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Jian Guan on design and innovation in China



Having attended universities in the U.S. and China, this educator shares his insight of the design industry and education in China.
XRDS • SUMME R 2016 • V OL.2 2 • NO.4
Jian Guan on
Design and
Innovation in China
Having attended universities in the U.S. and China, this educator
shares his insight of the design industry and education in China.
By Ahmed Ansari and Raghavendra Kandala
DOI: 10.1145/2930874
to a Silicon Valley company, from which
you had permission to use their logo on
your project, and they would fund you to
build mockups and models. The instruc-
tor could not even open a course if she
or he did not find a sponsor. I think that
is because AAU is famous for preparing
you for industry, not for academia.
AA: What about Ph.D. research, what is
that like?
JG: Ph.D. research in China also var-
ies greatly depending on whom you
have as your advisor. My Ph.D. direc-
tor, for example, would get us to work
on industry projects for companies
like General Electric or Boeing, and we
would depend on theories and meth-
ods while working on projects. I’ve
done over two dozen projects over the
Jian Guan is a lecturer at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology and co-founder
of Thinks Key, a local design consultancy and practice that focuses on working with
industrial partners employing design research to understand local consumers.
He received his Ph.D. in design management from the Academy of Art and Design,
Tsinghua University, one of Chinas leading design programs. At the Academy of Art
University (AAU) in San Francisco, where he earned his master’s in industrial design, he
specialized in personal transportation design. We spoke to him about his experiences and
thoughts regarding the differences between American and Chinese academia and industry;
how design in China has changed over the last decade and its
current trends and practices; and how
Chinese consumers and makers create
and utilize technology.
AHMED ANSARI: Jian, it is a pleasure to
have you with us today. We’d like to begin
by asking you about your experiences
studying design in China, then moving
to the U.S., and then going back to
complete a Ph.D. in China. How did you
find the education in both countries to be
different or similar?
JIAN GUAN: Well, I think the differ-
ences have more to do with the level
of degree rather than country. My un-
dergraduate education concentrated
mostly on basic skills: How to do
sketches, 3-D modeling, and prototyp-
ing, with a focus on forms, structures,
and building a strong sense of aes-
thetics. When I went to the U.S. for my
master’s I realized design was not that
simple (laughs)... [it was] not just pro-
ducing pretty drawings. Again, when
I graduated from AAU and decided to
pursue my Ph.D. degree, I found out a
lot of Chinese universities were offer-
ing advanced classes in design think-
ing, strategy a nd related research, [but]
I did not know because I had never pur-
sued a graduate degree in China.
I do think, from my experience, Chi-
nese graduate education is generally
more academic. We are required to do
a thesis and write papers. There’s more
theoretical research, fewer ties to indus-
try, and less focus on practice. However,
in the U.S. it was different. When I was
at AAU, most of the classes had indus-
trial sponsors. You would be assigned
XRDS • SUMME R 2016 • V OL.2 2 • NO.4
Image by pcruciatti/Shut
cordingly tailored their products to
them. Their success motivated com-
panies in traditional business to imi-
tate the [same] strategies; in China,
the thinking mode in the design in-
dustry is often associated with that of
web platforms. One example is Mid-
ea, a home appliance manufacturer
with more than 30 year’s of history,
which has started to embed multiple
sensors in their smart air condition-
ers to improve the customer’s experi-
ence with temperature control.
AA: So I would imagine there are more
design graduates trained in research
being employed in these industries?
JG: Yes, that is right. They used to
not be very interested in these types
of students, which was a problem. I
course of my four-year Ph.D., so that is
a lot of practice-driven research.
AA: Jian, you’ve been practicing design
for almost a decade now. How would you
say that design education and industr y
have changed in China in that time?
JG: It has changed a lot. Ten years
ago, in 2006, I had to explain frequent-
ly to my friends who were not design-
ers what industrial design was; they
thought industrial designs had to do
with manufacturing factory equip-
ment. Architecture, interior design,
and graphic design were better under-
stood by the public because of advertis-
ing and the real estate industry. How-
ever, everyone today knows about Muji
and Philippe Starck, and so we do not
need to educate the public anymore.
AA: What about the understanding of
user research and design thinking?
Was that present 10 years ago or is that
something more recent?
JG: Ten years ago, only top design
programs like the one in Tsinghua Uni-
versity understood research method-
ologies in design. Today, however, most
academic programs understand and
teach them. While young industries
like IT know how to improve user expe-
rience by interactive design, most tra-
ditional or state-controlled industries,
e.g., transportation, do not really get it.
The shift started with Internet
companies like Baidu and Tencent,
which initiated their business by
copying foreign software. Very soon
they found it necessary to understand
demands from local users and ac-
XRDS • SUMME R 2016 • V OL.2 2 • NO.4
Startup culture is new in China and
rising very rapidly. The Chinese head
of the State Council, Li Keqiang, has
been advocating for students to not
only look for jobs, but also try starting
their own company—that is almost
like our state policy now. Most of these
startups are heavily concentrating
on internet platforms and consumer
products. There are a lot of new poli-
cies supporting startups, and product
innovation is strongly encouraged, but
the truth is that almost 99 percent of
startups die in less than two years. So,
some voices in government have be-
come quite critical, questioning recent
policies, saying that they are wasting
young people’s time and money. China
is different from the U.S.—there are
too many people, but the market will
not be able to support so many com-
panies. I’ve found most companies do
not actually have a clear idea of what
they want to build. The startup model
is mostly seen as a fast way to get rich,
because the media has built up an al-
most hero-like image of young entre-
preneurs who’ve been successful.
AA: How about maker culture...I believe it
is called “Shanzhai” in China?
JG: Okay, so “maker culture” is a
U.S. concept. The U.S. has this culture
where you can indulge in DIY because
everything is available, you have access
to hardware stores, electronics and so
on. However, in China, this is not as
easy or widespread. In Beijing it is very
difficult to find a hardware store. If you
want to buy even a screwdriver, for ex-
ample, you have to go a long distance
to find one. Shanzhai is not really mak-
er culture either. Shanzhai basically
refers to industry practices in which
companies would just copy designs
and modify them without respect
for any kind of patent or intellectual
copyright and sell them as new prod-
ucts. It used to be the mainstream, but
isn’t anymore. Now we have a lot more
companies that are interested in really
innovating and creating products tai-
lored to local needs and values.
AA: That is actually great because it
relates to my next question, which is:
How is technology being used in China
that is very dif ferent than the U.S.?
How is it being customized, designed,
think in the past, when the market was
not big, they recruited and graduated
too many students. In recent years,
although it is still very competitive, in-
dustry demand is growing rapidly, and
the situation is getting better.
AA: How many graduates, on average,
would you say that China produces?
JG: The university where I am teach-
ing now, produces about only 150. I
think most other top programs would
produce around that many while aver-
age programs in small cities produce
thousands every year.
AA: A thousand! Do all of these graduates
find employment?
JG: I’d say over half of them do not
actually end up practicing design once
they graduate. It boils down to how
Chinese secondary school education
is structured. When you are in high
school, you have to study very hard to
be able to apply to any university and
get into the major of your choice. So
if you choose to study the sciences,
like mathematics or physics, then you
have to be very good and your GPA
has to be very high. However, you do
not need a high GPA to get into three
kinds of majors, just be very good at
them: the arts and design, perfor-
mance majors like dance and music,
and sports. Many students get into
design not because they want to but
because it is their way into a university,
and of course, universities always want
more students enrolled.
AA: I was wondering if you could talk
about innovation and startup culture
in China. Where is it focused? How are
people thinking about it differently than
in the U.S?.
JG: That is a very good question.
Chinese consumers
have become very
discerning over
the years, especially
with regard
to cost, functions,
and ease of use.
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XRDS • SUMME R 2016 • V OL.2 2 • NO.4
AA: So how do people interact on
social media if they are not sharing
JG: Yes, so this is fascinating. Years
ago, when the government banned
Facebook and built up the internet
firewall banning Twitter, Facebook,
and Google, people still wanted to use
these services. Local companies had
to build their own services. So now we
have Baidu, we have WeChat. WeChat
is Facebook plus instant messaging
softwa re and a lot of other things all to-
gether. Our most popular local search
engine is Baidu, and we have Weibo,
which is like Twitter but with privacy
features useful to this market. Thus,
people today have been using these
platforms, and find them more useful
and powerful than Facebook or other
Western platforms.
Initially, when companies like, Wei-
bo started out it was like a copy of Twit-
ter, and people said “Great, we have a
replacement for Twitter now.” How-
ever, a lot of government institutions
and corporations started opening ac-
counts on Weibo and started using it as
another broadcasting medium, and so
users started moving to WeChat. You
see, in China, users have very little pa-
tience and brand loyalty. When some-
thing is no longer useful or interesting,
they find a replacement and switch to
it very quickly. In China, if you are not
innovating or improving your product
constantly, your company dies because
there are hundreds of other products
the customers can use.
AA: My last question: We talked about
how industry and education design for
local needs, but are there aspects of that
where the design draws from Chinese
culture, tradition, art, and aesthetics?
and used with local values and
practices in mind?
JG: Many companies are being very
creative—they use the same technol-
ogy as Silicon Valley did, but produce
completely different kinds of products.
We’ve found bringing products over
from abroad is bound to fail no matter
how well the product is designed. Chi-
nese consumers have become very dis-
cerning over the years, especially with
regard to cost, functions, and ease of
use. Our logic and way of thinking are
completely different from Westerners.
One example of this is the almost
universal use of QR codes. QR codes are
a very old technology, almost a decade
old, and did not catch on in the West as
much. But in China, you cannot avoid
them. Every where you go, you can see
QR codes and scan them using your
cellphone. In different cultures, people
embrace different kinds of technolog y.
In Korea, for example, NFC is very pop-
ular—you use your cellphone to touch
your wardrobe, the taxi, everywhere.
But not in China.
AA: Why do you think people favor QR
codes in China?
JG: One reason is our population is
so large! For example, if you open a cof-
fee store in Seoul, and you encourage
people to add your coffee shop to their
chat application, they can put their
NFC code there and touch your phone
and add you to their contacts. But if
you open the same store in Beijing or
Shanghai, there are a hundred people
in line to touch that code, so it wastes
time, and this is unacceptable in a cul-
ture like China. So here coffee shops
will usually print out huge QR codes
and hang them outside on their front
walls, and everyone can see and scan
these at a distance.
Also, while China is one of the saf-
est countries in the world, there is no
terrorism and guns are strictly con-
trolled, people still feel insecure. It is
a culture that values privacy anyway,
and so they will not share their per-
sonal information at all. They think
that QR codes are useful because they
see this thing on the wall, they think,
well, it is just a picture printed on a
wall, I can choose whether or not to
scan it and use it, and I do not have to
exchange my information.
China is different
from the U.S.—
there are too many
people, but the
market will not be
able to support
so many companies.
JG: Yes, certainly. Traditional aes-
thetics and values have always been
guiding our innovation. The way
companies will try and differentiate
themselves from the U.S., or European
brands, are by using traditional aes-
thetics in their product designs. How-
ever, I think we need to draw a distinc-
tion between aesthetics and ways of
thinking and socializing.
As far as aesthetics and styling go,
there is a generational difference: The
middle-aged or elderly prefer tradi-
tional styles so you will find them us-
ing products with traditional symbols,
colors and so on, but for young people,
these are not really popular. Younger
users are more influenced by global
trends. However, the way people inter-
act with technology is still influenced
by values thousands of years old.
Back in 2013, I worked on a user
interface (UI) design project, of which
the goal was to compare the differ-
ence between Chinese and Western UI
standards. One case that we looked at
were the regional websites of Kentucky
Fried Chicken. If you go to the U.S. site,
you can see a big photograph of the
chicken and a clean, minimal i nterface
with not many li nks. However, if you go
to the Chinese website, the entire page
is full of links, promotions, banners
with only minimal space given to high-
light the seasonal products. To many
customers, who prefer more informa-
tion and functions, a simple website
means the company is not maintain-
ing their website. The preference of
more and full can be traced back to the
traditional Chinese values.
Ahme d Ansari i s a Ph.D. st udent in de sign stud ies at
Carn egie Mello n Univer sity’s Sc hool of De sign. A Fulb right
Scho lar, prior to r eturni ng to the U.S . he was bus y tryin g
to re form des ign educa tion in Pak istan, h elping red esign
curriculums for local colleges and universit ies, and
givi ng works hops and le ctures o n design th inking and
res earch for l ocal sta rtups an d NGOs like t he Pakis tan
Innov ation Fo undatio n. He is curr ently in volved i n thinkin g
thro ugh ideas o f irreduc ibility a nd exces s in relati on to
material arti facts and sociotechnical practices throu gh a
deco lonial lens f or his Ph. D. work.
Raghavendra Kandala is a master’s student in interaction
desi gn at Carne gie Mellon U nivers ity. Pri or to pursu ing
his gr aduate de gree, Kan dala was wo rking as a n energy
cons ultant h elping uti lities in N orth Am erica wi th
sustainability st rategies and smart grid implementations.
He is cur rentl y involv ed in rese arch proj ects th at explor e
ser vice des ign using co nnecte d product s, mixed r ealit y
envi ronment s, and new e conomic s for sust ainabili ty.
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