This petite Chinese lady may come across as somewhat shy, but we shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by this impression: Liu is an industrial designer whose personality projects a powerful mix of openness, energy, pragmatism and vision. Our interview with one of China’s leading designers.
Lidan, you trained as a designer in the West. Supposing you had completed your training in China rather than Germany during the 2000s, how would things be different for you today?
Good question. I’ve never even given it any thought. Life in Germany had a profound influence on me. For the first time, I was confronted with notions such as sustainability and quality, and I believe that they are still an intrinsic part of me today. Although Germans say that I’m undeniably Chinese, people in China think that I’m very German. I’m somewhere betwixt and between. I understand the structural and logical mindset of the West, but there is also a Chinese logic that I’m bound by.
So has there been a change in the Chinese mindset and logic?
Yes, a big change, in fact. These days there is a new generation of designers who are influencing our graphic industry. Within a very short time, these young designers have helped to trigger huge changes in our country, and they have played a part in shaping some of them. Many of them have travelled, and they have anticipated new behaviour patterns. There’s been a change in the way communication is handled. China is currently developing its own style, and quality is right at the top of the agenda in many areas.
Is there a Chinese style for brands and industrial design? Or have Chinese designers adapted the West’s design experience in the same way as they have done in other industries?
I certainly don’t share the view that China should develop a style of design completely its own, or that it needs to. That will come about naturally. There is a Chinese influence in our design – of course there is. But the brand image is not determined solely by design. The values of society as a whole shape the brand and the product. China’s dynamism is already very evident in this regard. We only have to think of the entire range of electronic media that have developed here very quickly and at a highly competitive level. There are some striking examples: Alibaba (the Alibaba Group’s operations include the Alibaba.com B2B platform and Taobao, the online auction house; it claims to be China’s largest group of it companies; editor’s note) or Didi, the taxi app. Another one is Niu, a new intelligent electric scooter that was developed in a very short period; it comes at the affordable price of cny 4000 (rather more than chf 600), and is powered by the same battery technology that is used by Tesla, the us sports car manufacturer. The Chinese character is evident in products such as these.
“I certainly don’t share the view that China should develop a style of design completely its own, or that it needs to.”
If we take the long tradition of Western industrial design as the yardstick, which stage do you think Chinese design has reached at present?
That is a typically “European” question. You can’t just reduce everything to design and make comparisons. You have to bear in mind that these breathtaking changes in China are not just confined to development and production. Society as a whole is in a state of flux. China has ceased to focus on being a cheap manufacturing giant, and that is no longer the basis for its positioning. Quality is the new driving force. Modern technology with good design – that’s the new “Chinese Way”. You could also say: “Demanded by consumers – understood by industry”. Even though good design is still rare in China today, there are many good designers. Now, that sounds like a paradox, but the fact is that many young designers start out in the furniture segment and only end up in hardcore industrial design after quite some time. But much of that is set to change in the next few years.
We are living in a global, transparent world. Does it still make any sense to cultivate regional design movements or styles?
I would phrase the question differently. As far as I’m concerned, there are no issues of western or eastern design and taste. The question we have to ask ourselves is: how do the needs of people in the West differ from those in the East? There are differences in this respect. However, they have to be eliminated by the product, not the design. Take the refrigerator as an example: in the West, people do a big shop once or twice every week; they want to fill up their fridges in an orderly manner, with a clear structure. In China, people go shopping every day; yet they simply cram everything into the fridge, including medicines and cosmetic products. This affects the “inner workings” of a refrigerator, whereas the product design gets by with only one language for both cultures.
“The ‘German process – Chinese understanding’ approach goes down very well in China, and that’s my personal advantage.”
You hold the responsible post of Head of the Industrial Design Department at the renowned Tongji University in Shanghai, and you’re also familiar with the way young talents are educated at universities in the West. What are the main differences between these two educational systems?
There are certainly some very major differences. The Chinese educational system places no particular emphasis on fostering creativity and critical thinking. In that regard, the conditioning that Western design students receive from the educational system is already better. If you tell a Chinese student: “Just do it like this,” he will do it just like that without much critical analysis of the assignment. In the first two years of their study courses, Chinese students have to work out how far they are creative, or how far they are allowed to be, and in which areas. I’ve now been teaching at the university for ten years, and I can already see that this is changing, albeit not very quickly. Because of this situation, universities in China generally have more influence on their students’ personalities. At Tongji University, we definitely have a leading position in the Chinese educational sector. We maintain intensive dialogue with the West – apart from anything else, that’s due to the large number of foreign teaching staff we employ.
Would you describe yourself as one of China’s leading designers?
No. China has thousands of good designers, both men and women. I don’t attach any importance to being a design star.
The many international prizes that you have already been awarded for your work suggest otherwise.
If you look at it that way, then I suppose so. The quality of design in my work is part of the tip of the Chinese iceberg. Fundamentally, though, I don’t believe there is any need for a design style of one’s own, or for design stars.
But don’t famous design stars such as Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic help to make good design accessible to wide sections of the population?
That might be true for specific segments such as furniture. But industrial design is geared to functionality; it has to be produced and sold hundred of thousands of times over, and it must be able to function perfectly. The sustainability aspects have to be right, the company must back it – there are also many other factors. Design style plays no part here. In my view, a far more important factor is the business elite: their decisions promote good design.
Does your work in China enjoy the standing that it deserves, or is it true that “prophets in their own country” find it difficult to gain a hearing in China, as almost everywhere else?
I have no problems of that sort. I’m Chinese and I work for a German design agency. Chinese companies focusing on the West find that just as important as German companies that want to establish their products in the Chinese market. The “German process – Chinese understanding” approach goes down very well in China, and that’s my personal advantage.
What would have happened to Lidan Liu if she had not become an industrial designer?
(Considers briefly.) Chinese parents have a strong influence on their children’s career ambitions. My father was an artist and my mother was an actress in the Chinese theatre. So I started out by studying modern dance, and my dream was to become a dancer. But there was no future in that – I was too short. Perhaps I would be dedicating my life to porcelain craftsmanship today, and I might be launching my own line of porcelain. •