Is China’s vast manufacturing capability good for UK designers or is it waiting in the wings to bring them down? According to Adrian Berry, there’s only one problem standing in their way
When I asked an eminent professor at Beijing University about where the future lay for China he thought long and hard and then gave me an answer I didn’t expect. ‘No idea,’ he said. ‘Too big a country.’
In the West, however, we experience the profound effect of the Chinese manufacturing behemoth in every aspect of our lives. Products have never been so cheap, and may never be again, as world politics and fuel costs inevitably take their toll. We can buy kettles, toasters, televisions, virtually everything for the home, at rock bottom prices. The intrinsic value of many products has fallen dramatically – they are now almost disposable. Our approach to purchasing is shaped by what we expect to pay for what used to be high value items. Despite our better ecological intentions, when something breaks we are happy to throw it away and buy a new one, because it is cheaper to do so than have the old one fixed.
The economy of China is extraordinary, it is growing at a phenomenal rate. But it has not yet really begun to tap into its own internal market; the economic surge is driven largely by exports, particularly to the US. The country is unrecognisable from even ten years ago, providing goods of quality, and in huge quantities, at prices dictated by Western ‘manufacturers’.
For these global corporations, the design comes free, as does the tooling in some cases. This, in turn, has fed and influenced the design taste of Western consumers. Many leading Western companies will trawl Chinese manufacturers, cherry-picking preferred products and styles, until they have fulfilled their purchase quota for the next year’s sales push. We end up buying a Chinese view of what may be acceptable to a Western market. We buy the products because they are cheap and look half reasonable.
Unless they have a carefully controlled 3D and general brand ethic, the companies in question risk diluting their presence in the market, until they become just another supplier of goods. Of course, the ability to manufacture cheaply is a bonus to profit levels – but the short-term gain should also be married to the long-term goal of building a position in the market that underscores a brand – the essence of quality and familiarity that appeals to a customer. This phenomenon has happened largely unnoticed and is something we product designers are continually battling.
Chinese companies are also criticised for a lack of creativity and marketing nous. Of course, this gives Western design groups opportunities to provide this knowledge, and, currently, the European perspective is very much valued by Chinese companies. With little knowledge and rather naive views of how to market in the West, they are happy to learn and, although somewhat reluctant, to pay for Western expertise. But it will not be long before the Chinese designers and marketers that have trained in the West return home, bringing with them knowledge that will render Western input redundant.
Over the years I have had a frustrating experience working with Chinese manufacturers. But the work ethic is also awe-inspiring – the sense of just getting it done, no matter what it looks like.
And therein, I think, lies our glimmer of hope. In my experience Chinese manufacturers just don’t get it; their philosophy is/ if you can put something together robustly with a great big ugly screw, then what is the problem? They simply don’t understand the level of detail required to make something look great. Even when they are provided with detailed data, a quick solution is often their answer and, unless carefully managed, can lead to products that look nothing like they were intended. Of course, Western brands may share the ‘let’s just get it done’ attitude, due mainly to their inability to communicate the requirements. Often the mythical quick turnaround of a Chinese manufacturer will have a tail on it – ironing out all the design issues – that can go on for months.
But what is not in doubt is the Chinese ability to change things quickly – without question – once it is explained. Hence my fear that the understanding and knowledge of marketing techniques, products and brands will quickly be something that Chinese manufacturers and companies soak up, making them more and more adept at stealing our high ground – something that we mistakenly, and somewhat arrogantly, think we own.
Adrian Berry is a partner at Factory Design