Can iF Award Save China's Manufacturing Industry? | S.POINT
2018.06.27
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    Zhou Yi

    Found & CEO at S.POINT

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    In January 2018, many products from Chinese companies received the iF Award, known as the “Oscar” of the field of design. Renowned worldwide, the iF Award has an unshakeable status in the history of the development of design in China, and in the development of Germany’s economy. It deserves its reputation as the “Oscar” of the design world. Winning the recognition of the iF Award shows that the level and global influence of Chinese design is on the rise.


    iF Award was born in Germany in 1953, the iF Award has played an enormously important role in promoting the integration of design and German industry in its over 60-year history. It has substantially increased the awareness of design within German industry and among the public. It has also promoted an increase in the quality of German products as industry absorbed the essence of design. 


    The selection process for the iF Award reflects the relationships between design and products, between design and industry, and between design and people’s awareness of design. I call these three relationships the “design context.” This design context is reflected in all countries, but is expressed in modes that vary by country. If two countries have different manufacturing systems and development paths, then their people’s understanding of design will also differ. As a result, there certainly will be variation in the way that their industries understand design. The results of the design context and the expressions of design awards differ widely by country. But behind the scenes, the same logic links design and products, and design and industry.


    What inspirations can this provide for Chinese design and industry?


    First of all, due to variation among countries’ development paths and their people’s concepts of design, their understanding of design and evaluation systems are different. The development of industry in China is not the same as that of Germany or the United States. Some aspects are similar, while others are different. For a long time, Chinese manufacturing has developed by processing orders from others. As far as developing proprietary brands, Chinese industry has survived for a long time by using the methods of homogenization and competition on price. It has sought only to “do the job,” but not to “do it well.” Unlike Germany, Chinese industry has not developed a segmented manufacturing field, nor has it achieved America’s innovation capacity and ability to create high-profit products.


    In this process, design exists as something more like “replication.” It is not well integrated with the manufacturing field, and industry’s understanding of design has remained mostly at the level of “external appearance.” For this reason, unlike in Germany, Chinese design has not become closely integrated with manufacturing. At the same time, as far as industry is concerned, design has not reached the level of theory. There is insufficient ability to use design to integrate with new technology and new business models. Design in China, unlike in America, therefore lacks the ability to drive the manufacturing sector. Furthermore, the public does not yet have a sophisticated understanding of design. People are more motivated by “good quality at low prices,” and ostentatious designs. Therefore, the design results selected by the iF or IDEA awards will not totally fit the Chinese design context. To put it simply, we should participate in iF selection as a way to learn about other countries’ logic of design evaluation, and not simply to adopt their unique methods of assessment. Relying on the iF Award to open the Chinese market is unrealistic. 


    Secondly, both the iF and IDEA award selection processes highlight a common logic, namely that what is being evaluated is “the role of the design in the product,” and not the design itself. Design is merely a starting point for good products, and not the whole story. The focus of the iF is the details of design in product manufacturing, whereas the focus of IDEA is the role of design as a starting point in product innovation. In other words, design cannot exist in isolation, separated from products, industry, and technology. In China, however, it is fair to say that the integration of design and manufacturing is limited. For the manufacturing industry, design seems to be an outsider. It is as if design can exist independently: for instance, many companies see design as merely a way give a product more visual appeal or an attractive exterior, while the manufacturing department struggles to understand the results of design. 


    But as the experiences of Germany and America demonstrate, this is simply impossible. From today’s perspective, it is impractical to wait for industrial design to become outstanding, and provide the impetus for a transformation in China’s manufacturing industry. In global terms, a country’s right to speak on design depends upon the degree of its integration between design and products, and design and manufacturing. During the selection process for this iF Award, I became profoundly aware that Chinese designers lack the right to speak and be heard in the international design realm. By comparison with their international peers, they also lack the capacity for independent thought. If there is no way to enhance the integration of design with manufacturing, it will also be very difficult to improve the capacities of our designers. This will make it difficult for us to gain the right to speak on the international stage. Furthermore, it will become a factor that affects China’s design context.


    “No matter which model applies, design must break free of today’s paradigm of “independent existence.” It must reach the front-end market or even business model, and integrate with back-end manufacturing. This is the only way to fully make use of the role of design in industry, creating a unique Chinese design context.”


    Where is China’s own design context model? It is very clear that China’s industrial development cannot simply follow pre-existing models. Therefore, it is vital for China to establish its own relationship between design and manufacturing. I do not have a clear answer, but after working for many years with both large-scale enterprises and startups, I have come to see a few possibilities.


    First, the “consumption upgrade” of recent years has given China’s manufacturing industry an unprecedented opportunity for innovation. It has also provided a fresh chance for the development of design. Furthermore, many foreign brands are in the process of gradually retreating from China, which also provides many opportunities for innovation in our manufacturing industry. This has afforded many of our new brands and traditional manufacturers an opportunity to approach the American model, as in the emergence of the Huawei model.  At the same time, although it is difficult for them to attain the high level of their German peers, decades of outsourced processing work have allowed Chinese manufacturers to accumulate considerable technology for production and even research. Therefore, during the consumption upgrade, design will serve as a catalyst for the manufacturing industry’s accumulated technology. The power of design will help to create the best fit between manufacturing technology and the needs of consumers. 


    Furthermore, with the rapid development of digitization and capital, China has produced many new industrial models. Take for example Xiaomi’s ecosystem model. It makes use of internally tried-and-tested user groups, designs, and manufacturing capacity platforms. It supplements these with ample capital leverage to output commercialization capacity, creating a product ecosystem. This allows rapid market entry with products of high quality and value. In this process, design facilitates rapid commercialization. Of course, today’s endless supply of carefully, stringently selected models have satisfied the demands for high quality and value among consumers in the initial stage of upgraded consumption. Still, the replication of proprietary design is essentially lacking. 


    No matter which model applies, design must break free of today’s paradigm of “independent existence.” It must reach the front-end market or even business model, and integrate with back-end manufacturing. This is the only way to fully make use of the role of design in industry, creating a unique Chinese design context.


    The original article was published in the April 2018 edition of the Harvard Business Review. The author is Zhou Yi, Founder and CEO at S.POINT.

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