China could be a big market, but it’s a tough one to crack

It was China that famously sparked off Gordon Brown’s interest in design. Would the Chancellor have turned to the creative industries to salve the country’s ills had he not perceived a huge threat to the UK economy from the East? Who knows? But at least it fuelled Government involvement.

It’s a shame though that Brown saw China as a threat rather than the huge opportunity it could be for British design. His attitude explains officialdom’s protracted bid – starting with the Cox Review some 15 months ago – to fit the creative industries for the challenge ahead. April is the earliest we can expect organisations such as Creative & Cultural Skills to tell us how we need to shape up.

But design as an industry thrives more through entrepreneurial action than regulation. We therefore welcome the one ‘official’ initiative that acknowledges this.

UK Trade & Investment’s China Design Strategy promises support and a furthering of understanding for those keen to crack China as a market.

It offers more than the trade missions and it is sensitive to Chinese business practice in creating a two-way street for design groups going there and Chinese business delegations coming here to promote their brands across Europe and the US. And it is collaborative, involving bodies such as the China-Britain Business Council, Design Partners, the British Council and the regional development agencies to achieve its aims.

We are set to learn a lot from the initiative, given the ‘show and tell’ aspect of it. But already it has brought one strong message home. The Chinese do not have an appreciation of British design in the way that, say, India and Russia might.

With its preferred consultancy partners hailing from South Korea, Japan and Germany, according to the UK Trade & Investment team, we have a long way to go. This knowledge alone is enough to shake off the complacency behind our collective mantra that British design is best. Time to regroup.

Lynda Relph-Knight, Editor

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  • Joseph O'Connor November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Dear Lynda
    I took the initiative of making my own contacts in China and have just returned having working there for almost three and a half years. It was tough and immensely rewarding as I saw an awakening appreciation of what Design should be all about- giving things, companies and people a greater value.
    I can assure you that Chinese do appreciate British Design. What they do not appreciate however is our inability to understand that Design is still for them in its infancy. I worked in Chinese Government departments, Design businesses, with China’s larger companies and with multinationals outsourcing design.
    Most mid to high level Chinese companies know that they need design and a few have indeed tried to work with British Designers, but the success rate is low due primarily to a lack of understanding. Products were designed that could not be manufactured or designed with a British Aesthetic (Urban Chinese do have developed aesthetic appreciation and it is very different from urban British). Either that or business contracts were badly drawn up.
    Korean design is more suited simply because Koreans and Chinese share a lot of cultural understanding, aesthetic appreciation and working practices. German design is preferred because it often provides what many Chinese perceive as Western levels of Quality, hence why Siemens, VW and others have done so well. The Germans have also long provided a key need for Chinese industry, “Technology transfer” and have been there longer. How many British companies can claim investment in China that is over 20yrs old? German, Korean and Japanese Design are all building upon a foundation of manufacturing cooperation and JV activity. They have a stronger foundation for providing design.
    Where British Design can definitely and immediately help is in the area of Branding. More and more Chinese corporations are now looking outward and they know that brand development and expression is absolutely necessary if they are to succeed.
    For creativity the Brits are looked to in admiration, for understanding the Koreans, for an expression of functional quality the Germans and for simple efficiency the Japanese.
    China is still in the very early days of experimenting with Design but they hate it as much as we do when an experiment blows up. British Design should tread cautiously, respectfully and realize that what Chinese Companies value most is measurable success.
    But don’t forget Chinese, home-grown design. I had the pleasure of working with some very bright young people. Don’t worry too much about the Germans, Japanese or Koreans (actually we should worry about the Koreans- they are already very good). Chinese designers will be our biggest competitor in China within the next 5 years and not just for cost reasons.
    Within the next 10yrs? I think that very much depends upon us.

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