Shikuan Chen is one of Taiwan’s most recognized technology designers. Drawing from his many years of experience designing for leading local and global brands, he reveals what drives the Chinese consumer and how this understanding should influence product design in this market.
Shikuan Chen does not believe in the idea of ‘universal design’. “There must be cultural aspects to every artifact that humans create because before a consumer takes out his or her purse to pay for a product their decisions are always informed by their personal behaviors, lifestyle, and experiences,” he reasons. “And these, of course, are culturally based, so nothing is international, nothing is universal.”
As Chen notes, “you cannot go into a Chinese market with a very alien metaphor or design language.” Nor can you use a very local language. “The Chinese, because of their acceptance of international information, also want to grow internationally. However, they are also looking at the brands that walk into their backyard, and whomever shows the most respect to this market, consumers will respect and support with their sales.”
For a product to be successful in the China market, it needs to sit “within that spectrum of so-called ‘Chinese understandable internationalism’.” Chinese consumers want to express their uniqueness within this spectrum of understanding, so designers should not be afraid to test the limits, Chen says. “Either it’s a new color, a concept, a metaphor; if you push at those boundaries in a way that Chinese consumers understand and can accept, they’ll think the product is cool, it’s of-the-age.”
Consumers in developed markets treat products and artifacts as tools, he continues. A mobile phone, for example, exists to help one person communicate with other people over long distances. When these tools arrive in the Chinese market, “they become luxurious, customisable items.” The owner of one of these items is compelled to give it a character that speaks of his or her social status. Those companies that do not provide for this need to personalise will “lose out big time” in this market. Chen cites the ubiquitous cellphone as an example. There is an almost unending variety of cellphone cases in China and in the broader Asia region. At first, designers believed that the core value of a case was protection and that personalization was an add-on. It seems, however, that this idea needs to be rethought; in Asia, personalization has become core.
Is there any cross-over in terms of design language or product acceptance between consumer markets in China and the Chinese-speaking markets outside the country, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? According to Chen, the short answer is yes. “China is made up of twenty-plus provinces and every province is like one country. Each market behaves very differently,” he explains. “If you expand the discussion to Singapore, or to Macau and Hong Kong, you would possibly see behaviors [in those markets] that resemble those of consumers in some small part of China. So in this respect it’s the same market, it’s one gigantic Chinese market that has many characteristics.”
About Shikuan Chen
Shikuan Chen is one of the most prominent personalities in Taiwanese and Chinese design. He heads a team of more than 200 design experts at Compal Electronics INC. (Taiwan), where he is responsible for the company’s business and design strategies. He is also a professor of design at Shih-Chien University (Taipei) and Fu-Jen University. From 2004 to 2009, he was Global Design Account Director at Philips Design (Taipei and Hong Kong). In 1995, he received his MA degree in Fine Art in Design from the Cranbrook Academy of Art (USA).