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]

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  • dueelle

    I think Jeffrey point at the end is about reconnected
    or bring in back some of the manufacture forces in US and one way do so is certainly
    to be creative within the manufactory process, in doing so is essential  the connection with creative and engineering
    side of it, and the all marketing system.

    David points of view are good and touch
    different aspect of being designer in China and the difficulty to do this
    profession here (I’m working and teaching in Shanghai from the last 7 years)
    and I know the young generation, like all young people, the care and worry
    about the future and  what going to bring
    to them. The potential of them is great but often they haven’t got a clear and true
    fully indication about it, and they feel lost between past and future
    considering the great past like the Ming Dynasty.

    China is not like Japan maybe they share
    part of the culture and language but the charters of them are at opposite of
    each other, consequently they use different approach in solving problem.

    China need to resolve first the education system, most of the good design is based
    on questioning and solving the problem, into the true nature of the question in
    self there is the identity of design and the designer roots will make the right
    respond to the specific problem.

    Second the connection with the manufactory industry, there is not, we
    Italian call it, “La Cultura del Progetto” The culture of the project.

     In Italy during the 60’s the connection
    between manufacture and creative’s was the winning formula, especially for the furniture
    industry, we create an industry from the craftsmanship (the engineering side)
    the creative side (Castiglioni, Magistretti, etch…) and the industry (Cassina, Poltrona
    Frau, and more…) and we still live on it. China for example got very beautiful
    crafts products but is not connected with the industry they don’t pass on the Knowledge
    about some traditional material this because is missing the entrepreneurship
    the vision of what can be the third dimension of a product, this is part of the
    social-cultural structure of China.  

  • jeffrey

    Dear Dueelle:

    You are right on target.  That is exactly what I am talking about and thank you for bringing up the reference to Italian Design.  I still cherish that invigorating period in which manufacturing and design were working together creatively.  They still do. There was a famous show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that celebrated exactly what you had referenced.  I was a student at the time and was deeply inspired by that experience.  There was form and content married to technology.  Gorgeous ideas and gorgeous products. But, Italian designers spent a lot of time working with the marvelous manufacturing and craft talent to produce outstanding technology and beautiful products.  Extraordinary attention to molding and details, fit and finish. And, thank you for your reference to the history of China, and design.  Most folks today are obsessive compulsive, too busy reaching out for the nascent buzz words and digital content and have absolutely no knowledge or interest in world history as it relates to culture and technology.  The past affects and shapes the future as it has always done and will continue to do. Bill Clinton has an excellent grasp of this dynamic.  My students astound me, all the time, on how little they know about the world before 1995. How little they appreciate the history of design.

    Thank you for your insights

  • Ding Liu

    Close minded... Let's keep this simple: You should spend sometime in China, before you write about China.

  • Phuong

    This article is quite informative, i'm asian decendent(background) and totally understanding where this is coming from. China (to some extent asian culture minus Japanese) have this stumbling block of thinking outside the square. It took me a while to articulate the ideas to people that my ideas are better than the one that is already in place for years due to my early upbringing. I was explaining this point to a friend recently about the difference in Chinese and Japanese way of thinking. Japanese culture always cherish esthetic and perfection where the chinese even though they have the same craftsmanship does not see the finer details that help a design to be more successful. They might be good at coming up with stuff from an existing product but lack the conviction to come up with products from the left field. Not saying that the chinese ain't inventive but that culture and social background play a major part. Just as how the German are super efficient trait and the Italian sense of style is unique because thats deep rooted within their culture and psyche. 

  • jeffrey

    Dear Ding Liu:

    Actually I have been to China a number of times from  and continue to do so.  I had nothing but the finest
    experiences and throughly enjoyed my experiences when I was there.  And, for the most part, the outcomes in manufacturing were
    wonderful. We worked with fine professional people. But that is not what I am talking about in this
    article.  My point is quite different from what apparently you
    are interpreting in the article.  I am sorry about the misunderstanding. Please read Dueelle comments.  I believe they represent the point of my article


  • xoxomill

    " It's definitely written from an American point-of-view. " indeed. i don't see any sort of so-called pride going on by just simply denying or wakening the assumption and possibilities for other nations being creative in their own ways outside of America.

  • Galdr

    One word: SINOPHOBIA.

    How is it "Good News"? It shouldn't matter where creativity comes from, if it helps us improve our quality of life.

    So this is a very unfortunate title for an article in a design site that is read worldwide, don't you think?

  • jeffrey

    Fear Galor:

    Please take some time to read this recent article about the new label that may be applied to products from the US

    Designed in USA' Mark Now AvailableSan Francisco Chronicle (press release)Design's various disciplines (product,
    service, architecture, interior, interaction, communication, etc.) are a
    vital humanistic tool increasingly shaping the world. The American design profession is increasingly an essential business resource, ...

  • cyberprimate

    So far, Asians have been much less creative in terms of fundamental concepts but great for improvement inventions. The history of camera design is a good example. Since the 50's Japanese companies have vastly contributed to the improvement of all the new concepts emerging from abroad, and today are almost completely dominating the market, while Kodak decades after inventing digital photography is now filing for bankruptcy…

    Also let us not forget Europe. When you aggregate all European countries what you find is a region that as a whole is more powerful economically than any other. And the list of their fundamental inventions over the years is twice as long…

  • David Hu

    Jeffrey, your sentiment of China not yet catching up is only partly true. Yes, China has quite a cultural hurdle to overcome if indeed they are to meet a high standard of creative ability. However, there are at least two major issues that won't keep America "ahead":
    1. We don't NEED that many great designs in our lives. If you look around at the majority of "designed" products on the market, it's quite obvious that they didn't require any significant amount of "ID thinking" to be produced and sold. That is--even if we were speaking strictly about the American consumer--for the most part we buy much more "good enough" products than splendidly designed products. We've got Walmart and Costco to fulfill 90% of our daily needs, whose products can be easily designed by good Chinese designers. And this means it's already much easier than you think for Chinese designers to "catch up" to their American counterparts.2. OK, so we need to compete in the remaining 10% of our daily needs, right? Well, the bad news is businesses and schools are not quite structured to produce the top 10% good designs that will make America a leader in design. The American design education curriculum is still mostly rooted in the thinking of decades past: conventional hand skills + some computer skills + market research + user research + prototyping = good design, sometimes made great with a touch of cleverness. Where's the business side? The ENTIRE manufacturing chain? The ability to communicate with non-designers in a corporate environment? How to market/retail it? No doubt some schools cover those topics, but it's spotty and far from the realities of corporate or studio environments, which brings me to the second half of this problem: vast majority of U.S. businesses simply don't care about making "great design" when they have to budget for graphic redos, marketing, trend studies, advertising, social networking, manufacturing at the lowest possible cost, shipments, keeping stock, etc. In other words, it's much easier to tweak the proven and make it newer-looking rather than invest the money into a long-term development plan which may be costly and still fail. When our employers don't ask designers to be innovative, why would the designers create great designs? They wouldn't, and so they fall in line and work on designs after designs for the next season, the next trend, the next Big Thing.

    Give it 5 years and there will be plenty of Chinese designers who will be quite skilled enough to meet the needs of most corporate and some independent studios in the U.S. WITHOUT a good grasp of high-level industrial design thinking but with a very, very good grasp of 3D modeling and rendering. This presents a problem for new professionals who are trying to get into a studio on great "thinking" skills but lack highly efficient computer skills. And don't think that U.S. corporations won't be eager to farm as much design work as possible out overseas, while simply keeping a design manager between the U.S. and China to oversee design and production.

    The only way we can keep ahead is if we truly modernized our education to fit the globalized economy and encourage graduates and young professionals to pursue entrepreneurship and be innovate on their own. With some financial support and professional guidance, they'll at least be free from corporate constraints and be mentally and creatively independent. THAT will keep us ahead, not just hoping that China will take a long time to catch up.
    Full disclosure: I'm ethnically Chinese and an American; I am a full-time industrial designer; and I've worked in both China and the U.S., and in independent studios and corporate studios.

  • jeff kapec



    points are well taken and I appreciate your thoughtfulness.  I agree with
    you in terms of the education needs..... in part.  Design education has
    become more demanding.  I think it requires more investment in terms of
    time and exposure to humanities and technology as well as truly cultivating
    the designer's sensory intelligence....utilizing the eye and the hands
    along with the mind.   But.... to reduce the students' exposure to
    hands-on form making and discovery would be a critical oversight in the
    educational process.  Stay tuned and read the article that I have written
    in the next edition of Innovation Magazine.  It is interesting how many
    designers are talking about the "business model" and the growing
    digital skills of design education and downplaying the actual sensory component
    of education.  That is akin to saying that  today students of music
    and composition do not have to learn the sensory skills of composition, music
    theory, harmony, timbre and playing an instrument because there are more
    important technical / digital skills that a musician should have to be relevant
    as a professional musician.  Designers are problem solvers and form makers
    combined in a very unique chemistry.  That has been true from Leonardo to
    Steve Jobs.  All of the good designers have had special sensory skills. You
    are correct that it is important to build on that skill base by introducing the
    concept of entrepreneurship; but I propose that industrial designers can
    innovate IN CONCERT with manufacturing companies in the US. That is the primary
    point that I am trying to make in this article.


    me comment on what I think is a misunderstanding of my point in this article.
     There is no question that designers in China will learn the subtle
    components of producing high quality design. I highlight that at the beginning
    of the article.  Clearly there will be strong design resources coming from
    China at some point in the not too distant future. Therefore, it is essential for
    US companies to compete with China's growing manufacturing base with a new
    approach to design thinking / design innovation coupled with creative
    manufacturing.  That linkage will be important for manufacturing in the US
    as well as the design profession.  And that is my point:  
    Manufacturing companies must turn to designers to think and work together as a creative
    team.  With that combination the manufacturing
    process will grow and impart unexpected new discoveries are part of a daily
    process.  It is not about the
    availability of less expensive labor; it is about coming up with the unexpected
    outcome that works better and taking the initial risks to do so.


  • Boy Ameron

    I see it this way... China started with copying. but surely (soon or later) they will start  producing good products with good design. In fact which i believe you all know, they already building their Biggest Museum of Modern art. which means good artists are rising and the government of China is encouraging the creative industry. we (not just U.S.) have to watch our back. Because China is rising...

  • Guillermo Acevedo

    This article its about NORTH american narcicism? If we remember the world said this kind of things  about the Japan products nearly of 70´s: that´s poor design, that´s are  poor copies... but at today theirs products are the best, and every body know about of japan design. Why china can not following  a similar way?I think that China has a huge the capacity of learning and soon or later they will giving to the world an interesting option of design. we can not forget that they have an a huge  economy. that means  many resources, many options. thats only question of time... short timeOther point of view : in which country be fighting against the free expresion on internet? did you listen about SOPA or PIPA?.

  • Martina Mino


  • jsphrs

    I don't understand why it's bad news that there's more inspiration and creative power in the world.

    To me, it sounds like bad news that the writer thinks it's bad news that products out of China will have great industrial design.