Last week I attended a small seminar in Eindhoven organised by Gregor Klemencic on the role and reactions of China to the design field.
Elaine Ann was there to talk about her work in helping western companies understand and work in the Chinese market, especially doing user research. Having met Elaine last year in Antwerp, it was a pleasure to see her again. Here are some tidbits of insights from her presentation and other speakers at the event in what was in general a stimulating afternoon in Eindhoven’s business park.
China is seen by he rest of the world as enjoying tremendous growth at the moment. What we musn’t forget however is that 80% of the population (or 800 million Chinese!) is still only involved in farming. That’s an absurd amount of people who still don’t necessarily have access to the modern life habitants of cities like Beijing, Schenzhen and Hong Kong have. This perceived growth is impacting access to work for those people as well especially in the manufacturing industry. Companies are now moving away from the southern provinces as it’s getting “too expensive” and moving to the northern parts of China. What will happen when that region too is deemed not economic enough for western needs? Will we move on to someone else? Who?
- Working culture
The Chinese work in a very hierarchical way. A manager will take a decision that will never be questioned by others. Western countries tend to have flatter structures in design environments and this is not something the Chinese are used to yet. Even when a project is in jeopardy or the motivations from the manager or senior person are miss-directed, no one will question it even months down the line.
- Social and business dynamics
Doing user research the way westerners do (here’s 50 bucks, let me take pictures of your home) doesn’t work in China. There is a deep sense of privacy and most user research has to be done with people you build relationships with (Elaine and I discussed the similarities in this respect to Italian culture) as most people would never let you into their home or talk to you about their lives if they don’t know you. This poses of course a (perhaps perceived) problem of objectivity in design research, but also something the designer has to live with. Equally this applies to how people do business: it’s about building a relationship, not necessarily about money, something that can seem very frustrating to some western businessmen (again not unlike the 3h italian lunches). They are generally a very defensive culture, not an aggressive one.
- Defining the design activity
For most Chinese businesses, understanding what we mean by design is not obvious at all. As Elaine pointed out, in Maslow’s mierarchy of needs, as a society, the western world is at the top and has buit meta-activities like design into it’s social and cultural fabric. The Chinese, after only 20 years of “freedom”, are still at the very bottom for the most part, so the idea of design is still quite foreign. This also explains that they haven’t fully understood our creative processes and have only imitated them so far, unable to develop their own. The idea that there are also different types of design and that design is both a verb and a noun is also something they struggle to understand. Clearly the fact that most of us can’t define most of them makes things even worse.
I must say that I found this seminar fascinating, especiall since China has been in the spotlight recently for not so glorious reasons. I remember hearing back in 2004, as I graduated from my BA about how the Chinese market was going to kill our industries, etc… and I still hear or read that refrain in the design industry sometimes. The fact is, not very many of us have gone to China, and so the mystery acts as a veil for the truth. Like any foreign land we’ve had little contact with, (or anything foreign for that matter) the first reaction is to get defensive and worry.
The more educated we become about this perceived “enemy”, the more we might just find ourselves facing new challenges and reevaluating how we view our work and our profession, which surely can’t be a bad thing. :)
More from Elaine in this Plastic news article.