A designer himself, Elliot Richards runs a popular English-language blog called eightsix.co that documents the rise of good design in China. Through images, interviews, and articles, he tells the stories of products and projects created by some of the country’s most innovative young designers.
Today’s Chinese designers are working in a new environment where there is a better appreciation for design coming out of China, Richards says. “The iPhone has made a big impact in China: it’s brought a huge awareness of the importance of design to Chinese consumers, and they’re really starting to react.” It is because of the popularity of the iPhone and the lifestyle it propagates through branding that innovative local companies, such as cellphone maker Xiaomi, are finding success in the market. “Xiaomi realized that consumers in China are becoming more savvy. As this spreads out to the second, third, and fourth tier cities, consumers across the country will start to expect more from the products in the market,” he explains.
Designers that build an ability to customize and individualize into their products also have an edge in the Chinese market. “A lot of people in China are living in cities where everything is planned, everything is very much the same,” Richards says. “One way that people can get across their personality is to adorn their products with unique factors, phone accessories like cases, for example, that help them to stand out from everyone else.” Chinese designers have an advantage over foreign designers in that they innately understand how crucial customization is when designing products destined for the Chinese market.
Clearly, the size of the consumer market and the rapid growth of the middle class in China both offer huge benefits to designers throughout the world. However, he cautions, “consumers in China are markedly different from consumers in the West, in Europe, in the US, even in Taiwan and other parts of Asia. A huge percentage of consumers on the Chinese mainland are very pragmatic, very careful with their money, and designers need to take this into consideration when they design products for China.” Another big opportunity he identifies for designers in China is in the area of consumer safety. On the back of recent food and product quality scandals, people are starting to link their health and the health of the environment to the purchases they make.
Finally, Richards points out the opportunities for designers that lie in material experimentation. “There is a much greater appreciation of craftsmanship and quality in China today,” he says. “China went from having these craftsmen–pre-Mao Zedong and then since the 1980s–that were quite prolific. In between, these practices disappeared, and it’s only very recently that they’ve begun to make their way back into the mainstream.”
According to Richards, China is still finding its design identity. Young designers are confused about which direction to pursue, he says. “In product design and in graphic design, designers are still experimenting, which is very exciting. They’re trying out all these different ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t. They’re actively building a Chinese design identity that may one day be as strong as the Japanese or the German design identity.” This new generation of designers “are more interested in the details, in what things are made of, and in taking the care and the time to complete something properly. However, a lot of the time they create these wonderful but niche products that unfortunately don’t get that much exposure.” This is an issue Richards hopes to address through his blog, eightsix.co.
“The future of design in China is very unpredictable right now,” warns Richards. “In the near term, you are going to see much more appreciation of Chinese-made goods, and there will be a few Chinese designers that will come to the forefront and have their voices heard on the world stage.” Richards again references China-born smart device company Xiaomi: “The company has been getting a lot of attention on the world stage for its design and manufacturing ideas, and I think we’ll see a lot of more this type of innovation,” he explains. This embracing of new ideas is complimented by a growth in the appreciation and understanding of design in second and third tier cities in China, “which are going to be the key consumer battlegrounds,” he finishes.
About Elliot Richards
Elliot Richards is a designer from the United Kingdom who, straight out of university, relocated to Beijing in 2008. He lived in Beijing for four years, working in architecture and furniture design, before settling into a graphic design career, during which time he was headhunted for a position in Shanghai and moved cities. By day he works at for an education company in marketing, and by night he explores the newly growing Chinese design scene for his popular blog, eightsix.co. This is the area which he hopes to move into, so that he can promote his passion for Chinese design around the world.