Immense and far away, China frightens and lures designers and companies in the design field from all over the world. A young, globalized society is emerging that is revolutionizing its own cultural references in record time.
To avoid the facile clichés, we asked for views on the state of the art of design in China from Beatrice Leanza, creative director of Beijing Design Week, but also the strategic director of Baitasi Remade Urban Plan, a program of urban regeneration involving the historic district of Baitasi in Beijing.
First of all, if it is possible to generalize, what is the most urgent problem for design in China today?
New synergies across education, culture and entrepreneurship in design are what China needs today: to empower new generations of young people in the co-creation of a better social and built environment, and thus enable more profound intellectual and productive dialogue with their peers worldwide.
What is the level of university training in the design field?
Enrolments in design schools (from architecture and urban studies to digital production) have soared in the past 4 to 5 years, mostly motivated by better prospects of future employment due to the technical nature of the preparation offered.
Although ‘design thinking’ is being appropriated as a governmentally sanctioned ‘credo’ even in pre-graduate education, design schools remain at large technical institutes that rarely venture into conceptual or speculative practice. This also generates a disciplinary silo-effect that prevents communication among different knowledge areas connected to analytical and experimental fields (from sociology, anthropology, visual studies to scientific research for example) that would enrich aspiring practitioners’ understanding of the use and value of design as both a form of making and thinking.
Nonetheless, there are nascent signals of change. Universities like Tongji in Shanghai are tightening exchanges with international counterparts, as well as Tsinghua in Beijing where mild attempts at collaborations with the industry have also been tested (for example in the medical sector), although with discontinuous effects.
An inspiring exception is the course held at the School of Design in CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts) for the past three years titled “Everyday Social Issues,” which encourages students to work with real-life problematics found in the quotidian reality of today’s Chinese cities, developing solutions ranging from digital apps to products and infographics.
While in architecture there are exponents with their own identity, in design it seems more difficult to find a specific expressive approach.
China’s homegrown industries are now moving into a phase of qualitative upgrading of their offerings, meaning products and services with higher standards and diversification, which will certainly have positive impact on growing demand for professional specialization. Indeed this also puts pressure on Chinese educational institutions, evidenced by the large numbers of students that still opt for studies in foreign countries.
Nonetheless, younger professionals are more and more exploring ways to uphold their own traditions within forms of expression that integrate exploration of local resources, crafts and contemporary technology. This is a growing generation of people that is interested in open collaboration, experimentation across a range of scales and sectors as a way to test ideas and possibilities that are not yet market-ready or available.
How is Italian design viewed?
Though Italian design is still synonymous with sophistication and historic value in terms of brand recognition, the post-80s generations are more and more attracted to contemporary ramifications of design that hail from various traditions, for example Japan and Nordic countries. Younger urbanites are omnivorous in taste and often driven to niche-sectors, independent brands or studios that they identify with in terms of affordability and eclecticism. This is also evident in the growth of independent media that speak to the digital Millennials.
In which areas is the relationship between design and industry developing the most?
The fashion sector sports an incredible variety of expressions and creative experimentalism made possible by the availability of resources and the capillary spread of online-based services for retail and distribution.
Also the tech and digital open-source industry is rapidly shaping new consumer niches and a new ecosystem of products, where Shenzhen is a true epicenter. Chinese people are industrious, culturally proud, and eager to prove themselves on an international stage.
They are also uniquely gifted with a pragmatic form of thinking and determination that is also favored by the relative economic stability of the country. I am convinced that China will lead in providing refreshed insight and meanings for a contemporary culture of design on a global level.
Text by Valentina Croci