Made in China: Some brief reflections on design

I recently visited China with several other Claros to carry out two separate fieldwork projects. I was selected due to my extensive experience in the service design and automotive industries. This was my first visit to China, and I found myself both surprised and reassured. In the following article, I reflect upon some of the things I learned in China and what they mean to me as a designer in this fast changing and always fascinating country.

1. The times they are a changin’

After we concluded our research in China, one ethnographic interview stuck with me more than most. We spoke with a young single mother, who lived in a cosy, colourful apartment and drove a brightly coloured SUV. She was divorced, although did later ¨confess¨ that she had a boyfriend, had one child, and worked two jobs. She spent her evenings as a Didi driver (like Uber), not for the money, but because it gave her an excuse to chat to new people. She was a very bright, happy individual and quite extrovert.

Her story made me consider whether today’s generation are perhaps becoming more expressive and individual than previous eras – and what this could mean for good design in the future. For companies like Claro looking to understand the Chinese market, understanding the tensions arising from this shift is essential. It is vital that we cater to these needs, now and in the future, for as we all know, good design means listening to our end users.

2. The familiar and the strange

From our initial research, I observed that although traditional Chinese values of filial piety, social harmony and loyalty are still very much an important and integral part of Chinese society, the tensions between such notions and a growing sense of individual identity among the young are growing. As we saw with our Didi driver above, many in society are searching for outlets to perform both, as these needs are not mutually exclusive.

It struck me during our trip, that industries and organisations in China are ripe for disruption. I can potentially see an untapped market of opportunities. Businesses however need to rethink what this speed of change means for emerging generations growing up in this new China. Can they do something to help shape it, leverage its potential and be involved from the beginning?

As designers, we must not overlook the fact that culture, social norms, and traditions continue to play a very profound and active part in social lives, shaping not only who we are, but how we think about ourselves, and how we treat our fellow human beings. Good design thus, is a balancing act between what is progressive yet also, what is familiar.

3. Holistic thinking

Alongside this growing trend of self expression, and an accelerating policy of urbanisation, there is an increasingly vocal middle class, with the capital to match newly developing tastes, desires, and aspirations.

We interviewed one such member of this flourishing middle class in his penthouse apartment in the heart of Beijing. With his family (wife, children, grandparents and home help) enjoying a break in their holiday home in the countryside, he was more than happy to show us around his luxury apartment building. However, he only really came alive when we asked him to discuss something that made him happy: his friends, and especially driving motorbikes in the mountains with them to get away from the stresses of daily life.

As a designer, it is important that we be aware not only of changing trends in the properties of products and the associated methods of their make-up, but furthermore, to be mindful of the wider environment in which these products will ultimately be used and consumed. Good design is led by cognisance of the wider social changes taking place all around. Good design is a holistic process led by observation, participation, listening to our end users, and of course, a good dash of inspired thinking.

In conclusion, after reflecting on what I had learned and observed from our fieldwork trip to China, I can’t help but think that the current changes taking place cannot be approached with reference to either ‘X’ or ‘Y’. Rather, what we are witnessing is an emergent hybrid form, forged from a host of disparate elements. To help shape and develop this embryonic style, to create a ‘Chinese design style’ will be difficult (Just look at the automotive industry and their attempt to tackle Daqi) but potentially very rewarding.

As designers, it is our responsibility to be attentive to the contradictions and ambiguities inherent to this new world in progress. Thus, individuality is growing, yet traditional values persist, and show no signs of disappearing; globalisation continues apace, and yet, home grown forms of creativity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity are fast putting the local back on the map; furthermore, and like most societies, equality and inequality, liberalism and conservativism, commodification and decommodification all have their place in this fast changing world. To subscribe to either one or the other, would be a disservice to the incredible inventiveness that is beginning to show its head in this captivating country. To sum up then, let us embrace the ambivalent, the ambiguous, the undefined, and the indefinite, for it is through uncertainty that great design is ultimately born.

Oct 9, 2017

china, design