Modern China is associated with cheap mass manufacturing. Very little is known about China’s product design and it is not globally recognized. But now various design companies in China are trying to reposition their country as a place where ideas are created rather than appropriated. Chinese people have demonstrated great innovation throughout the ages. This can be seen with inventions like the magnetic compass and the Abacus.
The magnetic compass was developed in china around 500 BC. Original compasses consisted of a spoon shape made from magnetite ore and a cast bronze plate that the spoon would sit on. It was initially used for religious beliefs. If your house was north facing it was thought to be in perfect harmony with nature. Compasses are still used for this purpose today in the concepts of Feng Shui. Most people however are more familiar with the compass being used for navigation. The compass is one of the greatest navigational tools ever made and it is still used all over the world. Another great Chinese’s invention is the Abacus.
The Abacus is a counting device that allowed people to keep a record of their assets such as livestock. It could also be used to add, subtract, multiply, divide, find square roots and cube roots. China is also well known for producing the moldboard plow for tilling farmland. The wing-shaped cast iron blade turned up the soil easily and efficiently. Eventually, these plows were used in agriculture throughout the Western world.
But more recently Chinese products are less original and innovative. Modern day Chinese design has a massive influence from the West, with many designs resembling western products. There is a Chinese saying that “a foreign moon is always rounder” and this can be seen in many Chinese electrical products that are replicas of western makes and brands. “Sonia” headphones and “Nokla” cameras are just two examples of this. But why, after centuries of Chinese innovation, do these design impersonations exist?
The demand for Western brands in china has been increasing rapidly. Recent sales reports from china showed a “staggering” demand for Apples new iPhone 4S. With such a high demand for western goods Chinese designers find it hard to make an impression and are overcome bye the high demand from the public to design in a western style. Another reason for China’s loss of innovation came with a strong control over what artwork and design was allowed. Even 10 years ago it would have been unheard of for a Chinese artist to be able to display their work to the public. Now however artists are able to show their work in state run museums, galleries and in some cases public spaces. So with these design restrictions becoming reduced and with creative freedom becoming more apparent, Chinese designers are now able to push the boundaries and explore new concepts and ideas. Because of this more interest is being shown from designers looking into China. Chinese designers are pushing to change the saying from “made in China” to “Designed in China”. In the last few years Beijing has held a design week every year to showcase Chinese design. Events like this are helping to bring Chinese design into the 21st century.
As well as these designers there are also a large number of Chinese students returning to China after studying design abroad. These students have spent time studying in places like Milan, New York, London and Tokyo developing their skills. Theses students could hold the key to bringing back innovation to Chinese design.
It may still be many years before Chinese design companies are equal to those in the west. But I think it is only a matter of time till they are and once they reach the top there will be a new chapter written in the history of design.