Internationalisation of Design in Shenzhen

 The question could be asked, why should Shenzhen consider the need to internationalize its design professions, indeed what does the internationalization of design mean. In order to address these questions I will define my understanding of the necessities in order to become a centre for design and the economic and social improvements that this can bring to a city or a region.

I believe very strongly in on-going education and see it as a compulsory part of my practice and all the designers who work in it. This is more than looking at the latest design trends it is an methodical and structured approach to the acquisition and application of new information. Through this rigour we can expect a development in attitudes, one of which is the confidence to perform new tasks or to perform existing tasks at a higher level. Additionally we support the notion that innovation is the source of new ideas and to develop an innovative culture is crucial in the development of a new design practice. I define innovation as the implementation of existing knowledge or technology to new applications or methodologies. These are the underlying processes and actions of internationalization of any business and my talk today is about how at SW these processes and actions are being implemented.

I have been living and working in China now for 12 months in two different design offices, both looking to employ graduate designers to increase capacity in this rapidly growing area of practice. This has been an interesting opportunity for me to compare the standards and direction of western and Chinese university education. As a student in UK and a recent university professor in NZ and Oz, I know the system in the west intimately and have applied the same knowledge to my assessment of the local systems, and more importantly, the results.

Interviewing graduates from China, I have noticed a number of common skills and attitudes. To do mainly with the approach to developing design concepts, standardized forms of drawing on paper and a standard reliance on CAD to present work. Commonly there is little evidence of broader knowledge for example, history of design, related studies, materials technology, sustainability and ecological issues, business skills and most importantly a confidence to challenge convention and review or question why we do things in a certain way and not another. It could be argued that the many of European based schools have encouraged too much liberal, divergent thinking and challenge to normal practice and the statement, “it is our job to teach the students how to think and the professions job to teach them how to work” is a theme I have often heard from some of these schools of design and architecture. Often the presentations, while very clever, seem to be only for the academic staff and bear no resemblance to the world of clients and building reality and so reinforce this philosophy.

I think there is a middle road but few schools have managed to maintain this balance, academics tend to be passionate about their subject and teach it in a way that is one extreme or the other often depending on how they were taught themselves and so perpetuate the two systems. This distinction between the two systems is what I have found to be the case as a professor in the west and through the interview/employment process here. This assessment is what has triggered the concept I have installed at SW to correct the deficiencies in both, utilize the advantages and so increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the graduates we employ from both systems. I have developed relationships with 3 university’s in NZ and 2 in the UK and from these schools have recruited a number of interns on the basis that they give and take benefit to and from our systems. The girls here today are our latest 2 and they arrived yesterday for 3 and 6 months employment possibly leading to F/T work at SW.

Intro the girls

The simple concept is to integrate the thinking and abilities of these graduates with those of our Chinese designers. In this way each experience a form of approach to design and construction that is different but necessary to good internationally based design practice. The often prescriptive approach of Chinese graduates whilst technically sound, lacks the investigative creativity of the more historical and research based Western graduates. This is not to say either is right or wrong but that both are inappropriate in a world market where innovation and creative solutions are what differentiates products, places, materials and systems. When we place these multi-national graduates in our team working environments we put them into a world of support for creative solutions and a world that expects those solutions to be buildable. This world challenges them to be innovative in approach and expects them to include all the issues a truly international office must consider, environmental, legal, social and economic.  Perhaps the most important challenge of all for the future is that we also expect them to grow their confidence, to be able to confront their supervisor or the boss by having a compelling idea that is well resolved, considers all the issues and supplies a creative and appropriate solution. In this manner we are insuring that our business can grow in size and complexity and can with confidence compete on the international market and not just say we are. As these designer relationships grow and the results more transparent, I can fine tune the process and include more preparation for each side of the equation. For the Chinese graduates I have introduced a series of design history seminars, currently we have 55 topics being prepared for presentation, I have introduced SWOT analysis of the company as a tool to be used in the assessment of design briefs and opportunities and real client requirements, I have introduced drawing classes and film appreciation to acquaint them with international stage and set design, style and approaches. For the western graduates I have run competitions in their home countries introducing the scale, complexity and speed of work in china by running live projects with faculty staff who I have worked with before.

To supplement the graduate relationship system I have introduced, we also have an international group of respected designers from UK, NZ, OZ,Thailand, Korea, India and you have just heard in the previous talk from Guiseppe Scarre who comes here from Italy. From this list of incredibly talented people we can draw on expertise in architecture, landscape, interior and industrial design on a project basis, and obviously these professionals influence our graduate designers immensely

Additionally I have introduced my own research topics in the area of sustainable materials and building practices and these have become an evident part of our ‘culture’ at SW. I consider these areas of research and application to be of utmost importance in the development of my business and also that of china, not simply a fashionable after thought. These issues are comprehensively dealt with in western university’s and these influences are necessary for Chinese graduates to assimilate and able to implement in their design solutions in order to reflect international design directions and demonstrate a concern for environmental policy in china and the world generally.

These are the minimum expectations of an internationally focused design client and the above is how we are going about achieving this status. I believe this to be a necessary activity not just for SW or our Chinese graduates, but for china as a whole. The extraordinary economic boom of the last 20 years has left a void in the practice of design here. Much of the energy of china has gone into production of goods for other countries and their designers. The social and economic emphasis has been on the production and individual acquisition of wealth and the consequent spending of that wealth on goods and services designed and considered to be of value in the west. I predict a changing of direction in increasingly growing proportions away from western brand products and towards products that reflect Chinese culture and history. Products that will need designers to be aware of all the issues I am introducing at SW, history, culture, crafts, sustainability of materials and processes, and an innate confidence to approach design with an ability to challenge convention, to change the attitude that we do it like this because this is the way we’ve always done it, or that the boss is always right, transparently in the design world, the boss cannot always be right or that things should be done in this or that way because this or that is the way we’ve always done it…..this is a paradigm shift for the Chinese graduates, but, like riding a bike or swimming, once you have gained the skill, you never forget it.

At SW we are also strong supporters for the concept of Shenzhen as a ‘Design City’ within the Creative Cities Network, a UNESCO initiative from 2004. The concepts are international cooperation and the development of creative practices through membership of the network. There are 7 types of practice types listed and design is a major one of the seven.  A feasibility study is currently being conducted prior to an application to UNESCO to have the city declared an international, “City of

Design”. I believe that the type of activities I plan for SW, if replicated in a similar manner in other offices will enhance an application to UNESCO and add a further value to this philosophical direction. For example, one of the initiatives I am implementing is the employment of a research assistant to develop a data base of all building materials and to rate them in ecologically sustainable order, thus eliminating the need for all designers and architects to ‘learn’ for themselves the environmental impact values of specified materials, their costs and performance characteristics. I would like to think this will assist a Shenzhen application to join the Creative Cities Network by creating a commitment to an international design issue. In such a fast paced and complex building environment this lack of information for designers seems to be the single biggest difficulty in specifying materials and systems that comply with the growing international trends of sustainable practice. My hope is, that through activities like this, Shenzhen may become a leader in china in this area of global responsibility and not only influence designers but also manufacturers of materials as they realize the shift towards eco products.

So, SW is not only developing a reputation for innovative, challenging design which fits an increasingly discriminating market, we are preparing for our future and the future of design in china. I have been quoted before as saying that,”the world is waiting to see Chinese design” and I firmly believe that what we are doing at SW is a positive move to assist in the maturity of modern design culture in china. To encourage Chinese designers to stride out with individuality and confidence into a world that is waiting to see what they can do. Internationalization of design in Shenzhen does not mean turning young, or old, Chinese designers into copyists of European or American designers, more the internationalization of the process of design thus promoting Chinese culture and society through modern design practice in the global markets of the world.

In summary, it is inevitable that, as in Shanghai, international design practice will become the norm in Shenzhen, I believe it is increasingly so at a faster pace than many realize. In order for Chinese designers to face this increasingly global market and to compete successfully at this international level, it is vital to refocus our training and educational systems and to implement management and quality standards that are of a similar level to those of our international competitors. In this way we will give birth to the modern stars of design from the biggest population on Earth, so far there are no: Philippe Starkes, Zaha Hadids, Marc Newsomes, Ron Ards, Kareem Rashids….and if you don’t know who these names are that supports my talk today….?


 Roger Billington

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