Driving industry transformation

Updated: 2012-04-20 08:43

By Clive Roux (China Daily)

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China needs to attract more high-level international talent to spur innovation

China has always had an enlightened policy on the promotion of design. Promotion of creative industries was an important part of the previous two five-year plans of the government.

The nation most likely spends more a year on design promotion than the US government has over the past 100 years! Every month, it seems, there is a new conference, design award or industrial design park opening in China. There are more than 1 million students going through design schools at present and more than 1,000 schools teaching design. The volume of activity is huge. All of these raise the question of why China has been unable to use its design prowess to reshape the economy.

Design is an agent of change. It is a force to steer industrial output in a direction that is more desirable for users and the world. But, no matter how many resources you throw at the problem, if you think that design is limited to making a product look better or a package sell better, you will not understand the root cause of why design is not transformative.

For design to transform, it needs to be able to rethink, redefine and reimagine all that is taken as fixed or untouchable. To achieve this requires a partnership between a company's CEO and chief of design.

Design can reimagine, it can understand the end users' deepest needs and emotions, it can prototype and innovate, but it cannot redefine the organization and how the organization works in order to align all the efforts behind the single focus of creating excellent and compelling solutions for end users. To achieve that, design needs the support and strong reorganizing efforts of the CEO. How many Chinese corporations are ready to place design in that kind of relationship?

Given the growth in the design profession from 2000-12, it is not too surprising that CEOs are not prepared to trust their designers with the future of their companies. In 2000, there were about 20 design schools in China. That means most in the Chinese industrial design profession today have less than 10 years of experience. This is very little experience for a top-level designer.

US design consultancies have deep experience working with companies to transform how they work and to reorganize the company around design from Smart Design's work with OXO to Teague's work with Boeing, IDEO's work with P&G or fuseproject's work with Jawbone.

If China really wants to accelerate the move from a production economy to a creative value-added economy, volume is not the answer. What is needed is the expertise that can help a corporation reorganize strategy, development, product planning, marketing and production to achieve the innovative leaps and leadership that US companies have achieved.

Chinese design schools are doing a great job to improve the skills of industrial designers to be able to produce interesting finishing, color and form choices, but are not doing as well with strategy and management. A two-pronged approach would be far more effective. This involves growing the design department using local homegrown talent and leading the transformation with experienced international design consultants.

Many companies misunderstand the deep impact of industrial design by only focusing on it as a craft and its tactical contributions to make the product look better.

International design firms which develop strategy and innovation methodologies work with business leaders, as do top-level management consultancies, to modify a corporation's culture, innovation capabilities and structure. These actions are required to take design from being a tactical to a strategic value creation tool.

The author is the CEO of the Industrial Design Society of America.