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The Good News: China May Never Match America's Creative Muscle

Design thinking fostered a culture of innovation that's still a foreign concept in China. So how can we hold on to our formidable lead?

China is hell-bent on creating an industrial-design industry virtually from scratch. It certainly has the national commitment and resources to succeed. The country didn’t create 1,000 design education programs in the past 10 years for nothing. But as a recent Co.Design post by Linda Tischler illustrates, the Chinese will have to overcome entrenched cultural and structural impediments before their investment will pay off.

For the U.S., this is a good news / bad news story. The bad news: The Chinese are likely to succeed eventually and use their new strength in industrial design to make their manufacturing sector even stronger.

The good news: The U.S. has such a commanding lead in "industrial design thinking" and a tradition of applying it to the creation of innovative products that it will be many years before China can function at the same level. Here’s why:

Industrial design thinking is still a new foreign concept to contemporary Chinese. At its most fundamental level, industrial design thinking is a challenge to the status quo. It’s not a process to incrementally improve a product for the next generation. Instead, it’s overthrowing what is known to be good in favor of what is new and better. It’s restless thinking, antisocial thinking. By contrast, one view of industrial design thinking in China is to take the positive attributes of two products and mash them together into a new product. Often, this approach is more like 1 + 1 = 1, or maybe 1.5, instead of 1 + 1 = 3.

Industrial design thinking requires a social structure that cultivates—or at least tolerates—radical thinking that challenges the status quo.

There’s lots of evidence that suggests this type of thinking and behavior is frowned upon in China—in a big way. It’s hard to imagine the power structure there embracing a thought process that fosters overthrowing anything within its borders. As an instructor in 3-D design at Pratt Institute, I’ve taught many students from China. One student, who came to Pratt after studying industrial design in China, stands out. It took him a year to shed the Chinese design approach of copying successful international designs, and embrace the free-flowing abstract thought cultivated in U.S. industrial design schools and practiced in our industry. He lamented that, when he returned to China, it would be a long time before he was able to practice what he learned here.

The obvious question is: What can we do in the U.S. to take advantage of our head start in industrial design thinking?

Can industrial design thinking retool U.S. manufacturing?

This question is being tackled by some in the manufacturing segment who have discovered how to use industrial design thinking to bring back some of the industry that they had previously sent to low-cost countries like China. Here are some of the ways industrial design thinking is being applied to help restore pockets of U.S. manufacturing:

Foster a more collaborative product development environment

Manufacturers are engaging industrial designers earlier in product development to get new transformative ideas and to foster a more collaborative environment. As an example, in working on an orthopedic spinal surgery device for Orthicon Corporation, our firm engaged the company’s scientists and clinical specialists, together with third-party molders and resin suppliers, at the start of the process. This allowed us to get immediate feedback from people with different perspectives. Their insights were incorporated into our design thinking processes and helped produce a dramatically different product and a new way of producing it.

Visualize how to improve the process, not just the product

Industrial design thinking is being used by some manufacturers to reduce their cost of production. One way to bring down costs is to design a product with fewer components. Another is to reduce the assembly steps. In designing a personal safety helmet, a molder we know in Wisconsin, MGS Mfg. Group, used industrial design thinking to create an innovative sequential molding process to make the six-piece adjustment strap using a single molding process instead of six separate steps. Not only is the final product less expensive to produce, it also is more comfortable to adjust and wear. MGS Mfg. Group is living proof that industrial design thinking is not solely the domain of trained industrial designers.

Introduce new innovative materials that improve functionality as well as reduce costs

In a project to redesign a container for transporting bone tissue for use in surgery, we identified a plastic—cyclic olefin copolymers (COCs)—that met the functional performance criteria of glass but had the advantage of being virtually unbreakable and therefore safer for use in operating rooms. COCs have largely been used in perfume containers, but we figured, why not bone tissue, too?

Bring production back to the U.S. to facilitate better design

Many U.S. product companies are awakening to the fact that manufacturing products in China for the American market has many hidden costs. When products and components can spend upward of three months in transit from China, U.S. companies have to pay to maintain more costly safety stock to protect against inventory shortages. When the people responsible for product development, manufacturing, and distribution use many languages and are spread across many time zones, communication slows down and often something important is lost in translation.

Bringing production back to the U.S. not only saves certain costs, it can be used to facilitate the design process itself in ways that generate additional revenue. For example, if the buying criteria for a product are variety and design, rather than price, manufacturers can benefit from having design and production nearer to their end markets. A case in point is GF Health Products, which brought the assembly and upholstery production for its Lumex clinical care recliners back from Taiwan. By combining Taiwanese-produced frames and U.S.-produced upholstery, the company was able to offer customers a far greater selection of upholstery and fabrics. As hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes become more attuned to the benefits of design in attracting customers, the products they put into these health-care facilities must meet their design aesthetic. These features have become more important than the price of the product. By replanting the upholstery and assembly functions back home, GF Health Products could offer their customers 47 different colors and fabrics with a delivery time of weeks, not several months. This type of variety and short response times were impossible when the entire product was being produced in Taiwan.

Innovative thinking is a hallmark of the United States. We can do more than just cherish it.

Innovative thinking is a defining U.S. trait. It manifests itself throughout our culture and business community, from technology to entertainment. Improvisational jazz is a classic example of producing a fresh, radically new sound out of existing "components." It’s the musical example of overthrowing/restructuring what is known to be good in favor of what is entirely new and better.

Modern-age U.S. industrial designers have always been at the forefront of our innovative economy. Now is an opportune time for business at large to recognize this and put more industrial designers and industrial design thinking to work in collaborative partnership with the U.S. manufacturing community. After all, the Chinese have set their sights on what we do best in the U.S.—innovate. But they have a cultural revolution to complete before they catch up.

[Images: Robnroll, mypix, and Zurijeta via Shutterstock]