design from a market perspective and fully recognizing the needs of consumers can a designer fulfill the mission alluded to by Sapper. Only with this approach to design can the significance of industrial design be broadened and its true value realized.

Wang further commented, "Now there is a consensus in the company that design must be given precedence if the brand image is going be consistent. If the product itself does not give consumers an enhanced experience, then no amount of advertising will make up for it. Design and marketing reinforces each other." Wang hopes to use both the practical and emotional appeal of BenQ's designs to give consumers a profound aesthetic experience and a sense of identity with the brand.

Currently, when BenQ is considering introduction of a new product, the design department must first understand the needs and wants of the target consumers, and then propose a design concept. The company then brings together people from design, manufacturing, marketing, and engineering departments to discuss the product's positioning, technical obstacles, probable market reaction, and potential issues in production and sales. After thorough discussion, a decision about whether the product should go forward is made. The entire discussion process revolves around the design proposal, so the design department's understanding of the brand message, market and sales trends, and even how the future will unfold is clearly pivotal.

"If we could use a thermometer to gauge a design, we would find that the low extreme would represent modernist or rationalist works, while the high extreme would be post-modernist works," observes Wang. Today, with design genuinely determining the value of a brand, Wang can lucidly express BenQ's design philosophy: "We are looking to maintain a grasp on lifestyle and design trends. The idea is to seek out the right temperature between the extremes of hot and cold."

Korea's Samsung has long kept a watch on BenQ's design directions, forming a group in its design strategy team to research BenQ. On a tour of BenQ, a Samsung department head acknowledged that BenQ's ability to progress so far in such a short time "gave [him] a headache." Chen stresses, "A company must understand that what design provides is no longer merely added value, but that it has become the only source of true value." He goes on: "A brand and design are a company's only interfaces with consumers. If design is still considered secondary, the company will be eliminated from competition." Many information technology product manufacturers are expanding their industrial design departments. Over the past two years, Foxconn (formerly Hon Hai) has been upgrading its design capabilities, and will increase the size of its design department from the current 70 to 80 people to 200 or more. Compal Electronics, the second-largest laptop computer producer, has also been strengthening the capabilities of its industrial design center.

With the rise of brands such as BenQ, Acer, Asus, and Giant, the specialized expertise of ODM vendors, and the establishment and fast development of large numbers of independent design firms, Taiwan is using design to achieve rapid growth in the value it can add, making strides towards itself becoming an "aesthetic economy".

The Rise of Design in Mainland China
As everyone knows, China has shown strong growth for many years, with the size of its economy now among the world's largest. Manufacturing has been indispensable to this achievement. Many foreigners going to China say that it's impossible to find suitable gifts to give, because anything purchased in their home countries seems to be made in China.

However, because China still lags in technology R&D and industrial design, Chinese-manufactured products are mostly produced on an OEM basis for sale under a foreign brand. It's an indisputable fact that "Made in China" has become a synonym for low-cost goods.

China has long been the world's largest toy manufacturer, and in fact, 75% of all toys are made in China. However, the Barbie doll that sells for $10 carries a price of just $2 when it leaves China. After deducting $1.65 for the cost of raw materials, transport, and administrative fees, there is just $0.35 left as income for the Chinese manufacturer.

"That's the price for having no brand, for not having the R&D and design resources to create your own intellectual property! Even though production volumes are large, profits are extremely low. In fact, China can't quite be counted as a manufacturing plant, but is more of a workshop," says Lu Xiao-bo, Assistant Dean of the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University. "For Chinese companies to increase their international competitiveness, they must integrate into the world economy at a higher level and in a broader range of areas. They must participate in international cooperation and competition, and furthermore, build a group of internationally recognized brands. That the 'Made in China' label will move toward becoming a symbol of high-added value is a broad trend, and innovative industrial design will be an important factor in moving it in this direction."

In the past, certainly, Chinese companies talked mostly of management innovation and technological innovation, but little about design innovation. In 2003, there were no Chinese brands among the world's 200 most valuable brands. The reasons are manifold. What people see on the market are numerous brands trying to sell themselves, and companies are exerting themselves to put forth various "new concepts". However, it is difficult to discern the substance of the products themselves. On the surface, it is a battle waged about "added value," but this has not changed the price competition still being fought at a basic level, nor has it altered the fate of companies becoming low-cost workshops. And even maintaining a share of this paltry pie is not assured, as it is being hungrily-eyed by companies from countries with even lower business costs.

Tong Huei-ming, Dean of the School of Arts at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, points out that because China lacks a comprehensive and systematic strategy for product design, its product innovation is mired at a low level where efforts are dispersed, uncoordinated, or one-off in nature. Besides a transitory effect on sales, no contribution is made to overall enhancement of corporate brand image. Moreover, excessive imitation and reliance on foreign advances stemming from a desire to save on effort and take shortcuts has caused many Chinese companies to lose the ability to stake out territory in the global market.

In the past ten years, Chinese design has come up with more Western-like products, while native elements have gone lacking. However, the biggest reason that countries such as Italy have been able to maintain design leadership on the international stage is that their designs evoke a strong sense of a unique cultural identity, with a bountiful "modern feel" coming only second in importance. As Andrew, global design director at Electrolux, says, short-sighted imitation by companies will in the end result in loss of both markets and brand image.

Tsinghua University's Lu has made the discovery that the history of Chinese economic development is largely one of "adoption" of advances made elsewhere. The role played by innovation has been small. Moreover, during the extended period during which its economy was planned, design was considered merely a type of craft, only a means of adornment. This mentality made it difficult for China to achieve true breakthroughs.

BMW's lead designer once remarked, "When we design, we never look at the market. We guide the market, create the market." Lu believes Chinese companies do not need to blindly attempt to shepherd the market. "However, at the least, there should be entrepreneurs with this sort of ambition. We are not willing to serve only as a workshop, and so outstanding companies should be daring enough to let designers create the future."

The automotive industry is one that is highly sensitive to industrial design, and the domestic automotive industry has already reached a consensus that industrial design plays a decisive role in the success of a car. Only cars that combine advanced internationally-minded design concepts and Chinese native characteristics can give the industry vitality. Because foreign automobile design companies lack an understanding of Chinese culture, their designs have not found widespread acceptance. Recently, some companies have been moving toward taking more control over design. JiLi invested NT$350 million to establish a new automotive R&D institute.

In addition, some outstanding Chinese companies such as Huawei, Konka, and ZTE have focused on industrial design, and are gradually achieving brand momentum.

Pan Yun-he, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineers and president of Zhejiang University, points out that industrial design will play an important role in shaping the future of Chinese business.