A Fascination With Copying

For decades China has been renowned for it’s ability to copy and mass-produce foreign designs on a massive scale. It is this mass manufacturing that has been the driving force behind the country’s massive economic boom in recent years. However, as a new generation of young creatives begin to embrace today’s changing China and the new freedom that comes with it, will the phrase ‘made in China’ soon be evolving into ‘designed in China’?

China’s primary industry today is taking sample designs of gadgets, clothes, toys, etc. provided by western companies, reproducing them on a large scale in one of hundreds of thousands of factories, to then export back to the west to be sold. To be able to do this and do it well, meticulous attention to detail is key, and this is something the Chinese have certainly mastered. Team this with an abundance of workers willing to work long hours for little pay, and it’s no surprise so many companies, big and small, both high end and low end, choose to manufacture their products in China. No wonder it’s been labelled ‘the world’s factory’ seeing as only a tiny percentage of goods produced in China’s factories actually stay in China, the rest end up in shops all over the world.

However this Chinese fascination with copying foreign designs is no longer simply a means of successful mass production for foreign companies, it has become a part of everyday life in modern China. Whether it be American style homes and suburbs, British style villages or imitation and counterfeit goods, this obsession with copying has spread through all parts of Chinese consumer culture.

Counterfeit Capital of the World…

Chapter six of Karl Gerth’s As China Goes, So Goes the World, explains how consumers live in uncertainty due to the huge number of low quality counterfeit products on the Chinese market.

Brand owners in China estimate that 15 to 20 percent of all prominent branded goods in China are actually counterfeit…’

Sometimes there’s no way of telling what is real or what is fake until it’s too late, as victims of countless counterfeit scandals, such as the ‘big-head-baby’ formula scandal of 2004, have found out.

Shanzhai Culture…

Gerth also explains the concept of Shanzhai culture, when copies of popular western designs, most commonly mobile phones, are passed off not as fakes but as imitations, usually with similar sounding names, far lower prices and sometimes with more features to suit the Chinese market. These shanzhai products are not viewed as negatively as counterfeit products, they are sold openly and have ‘gained a level of social acceptance’. These ‘imitations’ are interesting, because although the appearance of the product has been copied, shanzhai manufacturers often add features, alter programs and change certain aspects of the design, therefore, in Gerth’s words, ‘blurring the line between imitating and originating.’

Thames Town…

30 km from central Shanghai, you will find Thames Town, a town made up of English style houses, streets, parks, shops and churches. Everyday soon to be married Chinese couples flock here to have their wedding photos taken against this bizarre backdrop of a perfect English market town.

Copy Artists…

I recently watched a documentary called Copy Artists, that explored the town of Dafen in Shenzen, a town famous for its oil painters. However the majority of the painters that live and work here are not creating works of their own, they are working in assembly lines, producing imitations of famous paintings to sell. Most of the people who work in these assembly lines are art students, working to pay their way through their studies, but others are struggling artists who have never been able to make a living selling their own work. Despite the high quality and amount of effort that goes in to each and every painting, workers earn very little, probably about as much as factory workers do in the city. People have argued that this process of copying classic pieces to sell is wrong, but the studio owners behind them argue that because they are not trying to sell their pieces as the original and are always open with the fact that it is merely an imitation, that it is perfectly ethical and not counterfeit.

A New Generation…

It is exciting to know that to counteract this copycat culture, an aspirational new generation of creative people with big ideas now have the freedom to express themselves and open the door to make way for a new way of design thinking in China. This generation are not content with copying foreign designs and are striving to push China in the direction of not only making, but also designing their own products. The documentary China Rises: City of Dreams, features Shanghai based fashion designer Jenny Ji. In an interview, Jenny sums up the attitude of this creative generation and their new found freedom…

‘I’m a designer from the new generation and I feel great. I don’t have the old restrictions and boring attitudes…

The old pessimism has gone, and I can embrace the new changes. I’m always dreaming of the choices available to me…’

Fuelled by a society that is bursting with confidence and originality, the future of China has the potential to be one of design and innovation rather than simple replicating and manufacturing, an exciting thought for any young designer like myself.

Professor Hang Jian on the future of Chinese design


Design China has a short interview with Professor Hang Jian Vice Dean of the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University, Beijing. These comments are particularly relevant to what we’re looking at currently on the module, and the second paragraph in particular offers suggestions for how the relationship between China and the West can evolve into one that is more mutually beneficial:

“China has a special and unique design history – a rich history of life. In the Qing dynasty, for example, the trend was to wear long robes and sport long hair. The transformation of this style evolved over a period of 100 years. China’s contemporary design scene is very disappointing in contrast, as it mainly embodies the infamous copy culture and rarely refers back to Chinese history in order to innovate. Things are changing now though, and more and more people are transcending the limitations of our governing system, which is promising for the evolution of our design industry.

[…]I’ve just returned from Guangzhou (…). The industrial design potential there is great: China now needs to focus on stimulating small to medium-sized companies to do more for the local community. Previously, many of these young companies worked in collaboration with Western companies and had an international focus, but they collapsed during the financial crisis. They did, however, gain technical expertise, which they now need to harness for design on a local level.”


Read the rest of the interview here.

It’s China’s World We’re Just Living in It

Edel Rodriguez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1971. He majored in painting at Pratt Institute (BFA) and Hunter College (MFA). His work has appeared in five picture books, on stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, and on posters for films and Broadway shows.

This is a series of illustrations for  Newsweek magazine by Edel Rodriguez.  The article is titled “It’s China’s World We’re Just Living in It” and is online here.

Worlds First Computer

Ok, so it’s a pretty bold statement to say what the first computer in the world is, many people still debate it, so I’m not even going to begin to try and convince you I have the answer but if we were to look at what defines the word ‘computer,’ it might help us out.

computer |kəmˈpyo͞otər|


• an electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.

• a person who makes calculations, esp. with a calculating machine.

‘A person who makes calculations, esp. with a calculating machine’ is the part that interests me. So what is the earliest calculating machine? You find that and who used it and you have your first computer. This again is up for debate as to which calculating machine was first.

One of the earliest calculating machines was the Chinese ‘abacus.’ The earliest written proof of the Chinese abacus is from the 2nd Century BC. Know as the ‘suànpán’ literally meaning ‘counting tray.’ It has two decks of beads on rods (there are at least seven rods but generally more). The upper deck has two beads on its rods and the lower deck has five beads on each rod. One bead on the upper deck represents the number five and one bead on the lower deck represents the number one. The horizontal bar that separates the two decks is the where you count from. If there are no beads touching the horizontal bar then nothing is counted. Moving a bead from the lower deck to meet the horizontal bar would count one, in order to count five you move one of the beads from the upper deck to meet the horizontal bar, a number over five is a combination of beads from upper and lower deck beads.

The abacus could be seen as one of the earliest pieces of Interaction Design. Interaction design was first coined in the mid 1980’s, many, many years after the abacus. One definition of interaction design is ‘The process and result of creating an interface that facilitates users’ goals and tasks.’ This sums up the abacus, the goal or task being to calculate and the interface being the physical object itself. So even though the abacus was not made with interaction design in mind. If we look back we can clearly see that it is a good example of it.

If I were to break it down and work out why its good I would start with the beads. Having these beads/objects represent numbers makes it accessible by all. Numbers can be written and spoken differently across many languages and the abacus needed to be understood by all as traders often used it. The traders would not know every language they would encounter and so having this common language using objects made the business side of their deals that bit easier. It erased the possibility of mental error, you don’t need to hold numbers in your head because the beads are the numbers and you can move them about to suit your needs. The beads are also good because they are split into five beads of value one on one side and two beads on value five on the other. This is good interaction and informatic design. If you were to have all ten beads on one side, like the western abacus, it becomes more difficult to read a number at a glance. With the Chinese abacus however it becomes easy. Processing one bead on the upper deck to count five and then only having to glance at the bottom deck to see if any beads were being counted is easier, there are fewer beads together and so distinguishing between them becomes a simpler task. The traders needed speed when using these calculation machines and dividing the numbers up this way gave them that ability. It also has quite a beautifully simple way to ‘reset’ it, all you need to do is spin the abacus on its horizontal axis, physics takes care of the rest as all the beads fly out to the outer edges of the board thus leaving none touching the horizontal bar, making a grand total of zero, ready to begin counting again.

The abacus is still use today for counting and there are many examples of children’s toys that are some form or abacus. It is also used for teaching basic arithmetic to the blind. All of the counting and the sums can be done completely through touch, another unique interaction that the abacus has.

All of this makes it, for me, quite an inspiring piece of interaction design. Possibly the longest standing piece of interaction design too. Not only is it still around but the design has even inspired bathroom design of all things. Proving it’s a design you can count on.

Chinese Web Design

When you think of Chinese design you think of ancient practices and styles that have been around for centuries, but China has evolved and is still evolving along with the rest of the world, and design for digital media is now an important outlet. It’s a fair statement to say that although the Chinese are masters in many areas, innovation in digital and interaction design is not currently one of them. In this respect they are followers and not leaders, at the moment anyway. There is a very stereotypical view that Chinese children are pushed by their parents to succeed strongly in academia, and not really encouraged in creative subjects, but with more than four hundred design schools in China to date, clearly China is growing up into a creative nation. The proof for this is that good Chinese generated design is in a rapid state of growth.

China found itself following in the paths of nations that are already developed in digital design. They may be the forerunners in production, but many of the plans and designs for goods and services manufactured for retail and use in the West came from the West and had just been brought to life in China, and often design originating from China was actually imitations from other nations, with China following the “fashions”. Was this partly because China was impeded from absorbing from and keeping pace with other countries because of a lack of open web environment? With restriction on Internet usage in China, perhaps spending time creating great design and content for the Internet wasn’t really seen as appealing or worthwhile.

A few years ago there was a trend where Chinese websites were imitating Korean ones, they were vibrant, colourful and heavily flash based. All focus was on the visuals but as the average Chinese Internet user developed, the websites and designers were forced to develop too. Website’s aren’t now shunning the heavy visual basis for their sites, but they are making a big effort to incorporate good content hierarchies and design to optimise their sites to suit Chinese Internet users, and not the users of any other country.


It’s important to realise that China is developing a web style all of it’s own, it is not just trying to match the quality and character of other countries that are web leaders. China is such a huge country and therefore has an instant huge market, it can easily thrive without trying to gain business from the rest of the world. This allows Chinese web designers to design for China and nobody else, so naturally as culture plays a massive role in the lives of the Chinese, it also plays a big role in the messages they communicate through the medium of web design.


Lytous Zhou, a Shenzhen based visual designer and author of the book UI Evolutionism provides an example of the differences between an American site and a Chinese site, both selling the exact same product but offering different experiences.


“Pizza Hut China, which is an example I like to use every time I explain cultural differences, uses Chinese elements heavily all over its website: in the color scheme and family theme. Warm reds and yellows are colors symbolic of festivity in China, and the family dinner is highly regarded in Chinese society.”



“By comparison, Pizza Hut US highlights fast food and online ordering on its home page. Red is also Pizza Hut US’ theme color, but it’s more solid, darker and cooler than the warm red on the Chinese website.”



Zhou also states that when targeting a Chinese audience a websites profile should reflect the profile and aesthetics of its users.


This is not the only difference in approaching web design that Chinese designers take note of. The Chinese use the same keyboards as the West and typing Chinese on an alphabet based keyboard is hard, therefore sites are designed so that users can click their way though the site rather than searching. To Western eyes the sites just look complicated and cluttered, but for the Chinese it’s practical.



Back to the point in the beginning paragraph, that the Chinese are followers and not leaders when it comes to website design. This may be true for the techniques and technologies used, but for style and usability they are designing for their own unique market and are therefore not trying to follow anybody else. Chinese web design is moving into a category of its own.