Design revelations from Shanghai [Business Week]

Professor Patrick Whitney
For the last 10 years, the state of mainstream design in China has approximated the first stage of design in the U.S., writes Patrick Whitney in a Business Week column.

Consumers in the emerging mass market are gravitating toward products and messages that represent a new and improved quality of life. In China, sometimes this means copying a successful design from Japan, Korea, or the U.S. At other times, a design would employ a feature more characteristic of China — say, gluing a small diamond onto a mobile phone to give it a sense of luxury.

With few exceptions, Chinese designers, like early U.S. ones, focused exclusively on external appearance. Think of gluing chrome onto the side of a new car. But, like U.S. companies in the mid-20th century, Chinese companies will need to adopt a more sophisticated use of design if they expect to continue to grow.

But last October in Shanghai, the presidents of the Chinese arms of Philips, Sony, Disney, Kodak, and other advanced companies, concluded that the future of digital entertainment in China hinges on gaining a deeper understanding of the way Chinese people live. This will not come from surveys about the things consumers want — that would only lead to incremental changes in what they already have. It will derive from a serious look at the ways Chinese families entertain themselves, finding the patterns, and creating systems of solutions that go well beyond what the families could ask for.

A visit to homes, offices, and stores in China demonstrates that manufacturers are designing more products and services to meet the needs of Chinese users.

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