Grand design

Updated: 2012-06-08 12:40

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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Grand design

Jamy Yang says product designers are different from artists - What a designer does is more practical; Left: A multi-functional appliance by Natuzzi, Italy; Far left: A Joyoung (China) utility to make sweets. Both were designed by Yang. Photos Provided to China Daily

Top Chinese product designer looks into the roots of creativity

Mention Chinese products and a major complaint usually crops up - the copycats who take the easy way out by simply replicating successful brands. But one of the leading product designers in China says the issue is not that simple.

"No one wants to do something that is beneath contempt, unless they have no choice," says Jamy Yang, an award-winning international designer.

"After the country's reform and opening-up in 1978, foreign goods flooded into China and took over the Chinese market. So local companies couldn't afford to make original designs. They had to adapt or they would die quickly."

Yang who has won more than 30 international design awards including top prizes such as the iF Product Design Award and the Red Dot Design Award, says many Chinese companies did not - and still do not - have much opportunity for creative design because of the country's "weak industrial foundation".

Chinese product designers, whose careers are based on the development of industries, began progressing only in the 1990s, and they have had to face some difficult times. In some cases, they have been refused entry to international exhibitions to prevent copying, Yang says.

"But these are not problems that can be solved solely by the designers themselves," Yang says.

"It concerns the development of the industries and relies on the collective efforts of enterprises, government, associations and designers."

Fortunately, for the past few years, more Chinese companies have been making the effort to cultivate their own brands and Chinese product designers have been able to display their works internationally and work for global names, he says.

Yang himself presented his creations at the Milan International Furniture Fair this April, when he displayed a multifunctional home system for top Italian furniture label Natuzzi.

The 37-year-old has worked with many other international brands including Schneider Electric, Boeing, Audi, Bosch, Rado, Absolut Vodka, Dupont and Royal Selangor. His company YANG DESIGN, which was established in 2005, is considered one of the most influential product strategy and design consultancies in China.

Yang was born in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang province.

He had two favorite pastimes as a child: playing with models of planes, cars and ships, and drawing.

So he is happy that his work is still closely related to them.

"I had no idea about product design," he says. "But graphics and three-dimensional stuff could easily arouse my interest and make me happy."

Yang says it was not until 1998 that he fully understood what product designers do, after four years' study at Zhejiang University. To cultivate his sense of aesthetics and expand his experience, he continued studying at the China Academy of Art for a master's degree.

His talent and diligence caught the attention of Dieter Zimmer, industrial design professor of Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts. Zimmer helped Yang to obtain a full scholarship from the WK-Erwin-Hoffman Fund in Germany in 2001.

When he arrived in Germany, Yang thought he had stepped into a totally different world.

"At that time, industrial design was new in China, but well developed in Germany," he says.

"Many classic cases that I could only see in books and magazines in China were already being used in my German friends' homes."

Yang stayed for two years at the university and later worked as a product designer in the Siemens headquarters in Germany. He describes his life in Germany as that of a sponge: "crazily adopting" to new things as much as he could and visiting almost all the museums and exhibitions in Europe.

As he watched, he also dabbled in the two main categories of products - constructional and technical - with designs covering watches, phones, glasses, cars and furniture.

"This was when I learned the essence of industrial design," he says.

"Product designers are different from artists. What an artist does is for beauty and self-expression, but what we do is more practical and come with more restrictions," he says.

Zimmer, Yang's tutor and who Yang considers to be the most influential person in his career, thinks that a perfect industrial design should meet five requirements: be visually pleasing, achieve brand recognition, offer a feeling of belonging, be environmentally friendly and cost-efficient, as well as be able to be mass-produced.

"Product designs have logic," Yang says. "The final version should be deduced step by step with good reason. For example, take a cup. Why such and such a material should be used, why the handle should be made in this way and why its particular colors were chosen."

Yang believes simplicity must act as guide to the design, and the greatest challenge boils down to making the choice.

"What people in these modern times have is too much, not too little," he says. "For designers, we need to clear our minds from time to time, so that we can focus on the things we want to do."

In 2004, Yang made what he says was a great choice and one that he is still proud of - coming back to China and starting his company.

"In the West, this occupation is well developed," he says. "If I stayed on there, I could have seen clearly what my career would be like in 20 years. But in China, there are many possibilities."

For the past seven years, Yang has certainly grown with China's emerging economy and industries. His company has witnessed great improvement, both in its revenue as well as in the level of clients it serves, he says.

But China's industries still lag behind their Western counterparts, and people's understanding of industrial design has great room for improvement, he says.

"International brands know their DNA well," he says. "Our work is to help them find customers' new requirements and revise their products' imperfections."

But local leading brands, while being aware of creative design, still need help in sorting out and developing their products, he says.

For small- and medium-sized companies that mainly need one or two products to turn a quick profit, talking about brand recognition is still too early, he says.

But Yang aims to give his best to all his clients. Huang Xiaojing, strategic director of Yang Design, describes Yang as "strict and adaptable".

"He is always ready to offer new ideas and constantly changes the designs to make them better," she says.

Zhang Xichun, director of the company's operations, says that Yang possesses a strong curiosity. But what interests him is still closely related to his work, especially the old, traditional items and curios that one can commonly find in flea markets.

"If he wasn't a designer, he would have become a magnate of sorts in the flea market," Zhang says.

(China Daily 06/08/2012 page28)