Land of opportunity

China is a crucial market for designers, but can the UK gain a foothold before domestic rivals come up to speed?

With a staggeringly large population that’s estimated to be more than 1.3 billion, a hugely diverse landscape and a contrasting culture to the West, China remains a complicated market to penetrate for the British design industry.

And the words of Confucius suggest UK designers should tread carefully when approaching potential Chinese clients – ‘He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools’.

China’s economy continues to expand to mammoth proportions. Reports show it has grown by more than 10 per cent for the past four years in succession, highlighting that the UK design industry cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity.

There are organisations looking to help establish links between the two countries. Last week, the UK Trade & Investment design taskforce, which aims to help British designers win business in China, met for the first time. At the same time, the main objective of former ICA director Philip Dodd’s three-year-old organisation, Made in China, is to build cultural, commercial and educational bridges between China and Britain.

Dodd advocates working from the roots up. His theory is that the UK design industry needs to understand how China functions, and be aware of what’s happening in the country’s indigenous design industry and consumer market before trying to do business with local companies.

‘The Chinese have a long-term approach and we think short-term,’ he explains. ‘We should try to learn something about them. I can’t stress how important it is that we show an interest in the Chinese. It would not be a bad idea if we went on a fact-finding trip rather than just trying to break into the market.’

One of the problems, Dodd points out, is that the public sector agencies who deal with design in Britain don’t know the property developers in China, the people making the big changes. ‘Eventually, Chinese brands will be more important, and to work with us they need to trust us. They will only need British design if we can understand their needs. The Chinese market is growing and we should be in there for the long term,’ he says.

Design groups have, however, managed to break into the Chinese market internally. WPP seems to be constantly snapping up Chinese marketing businesses, while big branding groups have also established themselves there. But this is looking from the inside out, and UK consultancies need to work to forge relationships from the outside in.

The upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 Expo in Shanghai will give Chinese companies international exposure and offer UK design consultancies huge opportunities. Up to now, the country has not been synonymous with brands, branding or design – it has a strong history of manufacturing, instead – but all that looks set to change.

‘China is going to be the largest economy in the world and we have got to enter it,’ says Christine Losecaat, creative industries advisor to UKTI and Government body Design Partners. ‘The British are ignorant of the landscape over there. I think that, ultimately, very few British design consultancies can ignore the market there. As our brands go stomping into China, with big global sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Visa at the Olympics, they won’t have seen anything like it. It raises great opportunities. China is not design-focused enough and the only way for it to learn is from the West. The Chinese government has a five-year plan, and the last one – in September 2006 – very clearly states that it has moved from “made in China” to “designed in China”,’ she says.

Product design consultancy Tangerine, which is on the UKTI taskforce, is one consultancy that claims to understand a bit about the Far East. Tangerine president and chief executive Martin Darbyshire, who is also a professor at Central St Martins School of Art and Design, says there are a lot of design consultancies already in China and the industry is growing quickly. He believes that building links should not be too difficult.

‘I think China is very keen to try to do business, and is looking to be very honest and forward about it,’ Darbyshire says. There is big growth in the luxury industry and if you are a retail consultancy that specialises in designing shopping malls, there are opportunities – likewise with hotels. There is a similar spirit between the Chinese and English, a more common meeting of minds, which is good from a design consultancy’s perspective.’

Jeremy Myerson, professor of design studies and director of InnovationRCA at the Royal College of Art in London, went to China last year as part of an RCA mission to build links with Chinese universities. He says, ‘The idea is that the Chinese are always going to see their country as the workshop of the world, but they will slowly move towards designing themselves. There are already Chinese design consultancies working very hard and I don’t think it will be that easy to break into.’

So, perhaps the UK design industry should take heed from yet another Confucius saying – ‘If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand’.

• According to Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week magazine’s design correspondent, there are around 40 000 Chinese design graduates in the UK each year
• Industrial design, branding and commercial interiors are the main disciplines currently fighting for China’s design business
• Areas that offer the best opportunities are financial services, manufacturing, leisure, tourism, healthcare and education

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