The Blossom's Thorns
If you went to Bestbuy, Target or Walmart for your Thanksgiving shopping this last week, you probably were overjoyed at the super-low prices being offered. Thirteen dollars for a TV at Walmart, 17 for a DVD player at Bestbuy, and 28 dollars for a vacuum cleaner at Target may seem like the deals of the century. But it's this growing consumer valuation of price over all else that might cause designers in the western world some problems.
With lower cost as the driving factor in successfully placing a product with major US and European manufacturers, manufacturers are looking anywhere they can to keep the costs low. One of the inevitable conclusions is to go where the labor costs are lower, namely east Asia. And recently, this low cost labor chasing has extended beyond manufacture to include programming, and most recently, industrial design. Dyson, a European company famous for championing local design and manufacture was recently forced to go overseas for a large part of its labor. In an interview, a top level exec said that only designs which "added 20 times the value of the raw materials" would support Europe and the US's design labor costs
In addition to western businesses looking elsewhere for designers, the markets are beginning to see many more major players based wholly in the East. Companies like Acer, BenQ, and Creative are strong brands with more and more design and manufacture being carried out in east Asia, while brands like Chinese state-run Haier and Korean Samsung are working to become globally recognized brands to rival Sony, Motorola and Whirlpool. In fact, a huge movement of Chinese global brand pushes has occurred in the past year. Even smaller Singapore and India are working to insert themselves into the global design and manufacturing picture.
So, what can western designers do to keep from becoming the next group of out-of-workers, like the steel industry in Wales and Pittsburgh or automotive workers in the Midwestern US?
First thing to do is to recognize that unlike mill workers, you can work on a more global scale. Learn about international manufacture, and what it takes to get goods produced in one country and sold in another. Make friends and contacts in all sorts of countries. If you're still in school, consider a year abroad to the Far East or Eastern Europe (another low cost manufacturing center).
Second, since you can't compete on cost, you'll have to add real value in your designs that lower wage workers can't. Note that in the above Haier story and the Samsung story, a huge part of their research budgets is spent in understanding the western values and habits. Basically, insight sells. It could be argued that some forms are universally beautiful, and even basic ergonomics are pretty easy for any well trained designer to put together. But for someone who hasn't lived the culture of their user group, design can be difficult. As over-used of an example as it is, Apple does a great job of understanding their user group's desires and filling them in a way that lower cost knockoffs haven't been able to match.
Design in the west is far from doomed. But if you're planning on just being able to draw or 3d model your way to the top, there are hundreds of just as capable designers in Singapore who are going to beat you to the punch. Designers in the new global market have to figure their own unique way to add value and insight to the products they make. Otherwise, we're just overpriced.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team