Home-grown talent threat to UK design ambitions in China

Already late to break into the Chinese market, British designers now face energetic competition from sophisticated home-grown young creatives, according to a new report.

China’s Creative Voice: A Brave New Youth Culture, published today by brand strategy consultant Hunt Haggarty, finds that young designers and artists in the world’s biggest totalitarian state are driven by ‘a restrictive history- resulting in an impressive show of passion, ambition and confidence’.

Touring around Beijing’s fashion boutiques, Shanghai’s street culture and Shenzhen’s design area OCT Lofts, report author and Hunt Haggarty brand experience strategy planner Moa Correia attempts to distil the important places, people and themes in China’s burgeoning design scene.

‘China has an open-source attitude to design,’ observes Correia. ‘It was just fascinating to find that designers, who would compete against each other [in the UK], are mutually supportive and sharing in China, often cross-pollinating ideas in online forums.’

Self-taught designer and illustrator Imagine Wong attributes the phenomenon in part to the failures of Chinese arts education. ‘Art schools and creative education are still very weak, but there’s lots of information online. You learn much more when studying by yourself,’ he tells Correia.

Wong’s home town of Shenzhen is considered globally as China’s graphic design capital. With an average age of 27, this youthful city is home to 60 per cent of Chinese graphic designers, and the design industry there is growing by a massive 40 per cent a year, according to UK Trade & Investment.

While UK design groups tend to congregate in the safe waters of Hong Kong, some do venture into mainland China. Correia says there is a growing challenge to consultancies looking to expand here.

‘Before, there was a sense among Chinese youth that they would accept anything that came from the West, but now they have a new-found national pride,’ observes Correia.

‘It is going to be really important to work with young Chinese to understand the market and to adapt products for it. We are going to have to become a lot more respectful.’

Not all on the ground agree, however. Dalziel & Pow associate director Stephen Cowles has been running the retail consultancy’s Shanghai office since last year.

Cowles says, ‘Generally, I would agree that Chinese consumers are becoming more sophisticated. But patriotic? Far from it. My experience is that the Chinese, regardless of age, covet Western brands. These assure value and kudos. In the land of fakes, having a real Gucci bag is still the ultimate.’

Start Creative recently opened a small office in Beijing, and managing director Hong Kong Jonathan Cummings is impressed by the burgeoning local design talent.

‘The new generation doesn’t want to be Western, and they absolutely understand Chinese culture and heritage, but they blend all this beautifully with modern influences and skills,’ says Cummings.

‘However, while they have immense amounts of raw talent, they lack international experience, which is where we can come in,’ he says, explaining that Start intends to build a team of ‘local creative talent’ that will be nurtured by creative director Hong Kong Michael Dorrian. ‘China’s young design talent is definitely an opportunity, not a threat,’ says Cummings.

Influences on China’s new design wave

  • Japanese and Western design have influenced the culture, but traditional Chinese imagery is increasingly finding its way into the mix, often with a humorous edge
  • China’s ‘one child’ policy and the generation gap produced by rapid cultural changes over the past decade have driven young people together to share ideas and support each other creatively

Source/ China’s Creative Voice: A Brave New Youth Culture, by Hunt Haggarty

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