Last year saw the announcement of the English Baccalaureate curriculum, which omits design and technology. Meanwhile, James Dyson has been outspoken in his views on the importance of manufacturing to Britain, as many manufacturers move their bases to the Far East.
Coupled with the economic rise and rise of the BRIC and other countries, many are starting to fear that these nations – once mainly known for their manufacturing prowess, could align these skills with an emerging design knowledge that could challenge Britain’s status as one of the world’s leading design centres.
But are those fears founded? Are countries once seen as only manufacturers of the now so unfashionable throwaway, mass-produced goods, such as Taiwan, really making such drastic headway in design?
In November last year, The Taiwan External Development Council (TAITRA) invited Design Week and seven other international design journalists to Taiwan to gain an overview of Taiwanese design. This is the first such trip it has organised, demonstrating a new forcefulness in its goal to promote design.
Ultimately, Taiwan is looking to shift its ‘made in Taiwan’ pigeonhole to ‘designed in Taiwan.’
The main body looking to help realise this goal is the Taiwanese Design Centre, a non-profit organisation established in 2005 by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, a result of the authorities’ growing realisation of the importance of design in promoting national competitiveness and industry.
The TDC aims to promote innovation and creative businesses in Taiwan, forging relationships with schools, government organisations and individual businesses. While it doesn’t offer financial support to companies, it advises businesses on how to improve their brand through design, how to apply for government grants and also offers introductions to designers.
It also publishes Taiwan’s Design magazine and organises the Designer’s Club and the Taiwan Design Expo, as well as running the Design Museum, which shares its imposing Modernist-style 1937 former tobacco factory home.
TDC chief executive Tony Chang says, ‘“Made in Taiwan” was popular in the past, but now the manufacturing has all gone to China, so we’ve lost that advantage. It’s design that’s become more important – now we’re able to combine our past advantage of manufacturing with new design skills.’
Jason Lin of Taiwanese company JustMobile, which designs and manufactures mobile phone accessories, says, ‘The cost to make products is higher in Taiwan than in China due to more expensive staff and electricity costs. That’s why we want to design things that are collectible, not disposable – long lasting and iconic.’
He adds, ‘Taiwan is still not so well known in a global market. In the past couple of years we’ve been working very hard to view Taiwan as a brand, but in Wallpaper and Monocole we’re seeing more and more Taiwanese design.
‘People here are workaholics but they’re also very friendly. In the last couple of years we’ve realised we have to do more than manufacturing – we moved to manufacturing our own brands. We use a lot of elements from our history.’
Animation and 3D graphics consultancy The White Rabbit also harnesses Taiwan’s technological background to further its abilities in design and creativity. It works closely with universities, aiming to help recruit tech-savvy students into the arts.
TWR has offices in Taiwanese capital Taipei, and also the city of Kaohsiung, where Lee says the local government is ‘aggressively’ keen to support the creative industries. In that studio, 30 per cent of TWR staff’s salaries are supported by the government, and there are also subsidies on ground rent for the studio.
Charles Lee, TWR chief executive, says, ‘We believe technology is where the strength of Taiwan lies. That was once used for manufacturing; now we want to use it for the arts. We believe that technology is one of the key areas where Taiwan can stand out in future.
‘[Here], though, you have to try really hard to convince graduates with a tech background to join the entertainment industry.’
Taiwan has seen a big attitudinal shift in design education in recent years. Chang says, ‘For the past few years people are now looking to go to the top design schools. Previously parents wouldn’t let [their children] go to design or art school as they thought they wouldn’t get a good salary’.
The higher education system in Taiwan is based on two strands – the universities, for which students have to pass individual tests rather than make formal uniform applications, as with the UK’s UCAS system; and the colleges, including art schools – still regarded by many as inferior to universities, offering poorer prospects are far lower wages and living standards on graduation.
Owen Chuang, co-founder of graphic design consultancy Biaugust, says, ‘Design education is getting more and more recognised. Ten years ago there were about 1000 students who wanted to get into design – now it’s about 4-5000. You can tell now that more people like design itself, and can see the market demand for it.’
The wider political context to the emerging design scene is shown by the fact that the majority of studios we visit, as well as TDC itself, all formed in the mid-2000s. (Britain’s Design Council in its initial format, the Council of Industrial Design was set up in 1944).
Yang Shang Lien at TAITRA explains that this is partially a result of the change in political power in 2000, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated Kuomingtang (KMT) in an election for the first time in 50 years. She says that this saw the country make huge leaps toward becoming more democratic.
In 2005, DPP heavyweight Frank Hsieh pledged to reconcile and open up more channels of communication with the KMT party. These changes, Shang Lien says, coupled with the growing availability of the internet to Taiwan’s population, made it far easier for designers and entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses, and for design as a discipline to gain more recognition.
In such a young design scene, it’s perhaps little surprise that the consultancies we visit, while fiercely proud of their Taiwanese heritage and its influence on their work, unanimously look to the west for creative direction.
Porcelain designers Franz (a name chosen for its Western connotations), which was founded in 2001, says it looks to ‘integrate eastern aesthetics and Western Art Nouveau style.’ The result, however, is a rather gauche and kitsch conglomeration of antiquated influences.
Glassware designers Tittot use Chinese symbols in each of the pieces to form visual narratives, and it aims to expand into foreign markets by incorporating each country’s national symbol into the work – something we feel may not translate so well into European or American culture. However, the company’s recent collaboration with British-born designer Michael Young, shows that looser connections may work, such as in his green glass Cylinder Vase piece, inspired by Chinese parabola building structures.
So while the homeware designers we visited look perhaps unlikely – for now at least – to take Britain by storm; we were hugely impressed by graphic design consultancy Biaugust.
By far the most modern studio, the work is witty, slick and cleverly executed, with a strong focus on sustainability and cross-disciplinary design, working with brands such as Hermes and Starbucks on commercial jobs. Biaugust’s numerous self-initiated projects, such as its Reincarnation series of furniture, created using stereotypically Taiwanese objects such as the ubiquitous red and white plastic bags, and the Non-Life Zoo project of cleverly designed creatures (aiming to raise awareness of extinction) show a creativity and skill that outshines some of the other studios we visit.
The trip proves that it’s the areas we’d expect – technology, and above all, mobile phone and computer accessories – where Taiwanese design excels. Bone and JustMobile, both of which design computer and mobile phone accessories, show outstanding levels of creative execution in creating highly functional yet beautiful objects.
Both companies prove themselves to be constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of design and technology, making products that play on Taiwan’s strengths in manufacturing and IT to create slick, cute, and enormously marketable pieces.
Bone chief executive Read Lin says, ‘Now Taiwan has more of its own design culture, we’ve got a clear idea of what we want to do.
‘We have the skills and a history of craft – we can combine traditional things with new technology. Now, we can do innovation, industry and design.’