Professor Renke He is dean and professor of the School of Design at Hunan
University in China, director of the Chinese Industrial Design Education Committee and vice-chair of the China Industrial Design Association.
For this exclusive feature story, Curve editor, Belinda Stening, spoke to him about where he sees the
greatest design successes in China.
Renke highlights Haier and Lenovo as China’s most successful design brands,
so we also spoke to Wu Jian, design director at Haier, and Li FengLang, design
director at Lenovo, about their philosophy and approach and the challenges
they face as design executives in China.
“These days we have more independent design firms, especially in Shenzhen. Young designers play an important part in promoting design in China,” says Renke. “Here, companies like Haier and Lenovo, have been commercially successful and have successful good business.”
China is now the largest consumer market in the world, Renke explains, and the products from Haier and Lenovo are widely available across the country. As such, it’s important that the designers create products for both export as well as the domestic markets.
“Haier is the world’s largest white-goods manufacturer and was the first Chinese company to have an in-house design centre. In China, many companies are still OEM companies working for larger manufacturers and global brands,” says Renke.
Yet Haier is an OBM (original brand manufacturer) company, Renke explains, and it has used industrial design to successfully create its products and support its brand worldwide. This, he says, is also reflected in
recent years by the large number of international design awards it has won.
“In only 20 years, the small Haier factory in Qingdao has become the leading white-goods manufacturer
in China and a globally recognised white-goods brand. This is a perfect example of how design can play a key
role in manufacturing and building a brand in a de-veloping country like China,” Renke says.
So who are the designers behind these big brands?
“In China, as in some other Asian nations, we know that companies like Haier and Lenovo have great design centres, but not all of the in-house designers are widely known or recognised,” he says. These design directors have international perspective, understand the international design scene and have strong skills
in design management.
“Now in the global market, no matter what industries you look at, design is the most important way to create identity for a brand. In order to give their brands
global profile, these corporations have built design
offices in Milan, London and other design-focused cites
to design their products for global consumers. They also invite world-class designers to help them to improve their designs. Such openness is a key factor for their success in the global marketplace,” explains Renke.
Wu Jian, design director at Haier, joined the company in 2001. As the head of the Haier Innovation Design Centre since 2009, he leads the design team to deliver world-class design services for both the appliance giant and other independent manufacturers in China. He coordinates a multidisciplinary practice spanning product design, design strategy, graphic design and design management.
“We have over 300 designers working for us globally,” says Wu. “The group designs products in all categories for the Haier Group, including refrigeration, washing machines, wine coolers, air conditioners and televisions. We design all products for the three independent Haier brands: Casarte, Haier and Leader.”
Wu has developed a new user-experience-centred workflow for Haier and a unique visual brand language to express the Haier global brand language and
create inspired living for global consumers. “This has
directly contributed to Haier’s success as a major global appliance brand and manufacturer,” says Wu.
Wu explains one of Haier’s design successes in the refrigerator category. “Let’s take the 3D refrigerator
(with three doors) as an example. It’s different to the traditional three-door refrigerator – its middle door and bottom door become drawers. The drawer format was inspired by user feedback collected by our European design team. It’s a really innovative idea and it demonstrates our philosophy, which is to create unique values for consumers,” he says.
From this idea, he explains, they have developed different styles of three-door refrigerators. Not only is it elegant and sleek with a classical appearance, it also gives a totally new access experience to users.
“I used to be what I call a ‘pure’ designer, only focused on styling and always chasing beautiful, impressive form. This changed when I became really aware of the fact that China is a vast market and we have to take care of all kinds of users. The real challenge is how
to satisfy them and make everyone feel comfortable with our products. There are a lot of players in this industry and how to win market share from overloaded competition is one of the big challenges for our design team,” says Wu.
Since they set up the design centre in 1994, explains Wu, they have established their own design philosophy step by step. Now, he says, they have a general philosophy across all of the brands – this philosophy, as
he mentioned above, is ‘unique values’ – and they have different design guidelines for each brand.
“Besides the routine management work, I spend
time with my design managers and project leaders to review key projects to make sure that they are going well and staying on track. We have design teams for different product categories and different brands. Meetings and field discussions are important to me,” says Wu.
“Being a design director is like directing a movie –
I have to coordinate with the writer, the stage designer, the lighting, the costumes, the actors and actresses. We use sketching for thinking and sharing. It’s the best communication tool for designers, even though the computer is so popular now. Sketches always help designers think deeply and to communicate,”
As they run three brands and over 14 categories,
with many platforms and hundreds of models on the market and in development, at Haier they have to constantly find a balance between a consistent image for the brand and the new models and designs.
“For me, design success in China is measured by
global recognition from consumers both inside and
outside of China. Every year many young and talented designers join our team. They have great vision, and with the insight and experience we can give them, I am sure over time they will come up with brilliant ideas and redefine the current platform,” says Wu.
Li FengLang, design director at Lenovo, joined the company in 1999. As executive director of the Lenovo Innovation Design Centre, he is responsible for the design of consumer products. There are 15 designers in his team.
“The design team of Lenovo is an organic and united department, and all the designers work in our Innovation Design Centre. Our design philosophy is ‘SUV’ – simple, unique and valuable,” says Li.
“At Lenovo, design is more like pursuing a wonderful vision for design than completing a job. As designers, we try to change the whole market environment and people’s lives via our design,” he says. “For example, I think Yoga is one of the most successful designs from Lenovo. It has become one of the most important products for Lenovo and has helped it to become
a PC+ market leader.”
Yoga, he explains, with its freely rotating 360 degree hinge, can be easily transformed from a traditional notebook into a handheld tablet. It’s priced at over US$1000 in the US market and excellent sales performance highlights that it is a very successful product.
“The biggest design challenge for Lenovo is that
we have to design products of high brand value that lead the whole industry,” says Li. “In China, I think the biggest challenge comes from the whole commercial environment and influence. It is difficult to have truly outstanding designers who really can break the rules and product frameworks in the current environment.”
“There are a great number of design companies
and freelance designers in China, distributed over many fields,” explains Li, “and some of them have even expanded into mould manufacturing and some have become investors in design projects.
“I think dreams are important. If we have dreams, then success for Chinese designers will come. Many Chinese designers dream of developing advanced products, and they want their products to become
a part of museum collections and history,” says Li.
“Designers are just like artists – they never stop the
pursuit of perfection. This is a great motivation for Chinese designers.”
Renke He and his team created a website for the
first Chinese design show in Milan last year, profiling
a new generation of designers in China and their ideas and perspectives on design, which can be viewed at www.hnid.org/cidic/bridge/main.html