Hugh Hu, General Manager of ndd design in Taiwan, believes that when designing for the huaren (Chinese-speaking) market, it is imperative that designers re-familiarize themselves with their cultural roots and, in doing so, identify with them.
Hu states that despite the great size of the huaren market, which extends to areas such as Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and even North America, the elements that link this market together can be summarized into three categories: Confucianism, customs and festivals, and Chinese characters. Concerning Confucianism, although the huaren lifestyle has been heavily westernized, huaren of all areas still have stronger family values than Westerners. “Even in this era, huaren children still retain a very close relationship with their parents,” he explains. “It’s difficult for us to leave home after reaching adulthood and to estrange ourselves from our parents. This is a great distinguishing quality of the huaren culture.”
Regarding customs and festivals, huaren delight in festivities such as the Lunar New Year Celebrations, Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival. Since their childhood, huaren have heard of these festivals and the folklore attached to them, which they can repeat in detail. The only difference that might exist between different parts of the huaren world is the level to which these festivals follow the traditions. In Taiwan, for instance, barbecuing has become a part of the Mid-Autumn Festival culture. This custom is absent in other huaren areas.
The application and expression of Chinese characters is another essential distinguishing factor of the huaren culture. Despite the fact that Chinese characters are today used, albeit to a lesser degree, in Japan and Korea and also in Singapore, where huaren are the majority of the population, and despite the fact that English continues to be considered the primary international language, Chinese characters are still crucial communication tools. The form, sound, and meaning of Chinese characters contain the foundations of its culture. “Much of huaren culture cannot be described in spoken words and can only be expressed through Chinese characters, which are difficult to translate into other languages or be replaced by them,” Hu states.
Hu points out that Taiwan used to play the role of subcontractor, manufacturing products specifically in response to the demands of the European, American, and Japanese markets. Now, as the Chinese market is rising and the confidence of the people along with it, this concept of a huaren market has begun to take shape. “When designing for the huaren market, I think it’s very important to find your own cultural roots, and by doing so, identify with them,” Hu urges. “We must dig out the most beneficial, precious aspects of our culture and design products that both refer directly to human nature and resonate with the people. This is the fundamental path.” Hu takes the example of GOD (Goods of Desire), an early Hong Kong brand who applied elements to their designs that were once regarded as worthless and were therefore discarded. These elements–certain aspects of Chinese imagery, culture, and dialects–have proven popular amongst locals and foreigners in heavily westernized Hong Kong.
Hu has been planning the Dian Shin/Design Refreshment exhibition series since 2006 in an effort to explore and discover the aesthetic characteristics of the huaren lifestyle. “Our first annual theme was benches, the second one was study rooms, and the third was tea ceremonies,” he explains. “Each year, we invite 50 designers to design according to the theme. Up until last year, we’ve accumulated 8 years of works–over 400 pieces–that are very valuable assets to huaren culture.”
Additionally, Hu believes that “conducting a dialogue with the market” is another key to designing for the huaren market. A few years ago, ndd design was commissioned to design a bamboo-based product, The Moment/Bamboo Wall Clock. Through the product, they strived to instill new life into traditional Taiwanese arts and crafts. However, the client did not have sufficient confidence in the market and the product was not mass produced. “The market reflects a customer’s true evaluation of a product, especially after seeing the price tag,” Hu says. “If the market doesn’t open up, then all of the effort and hard work that was put into the design will have gone to waste. It’s clear that it’s very important to conduct a dialogue with the market (before designing a product).”
Last year, ndd design began a collaboration with the Hayashi Department Store in Tainan, a culture-focused city in southern Taiwan. They sought out three printing and dyeing studios–Blue Dye, Natural Dye, and Cyperus–and with them formed “ndd Select” in the hopes of assisting them in the design and sale of their products. ndd design and the Hayashi Department Store examined the design, selection, and pricing of products of the three studios on a regular basis in order to provide them with valuable market feedback. “We want to retrieve what has been lost, to preserve cultural values and, simultaneously, sound out the market to ensure that our ideals are not just idle chatter,” Hu explains.
Do foreign companies, especially those who produce technological products, need to take local factors into consideration when entering the huaren market, or do they simply need to produce universal products? Hu states that it is absolutely necessary to take the demands of the local market and people into consideration. For example, several years ago, Nokia was unwilling to manufacture flip phones, despite a clear market demand for the function. However, other manufacturers such as Motorola were quick to take advantage of the vast business opportunities that lay in flip phones.
“The arrogant and globalized attitude of Nokia doomed them to failure because they overlooked the demands of the Asian market,” notes Hu. He also points out that if Westerners continue to view Xiaomi products as mere fake iPhones and neglect the company’s unique position in the market, they could lose an opportunity to understand the Chinese market. “If a product is accepted by locals, a low price is never the only reason; there are undoubtedly more complex cultural factors involved,” says Hu. “If a designer or company doesn’t understand these factors, it will be difficult for them to enter the market.”
How do huaren designers stand out in a field dominated by the West? Hu urges huaren designers not to look down on themselves because huaren possess abundant cultural assets that demand to be expressed with confidence. “If you can stand out in the huaren market, you will also get noticed on the global stage.”
About Hugh Hu
After graduating from the Industrial Design Department at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, Hugh Hu moved to Germany to further his studies. There, he obtained a Diplom Designer with honors from the Industrial Design Department at Berlin University of the Arts. After returning to Taiwan, he worked in various leading organizations, museums, and design firms. In 2000, he founded ndd design in Tainan, and today he remains General Manager of the company. Hu’s design works have been awarded by various international bodies including Red Dot Award and the iF Award of Germany, and the International Design Excellence Award of America.
Since 2008, Hu has lectured in various studios–bamboo art, ceramic, and multi-media art–at the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute,and it is through these activities that he hopes to foster new potentials for Taiwanese art and craft using a modern design perspective. Hu is also an important curator in Taiwan: since 2006, he has coordinated Dian Shin/Design Refreshment, an annual exhibition that focuses on the aesthetics of the Taiwanese lifestyle and trend developments in arts and craft design.