CHINA: Design education for future economic growth

Just days after the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in October, Hong Kong design student Jonathan Mak's silhouette of Job's profile in the bite of the Apple logo went viral internationally. His simple tribute was fêted and published worldwide. But in Hong Kong it caused barely a ripple.

"I don't know why Jonathan Mak received so much hype internationally. It did not get so much attention in Hong Kong," said Ada Wong, founder and chief executive of the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture (HKICC) and the supervisor of its Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity.

The muted reaction highlights a problem common across South East Asia but particularly strong in China, Hong Kong and Singapore: creativity and artistic flair are not valued in society.

This may not have mattered as these countries were industrialising. But governments recognise the importance of creativity, flair and innovation to move up the value chain of manufacturing production, providing the economic growth of a future when they are unable to manufacture goods as cheaply as now.

Innovation nations

China and other countries in the region are looking to improve design education. A number of new design schools have opened up in universities, and more are planned.

Manufacturing industry needs to "to move from cheap products that others specify to developing their own designs and brands," said John Heskett, acting head of the design school at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (PolyU), where Mak is a student.

China has developed plans to become an 'innovative' nation by 2020 and has published a new design policy, "with a view to moving from 'made in China' to 'designed in China', just as Japan did in the second half of the 20th Century," Heskett added.

Singapore is also looking to design and innovation as one of the drivers of future economic growth.

During the groundbreaking ceremony on 13 November of the new Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and Zhejiang University in China, SUTD president Tom Magnanti said young people needed to be educated for the long haul. "We're always going to have economic upturns, downturns," he said.

Meanwhile Hong Kong is building a cultural hub in its West Kowloon district, investing US$3Billion on theatres, exhibition halls and a university, with the aim of improving opportunities for those in creative industries.

"Hong Kong wants to be an art and design hub, that's the government's wish. But the situation is quite bleak - the money is there but people still don't see prospects for art and design careers in Hong Kong," said HKICC's Ada Wong.

It may be easier to set up design institutions and even a creative hub than to change the existing mindset.

"Most parents here would not want their children to be artists and designers. Middle-class parents prepare their children for careers in business, science and law and groom them towards this from a very young age. Hong Kong parents have a very functional mindset, they do not see the value of design," said Wong.

Art is not just a hobby

A branch campus of the US-based Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is housed in a beautifully converted British colonial magistracy building in Hong Kong's North Kowloon district.

The main lecture theatre is the panelled courtroom, its severity softened by pink voile draped on the long windows, keeping out the harsh sun while adding an artistic touch. In the basement the prisoners' cells have been retained, though cleaner and more airy than when they were in use. They add a gritty urban edge to the art school building.

John Paul Rowan, head of SCAD in Hong, said the college had been looking towards Asia as part of its internationalisation plan. "In Hong Kong there are no universities devoted to art and design, so we bring something unique by setting up a fully fledged art and design school."

"Skills and talent in design, animation, game design, advertising and photography are in increasing demand," he told University World News. He insists that art is not being taught as a hobby and believes Asian conservativeness in art and design has been overestimated.

"We do preach to our student to have a career in art and design. Our job is to prepare them for a life doing that, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere," Rowan said.

Yet SCAD, established in Hong Kong in 2009, is finding it difficult to attract students. For now it is mainly switching students from its overseas campuses in Georgia, US, and Paris to Hong Kong as a study abroad option.

Design as technical education

Hong Kong's PolyU clearly wants to make a statement with the eye-catchingly futuristic new 'innovation tower' designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, to house its school of design. The new building will provide space for "interdisciplinary research in education in the field of design."

It is a sleek and modern building, as if to emphasise that the university's courses have a technical bent, geared towards product design for industry.

John Heskett said: "We don't train artists but first class business professionals. In this region, one of the world's manufacturing hubs, manufacturers want a practitioner churning out designs for hundreds of products so that they can take them to trade fairs where the buyers can choose."

"They want designs for toys, jewellery, watches at competitive prices. We have to consider the business, but we are also trying to raise the standard of design."

Institutions like PolyU are more like technical institutions in the West that teach design, rather than being art schools.

Singapore's SUTD, with its first cohort of 500 undergraduates starting in April next year, will also focus on engineering product development and design, architecture and information systems design.

This may be more in keeping with local culture's propensity to value technical education over artistic education. But Wong believes design needs to build on good artistic skills.

"The bigger design firms in Hong Kong say they want to recruit fine arts graduate rather than design graduates. The cultural context is very important for the designer. Right now in Hong Kong we don't have a lively artistic environment so that good designers can be nurtured."

China will need designers

According to some estimates China will need thousands of product designers, including those who will educate the next generation of designers. "In China they are opening up design schools all over the place," said Heskett. "There are around 1,000 design schools in China. About 10 of them are good in terms of quality."

Cities like Changsha, Hangzhou, Kunming, Shenzhen and Wuxi have upgraded or built new design education institutions, and provincial governments are trying to attract design firms to their technology parks.

Overseas collaborations in design education are increasing, and the British Council in Hong Kong has noted a strong rise in students from China going to Britain for art and design courses.

It may take time to educate and nurture a generation that is innovative in design. Wong believes the problem starts in schools, where fine art has been crowded out of the curriculum, seen as a pastime rather than a subject for study.

But she noted that students in the region still have a particular advantage in the market place. "Hong Kong's top designers have an international perspective. They have seen the world and they can use Chinese cultural elements in their designs. This is the Asian century and this is the way they can stand out."

That international perspective certainly informed Jonathan Mak's Steve Jobs logo. But governments in the region are impatient to go much further. They want to educate and nurture an Asian Steve Jobs.

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