For Kevin Chou, a well regarded Taiwanese product designer and head of KEV Design Studio, it is more important that designers who are working in the Chinese-speaking market lead aesthetic tastes and design trends than cater to the whims of the market. A designer that caters to the market might achieve success in the short term, but because cultural or aesthetic values evolve, long term success is uncertain. If a designer fails to discern these changes, he or she may also fail to predict future trends and as such his or her designs may lose the attraction they once held for consumers.
Due to the influence of globalization, people in different parts of the world exhibit little difference in their product usage habits, says Kevin Chou. For example, smartphones were quickly adopted by people in countries and regions around the world. Globalization does not only affect products; societal practices like diet and clothing are also affected. Today, most Chinese people learn how to use knives and forks early in their lives, and they enjoy eating Western food. Meanwhile, many people living in countries where chopsticks are not normally used are now learning how to use these ubiquitous, typically East Asian utensils. Some European “fast fashion” brands such as Zara and H&M will not change their designs upon entering Chinese or Asian markets. At most, the brands will adjust clothing sizes and patterns. Discussion around design for the Chinese market should not focus on ethnicity, but instead should focus on cultural or aesthetic values.
China represents the world’s largest market, and its economy is still rapidly growing. Many people in China are quickly becoming wealthy, and its understandable that, after twenty or thirty years of living in poverty, they would want to show off this rising prosperity. “When people become rich within a short period of time, they don’t cultivate their aesthetic tastes,” Chou explains. “It’s not hard to imagine that they’d prefer design styles that are flamboyant and superficial. These kinds of people are attracted to familiar brands with strong identities.” Twenty to thirty years ago, Taiwan was in a similar stage of development. Society generally believed that wealthy people must wear Rolex watches, heavy gold chains, and drive BMWs. Perhaps this is a feature typical to all developing countries, he muses.
Designers must be wary to not only cater to the current desires of consumers, Kevin Chou cautions, but they must also consider future trends in design and aesthetics. Of course, he notes, it is not easy to hold onto the one’s design principles and also take into account the need to produce revenues and the demands of the market. Chou cites his own work as an example. He was once commissioned by a company in Taiwan to design the packaging for their canned abalones, which were destined for the Chinese market. The client explicitly asked him to use the color of gold in his design because they considered abalones to be luxury gifts. He created what he considered a sophisticated packaging design concept, which also incorporated the gold colour requested by the client. In the end, however, the client rejected the design proposal. “For me, it is much more important to lead aesthetic taste than to cater to the whims of the market, so I didn’t compromise,” he explains. “[By selling lifestyle products alongside books, magazines, and music,] Eslite Bookstore, [a popular culture and lifestyle focused bookstore chain in Taiwan], created a new way of living [for Taiwanese people]. Eslite pioneers design and cultural trends, and as such the company can go beyond [the retail experiences offered by other Taiwanese bookstore chains like] Kingstone. Another example is the Nokia cell phone. While the design of Nokia phones was actually quite good, the company failed to predict future trends and so it stagnated. When the iPhone was released to the market, Nokia cell phones were rendered almost obsolete within a decade.”
How can Chinese designers use their cultural advantages to standout in the international market? They should explore materials specific to their culture and take the needs of modern life into consideration, Chou advises. For example, Chinese designers can introduce materials like bamboo to the world. Bamboo is ductile, fast growing, cheap, and strong. Considering the increasing focus on environmental protection in the international community, bamboo is a more sustainable material than wood. Even the world’s largest furniture manufacturer, IKEA, has started using bamboo to create furniture. After the industrial revolution, people began to use massive amounts of cheap, durable plastic, and they no longer considered bamboo a useful material. “Bamboo shouldn’t be forgotten so quickly. We should maintain the value of the material now and into the future. As Chinese designers, we should use design to inform people of the unique aspects of our culture,” he urges.
About Kevin Chou
Kevin Chou is a well-known product designer in Taiwan, and is currently the head of KEV Design Studio. In 1996, after Kevin Chou graduated from the Department of Industrial Design at the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, he worked for the Tsann Kuen Group and SAMPO as an industrial designer. In 2000, he travelled to the USA to pursue further study, and in 2002, he graduated with an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. After returning to Taiwan, between 2003 and 2008, he was a senior product designer at Philips Design. In 2009, he founded KEV Design Studio, and he also began lecturing at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology and Shih Chien University. He has won four international design awards from iF and Red Dot (Germany), IDEA (USA), and the Good Design Award (Japan) for his design work, and he has exhibited his work in France, Italy, Finland, and China. Chou worked with the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute to create a series of bamboo chairs, which were called “beautiful but heart-breaking” by the French media.