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issue: May 2005 APPLIANCE European Edition

Guest Editorial
Defense of the Realm: Asian Influence on European Design Practices

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by Simon Bolton, managing director, Bolton Associates (London, England)

Many of you reading this article will be involved with the new product development (NPD) process and will have a keen interest in the activities and practices of Asian manufacturers.

As Asia establishes itself as one of the key global manufacturing hubs fulfilling both local and international demand, the use and demand for high-quality design from major Asian brands is increasing and competition between them is furious for design supremacy.
As a product designer and design educator, I feel that we face a series of challenges relating to the continual long-term loss of local manufacturing, ever decreasing NPD timescales, and the impact of the growth in the number of Asian brands entering Europe.

Based on the assumption that there will be a continual loss of local manufacturing bases in Europe, this will ultimately have an impact on the demand for product design in the region. The European market is starting to see an increase in the number of quality Asian brands entering the domestic and consumer product markets. With this ever-increasing number of Asian brands, we are also seeing an increase in the number of Asian design centers in Europe, with more and more design policies being developed centrally and then distributed to these regional design centers.

European NPD timescales have rapidly been reducing throughout the last 10 years, but the intensity of the new product development process in Asia is on a different level. We found, through our professional design practice, the willingness of Asian clients in making quick decisions to be crucial to achieving success. Asia’s ability to work at speed and their strengths in prototyping and production means that we will find it hard to compete in these areas, and these activities will be increasingly undertaken in a number of world-class centers of excellence in China and India with new technology skills being provided by Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The product design process, therefore, will continue to become more intensive and operate at a much faster pace. It will be driven by more finely tuned skills linking design to production more seamlessly.

European designers will have to work harder to raise standards due to Asian manufacturers now having a greater understanding of design and fully appreciating world-class design qualities. Asian brands will force European companies to make decisions quicker in order to achieve success. This continual reduction of NPD timescales will also mean that the translation process from idea generation to design refinement will become more critical. Speed of decision-making will be crucial to the success for designers attempting to succeed with or against Asian brands.

Although the initial outlook may appear bleak for European manufacturers, these threats also create potential opportunities. Based on my professional and academic design experience of working within an Asian context, I would like to share ideas where I believe European manufacturers can successfully compete.

One of the key observations to emerge from our relationships in Asia was the demand for designers with strong creative research skills relating to identifying user experiences. This observation is related to an apparent culture of developing a focused range of concepts that, in many cases, were deemed to be driven predominantly by style variations. In some ways, this observation can be attributed to the speed of their NPD processes. As the Asian regions develop more and more new technologies, this creates a prerequisite for designers who are capable of identifying new ways in which people can interact with these new and emerging technologies.

For us to compete, we need to identify areas where we can excel. We believe that there will be a significant change in the roles and activities that designers undertake. Cultural positioning and framing will become crucial factors in achieving economic success. Front-end design activities driven by contextual-based research and reflective design practice (research, positioning/framing, and concept generation) will become increasingly important for maximizing future brand experiences.

I am, therefore, optimistic that European manufacturers can compete, but we need to evolve and learn from our Asian counterparts. It is naive to believe that our well-established European design models have nothing to learn from our Asian colleagues. As technology has moved forward at a rapid pace throughout the last 20 years, it is Asian cultures that have more fully embraced it and integrated it into their modern lifestyles.

About the Author

Simon Bolton is an award winning designer and has had his work exhibited in the Design Museum (London, England), Axis Gallery (Tokyo, Japan), and Pompidou Centre (Paris, France). He is the managing director of London-based design group Bolton Associates and is course director of Product Design at Central Saint Martins. If you would like to contact Mr. Bolton, e-mail editor@appliance.com.


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