My Fourth Year in Shanghai

Date: November 30, 2010 Categories: Design Comments: 10 Comments Share:

Greetings to the new reader who stumbled on this outdated blog!
Another greeting to the very occasional revisiting reader of this non lively blog!

It is a shame that I haven’t touched this site for more than a year.
Yesterday, I was rechecking this site and reread my own very first posts and I was touched by the motivating comments by the good hearted folks like you.
Also it reminded me the purpose of starting this blog: sharing my industrial design career development, experience and life in Shanghai, China!

Wow, I am already living and working here for more than 3 years, since I left my little peaceful ‘kikkerland’ (read Holland). And you know what? I haven’t been thinking going back at all.

So what is my status now? Well, I am still working at Speck Design since I joined it in august 2009 and it has given me a tremendous learning boost in a very short time.
I have been working on many different projects for both Chinese and Western clients. My responsibilities are varying from researching, designing, engineering, prototyping, managing, recruiting, sales to improving company culture and process.
And the best experience of all, is to get know the Chinese clients and to learn how to serve them. They are, in general, much different than the western clients in some ways.

I have spoken about the key characteristics of Chinese clients to a group of 30 Dutch product design students who were traveling to Shanghai to have glimpse of industrial design in China.
The big difference is that Chinese are more concrete thinkers VS abstract thinkers among the Western people. This difference explains almost everything of how design works here in China.

Have you ever wondered why Chinese are so fast in detailed 2D renderings or super fast in 3D modeling?

Why are so few Chinese product designers less skilled in sketching?

No wonder why so few design studios here has their own workshop, to build quick and dirty mockups or more refined foam models.

The answer is that most Chinese clients are not able to think abstract or conceptual.

And what is the underlying reason of that? It is all about costs and afraid to fail!

Many companies do not have an innovative culture, as costs are extremely sensitive in product development decisions, so therefore clients are used to judge designs on costs in the very early phase of a design process. Consequence of this, is that designers need to provide them design drawings with as much details as possible. No way that you give them concept sketches.

Low costs means there is no time for process, so usually Chinese clients do not appreciate research work, which is in most cases too abstract for them. Also, it means there is no way to go through an iterative design process, in which different design concepts can be explored

Many company cultures and hierarchy issues create this non innovative culture, as the big boss cannot fail and lose face, and therefore his subordinates cannot try things out and innovate through trial and error.

The fierce competition between many companies don’t give them time to think about what to do next, no time for design strategy consult, at least no long term planning. This is a very dynamic economy with unexpected things that can happen in a short time.

But the next question is, does China need a lot of innovative companies now? It depends on how you define innovation. Let’s say that we agree that the iPhone is an innovative product here.

Hey, check this ‘Shan Zhai‘ product here. What do you think it is?

Guess what this is?

A Chinese designer told me that you can divide Chinese clients into:
– Pathfinders: very few of them are pioneers and they do invest in innovative product development, like JiuYang
– Leaders: companies like ChangHong who has a big market share, but not really developing breakthrough products. Some of them become pathfinders.
– Followers: many companies here are following the leaders, developing the same products, but with different aesthetics, extra functions, lowers costs and quality, but still making a lot of profits. And very few of them want to become leaders or pathfinders by being more original in design.
– Copycats: too many companies here are creating ShanZhai products, like the one in the picture above.

Anyways, the Chinese market is much different than the Western market (I am talking about Europe and North America), and is actually not asking too much for innovative products, like the iPhone. Be aware that most Chinese consumers are less educated or poor to buy and appreciate design products. But it has been changing very fast since the last decade.

This is also explaining why Chinese designers seem to be less creative. I am hearing and reading this statement from the West a lot, and I want to defend it. They are creative and has great potential! But it is just that they have very few opportunities to show and develop their talents.

One day, design is mature here. Companies are learning to use design in the correct ways. So be ready, build relationships and prepare yourself for a lot of real innovative design work in the near future in this huge market here!

10 Responses to "My Fourth Year in Shanghai"

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  1. waikit

    March 29, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Hi LynJ,

    The product is actually a water dispenser machine. Imagine you can place 2 cups there and press on the button on the circle wheel to get water.



  2. LynJ

    March 24, 2011 at 7:05 am

    So…what is the product that you have in the photo?! Curious!

  3. waikit

    March 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Hey Patrick,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Shanzhai. It might be an appropriate thing to do for many companies here, unless they are directly copying designs that hurts the design profession.
    You know, some Shanzhai products are quite ‘innovative’ , cause they can be unique in their own sense and meet the needs of many people here. Most of them just copy the aesthetics and apply it in a different cheaper way, to shorten development time.

    And congrats with finding an placement for your graduation project. I am sure you will enjoy your stay here.

    Best wishes,


  4. Patrick van Lierop

    February 11, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Hi Waikit,

    Thanks for the glimpse you shared with my fellow students and me during our study trip in Shanghai. We really enjoyed your presentation and view on working in China.

    During this trip we also visited other design agencies and production factories which gave us a some insight on how designing in China works. Our general impression was that designing in China is indeed at a higher pace (compared to what we are used too) and with almost no time for true innovation. Basically you won’t get enough time to make a full design circle. However if you consider the speed at which the ShanZhai companies are able to create their products “so fast that it becomes scary” you will notice that this just isn’t thoughtless copying. If a good mix between full circle design and this rapid type of production can be found I think China is a perfect place for a designer to do his/her job. I think it is every designers dream to design something on one day and be able to hold the actual product (or see it for sale in the stores) a couple of days later.

    Also I am very happy to tell you that I will leave our “kouwe kikkerlandje” soon as well to do my graduation project in Shanghai. Hopefully I will get to experience China to its fullest and maybe I will find that my future is in China as well.

    Greatings from the Netherlands,

  5. waikit

    January 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Hi Alkis,

    Yes indeed! Some aspects of the design culture in China, are also existing in other countries but perhaps less obvious. Malaysia designer feels the same:

    Just to be clear, non-innovative (it depends how you define it) or not-well-thought-out products can be successful as well. Copycats are a good proof of it here. So we have to admit that copycats are somehow appropriate products for a large amount of consumers, because of their different cultural behavior, desires and needs.
    Again, that will change in time.

  6. Alkis Karaolis

    December 14, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Waikit Chung
    Interesting observations, I have just quit my industrial design job in Beijing and I must say that I agree with most of it. For me it seems that Chinese bosses are cut of or are not aware of the requirements to create a successful product. And trying to explain does not always work because it is essentially a matter of:
    culture and education
    or the frenzy competition
    They pay and demand to see an immediate final product, they do not care to evaluate the process or the thinking. As a result Chinese designers are being pushed to sacrifice functionality, safety and other important parameters that will make the product and brand successful in long terms. It feels that the role of the industrial designer in some companies is essentially to produce 2D illustrations.
    However having worked in Greece a country with bad economy and conservative work ethics , I can tell you that I have been in similar situations, so it really depends who are you working for.

  7. waikit

    December 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for your comments!
    Nice to receive a response from a fellow Delftian, how are things going there in Delft?

    Hi Lise, I remember you from QingDao. What are you up to now?
    My answer on your question: I am lucky that I am not working for the same kind of clients.
    And I do enjoy learning how to cope with the more ‘challenging’ clients, even if it is frustrating at some time, but I do think we are changing their mindset..perhaps slowly, but at least they get to know our approach. And bit by bit, they are accepting our ‘western’ approach.
    Being optimistic and patient are one of the key elements to survive here.

  8. Lise Picard

    December 3, 2010 at 5:42 am

    hi Waikitchung!
    I noticed the same lack of conceptual thinking in China during my 2 years of Industrial design there, with companies, students…
    But my question is : why are you so happy to work in China then? If you cannot apply your Western method of design… That should be really annoying to work like they want to(only first ideas with detailed rendering, or even worse : copy!), or a real big challenge to change their minds!
    (For my part, I really enjoyed my time in china, and want to come back, but i’m curious to hear your opinion :) )
    Thanks, and good luck!!

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  10. Delftian

    December 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Having worked with Chinese ID students here at TU Delft I completely agree with you that there is a wealth of creativity and talent.

    It is a shame that there is not much room for exploration in the current market place in China. Research is fundamental in designing good and useful products. From what you have suggested it sounds like there is a balance between low market demand for innovative products and the idea of simply ‘satisfying’ the market. If one only seeks to satisfy then you are instantly limiting the potential of getting larger market share. In a sense many products, like the one you put a picture of, seem unfinished or uninformed because of that.

    It is an interesting situation though that I’m sure will change over time. There are many Chinese industrial design students in institutions around the world. Maybe they will become ambassadors for the value of design research.

    Either way, I would really like to do some work over there for a while. I’m sure it is a fantastic experience.

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